Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Pete Seeger: 1919 - 2014


Obituary by John Pietaro

Photo: Pete Seeger performing with the Ray Korona Band (John Pietaro, percussion, left), Martin Luther King Jr Labor Center, NYC, Nov 1999

As a child growing up in the later 1960s, aware of the tumult in the streets as well as the reactionary responses to this at home in blue-collar Brooklyn, the voice of Pete Seeger mysteriously rang through. I don’t quite know how or why, but I cannot recall a time when Pete’s warm vibrato-heavy split-tenor wasn’t there. He was still a victim of the Blacklist at that time and didn’t get back on television until ’68, but I seemed to know this voice from my earliest memory. There wasn’t any interest in folk songs in my parents’ home, where the sounds of Sinatra and easy listening WPAT radio was as much music as one could expect to hear. And no, my Republican father, hurling loud pejoratives to the TV whenever long-haired young protesters were seen on Eyewitness News, wouldn’t have frequented radical bookstores to pick up any Seeger records. And surely no, the family never attended a rally. But somehow this sound was implanted and I always associated Pete’s voice with a gentleness that was visceral.
As I grew my own musical journey took me—for the most part—in a different direction, but the topical folk music stayed in my heart and my politics moved boldly Leftward. The issues ingrained in protest song brought it all back for me even as I delved deeper and deeper into radical jazz and new music. The relevance in Pete’s songs and the causes he championed stood out profoundly. As a percussionist and cultural activist (and sometime banjo player), bridging revolutionary struggle to the arts, I had the opportunity to share the stage with Pete a number of times. Surely the first stands out as a moment of great pride, November of 1999, playing drums with the Ray Korona Band as it accompanied Pete for a NYC concert presentation he dubbed ‘Music in the History of Struggle’, the occasion of his 80th birthday. Later, my association grew further when, from 2005 through 2010, I lived in Beacon NY where Pete has lived nearby since the late 1940s. I came to see some of his intensity close-up and also some of his rarely discussed temper and hard-core traditionalism; he offered little patience to this non-traditionalist who included improvisation and daring arrangements of the older topical songs! Though it’s hard to think back to being chewed out by this larger-than-life figure, Pete’s mission was on over-drive even while he was in his 90s. The music he modeled for us all was in his every fiber…

Pete was so much to so many: an ideal, a vision, an expectation. Transference of our own hopes, most certainly. The product of a Communist composer father and a concert violinist mother, Pete Seeger was introduced to the 5-string banjo as a teenager during the 1930s and came to bring it to international prominence. He introduced its application as a fiercely American instrument, one derived from African origins and developed by the sweat and blood of the oppressed. In his wake, the banjo – or at least his banjo – became a symbol of the power of song and an icon of more than one "folk revival".

During the depth of the Great Depression, Seeger took to collecting folk songs with his father, Charles Lewis Seeger, a member of the Composers Collective of New York who sought the dissolution of the Modernist, experimental music collective once he became convinced of the revolutionary potential of traditional song. In the 1930s, Daily Worker arts columnist Mike Gold wrote of the need for “a Communist Joe Hill”, to offer musical organizing on the front lines: a few years later Woody Guthrie came to prominence in the political left. Guthrie, a firestorm of creative energy and radical philosophy was introduced, in 1940, to a young Pete Seeger by folk archivist Alan Lomax and the two became inseparable. Once Woody had taken up Pete’s offer to join him in the Almanac Singers, they wrote and performed music together and Seeger, through musical and political osmosis, rapidly morphed into a new kind of cultural force.

 Early on Pete developed a strong kinship with the political left and quickly became a first-call performing artist for May Day parades in New York City and radical labor unions around the country. Seeger became a prominent part of progressive cultural organizations, anti-fascist collectives and American Labor Party rallies throughout the 1940s and into the ‘50s, even as the specter of HUAC haunted his musical groups, the Almanacs and then the Weavers, as well as his organization, People’s Songs. By 1961, he too would be subpoenaed by the House Un-American Activities Committee which riddled him with questions not only about his “patriotism” but that of many he’d been associated with. To his credit, Seeger refused to name names, but he did offer to sing for the HUAC inquisitors. They refused his offer and called it contempt of Congress.

 A victim of the same tenacious Blacklist that had torn apart Hollywood and the CIO in the post-war period, Pete sang for college students and children, when no one else cared to listen ... or, rather, when no one else could hear. And when he could not sing for them, he sang for the trees and forest life about him. Seeger was hell-bent on allowing music to touch deep, whether as a weapon or as a healing force. Uniquely, he almost always achieved both in tandem.

