There are many thoughts that come to mind when I hear the name Pete Seeger: Socialist, outspoken folkie, encyclopedic knowledge of music worldwide, compatriot to Woody Guthrie, Pinko-Commie, and axe-wielding madman running after an electrified Bob Dylan. It is his love and gift for folk music from around the globe, though, that I hope he will always be remembered.
Listening to Pete Seeger, in concert, is like being with a historian and archaeologist of the world’s music. He seems to know every song ever sung, and to be friends with their writers and singers. He is the soul of America, a true treasure trove of song.
I have a handful of concerts by Seeger, some official, others not, and in every one is a historical road map of folk. Though he often plays by himself, with banjo for accompaniment, he is never short of musicians, for he makes everyone in the audience part of the band. No, Pete Seeger concerts are not Holy Places where the music is sacred, and the audience mere worshipers. We are part of the song, singers and clappers and performers one and all. In nearly every song, he points out a chorus, or a repeating line that he encourages the audience to sing. Where they can’t sing, he says they can clap and hum.
To be honest, I was not at all familiar with Big Bill Broonzy before I listened to this concert. I’m not particularly well versed in the blues, and Broonzy is a name that circumvented my musical heritage.
To be even more honest, I’m not one to particularly care for the blues. For the most part, I just don’t *get* it. For his part, Broonzy makes me wish I did. He is of the acoustic blues school, and his tunes are jaunty, even happy at times, and it is a simple pleasure to listen to him sing.
As for positioning, each performer takes turns singing his tunes, song for song for the most part, while the other one sits in the back ground listening. They do perform together on a couple of songs, and they spend a lot of time conversing, talking about music and telling jokes. But mostly it is a solo show, split between two people.
Seeger likes to talk, and I for one, could listen to him talk for days on end. He tells stories about the songs, about the writers of the songs, and of his life. And what a life! He’s been everywhere, done everything. Most people talk in hushed tones about the night Bob Dylan went electric at a folk festival. For Pete, that’s personal history. He was there. He’s the exciting part!
In no way would I consider this a brilliantly performed performance, musically speaking, for Pete doesn’t show off. He seems more interested in creating a community of music, than coming off as a musical savior. In doing so, he creates something special, something different than a simple concert. It is a communal experience akin to a religious service, or family reunion. I don’t suppose there’s anyone who has heard a Seeger concert that will ever forget the experience.
Broonzy is less talkative than Seeger, but shows his own gift of humor by asking if he can sit down whenever Seeger launches into one of his long stories. He plays his guitar with the fervor of a true prodigy and his songs gap the divide between Seeger’s folk and children’s music.
The highlight of the show is when Seeger plays what he calls the “Goofing Off Suite.” Folk music, he says, needs its own version of chamber music, for the thinking man, so he’s wrote his own high minded piece. If you’ve ever seen the movie Raising Arizona, you will instantly recognize the number. It consists of what must be the main theme of that movie, which if you’ll remember is composed of this incredibly goofy bit of banjo and the wildest bit of yodeling known to man. He even throws in the humming and banjo version of “Ode to Joy” as the middle section.
The first time I heard this I was driving in a heavily trafficked piece of down town. I’m surprised I didn’t get pulled over for all the swerving I did from the tears rolling down my face from laughing.
I am quite saddened to know that I will probably never be able to attend a Pete Seeger concert. His age and health keep him from appearing much in public. But I am heartened by the knowledge that there are these recordings, and that a man like Pete Seeger ever lived and shared his love for great music.