 While it is true that Pete became a beloved figure with the passage of time--one given Kennedy Center honors by the 1990s and celebrated at Madison Square Garden a few years ago--his radical heart remained integral to his spirit. Performing for President Obama’s inaugural celebration, Pete sang Woody’s anthem, “This Land is Your Land” along with Bruce Springsteen and happily led the crowd on some of Guthrie’s lesser-known, revolutionary verses including the one about that damned symbol of the high wall tagged “Private Property”. In his lifetime, Pete stood onstage with Paul Robeson during "The Peekskill Riot" and marched with Dr. King through the bloodiest of Civil Rights battles. He was a loud opponent of the Vietnam War and a prime voice of the environmental movement. In more recent years, Seeger could be found, during the entire sickening debacle of the Bush administration as an active part of protest actions, and stood most every week at a peace vigil in New York’s Hudson Valley, through broiling heat and frozen winds.

 Pete's songs are truly the story of 'the folk', and so they tell the people's story. Long before Howard Zinn wrote his 'A People's History of the United States', Pete Seeger sang it. He stood as the very model of the cultural worker. Taking the distant advice of Joe Hill, he recognized long ago that more can be said in one topical song than in a hundred pamphlets. But, even in silence, Pete's philosophy can be understood by anyone who recalls what he long ago adorned on his banjo head: 'This Machine Surrounds Hate and Forces It To Surrender'.

The cultural warrior shall not be forgotten for his voice remains in us all…

Sunday, January 26, 2014


OKay so this is the FIRST time I have watched the Grammy Awards in many years. I felt I needed to tune in as Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr were going to be on, their first time on stage together since the Beatles broke up. I may be a jazz and new music musician but I will always, always be a serious Beatles fan. But this Beatle-survivor reunion was only one aspect of the show...
Well to start right off, I am once again sickened by the Grammys absolutely ignoring the entire Jazz and Classical categories. How in hell can this be "music's greatest night" when only popular music---pop, R&B and rock--are represented? This is bad enough, though some of the performances were not bad. But then there's Chicago with Robin Thicke (I am not familiar with him, only his father!), whose sine-wave voice did nothing for the good songs by a band that can still kick out jazz-rock between all of their MOR light fare. Still it was good to see them. And Stevie Wonder, one of the great talents of R and B and pop music, a guy who could command the entire Grammy stage by himself in the '70s, here sharing the spotlight and airspace with a young rapper and Nile Rogers. Glad to see Stevie Wonder and Nile Rogers but why the need to water down a Stevie Wonder gig?? And when the great composer Ennio Morricone got a precursory award, his face was obscured on the screen. Later, Lou Reed got only a mention, not even one of his songs presented, no Velvet Underground salute. Nothing.

All right now for the serious disappointment: Paul McCartney and his band come out for a piece and the big deal, of course, is Ringo Starr coming out to join him. As soon as I got over the initial momentary thrill I realized that Ringo is of course not the only drummer. Macca's very talented drummer Abe Laboriel Jr was back there in the shadows while a spot was on Ringo drumming along with him! Laboriel took all of the fills; Mr Starkey played a simple 4/4 underneath. The truth is that no one has seen Ringo play drums without a back-up drummer in many years, so I shouldn't have been disappointed. But I was. Here is this historic moment, these two playing together for the first time since Let It Be in 1970, and Ringo took the easy way out. I may get a lot of gruff from other percussionists for this but just being in a legendary band does NOT make someone a great instrumentalist. Here's the reality: Ringo recorded some very nice Beatle parts in those years but they were largely simple, though well-executed. It has been established that more often than not, Paul and John to a lesser dsegree would commandeer the black pearl Ludwigs and offer Ringo coaching on how they wanted him to play for their songs:
Ringo admitted this in many interviews, clarifying that it was rough being in a band with three guys who could play drums. Especially McCartney who actually proved his own skills playing drums on "The Ballad of John and Yoko" and his own 'Band on the Run' album. By and large, Ringo was there and the rock, even if his role was background. He had a few moments of drumming strength (certainly "Rain" comes to mind) otherwise he played some very nice, beat-driven parts in those great songs. He was support to the two singer-songwriters who changed the face of popular music as we know it. And his drumming worked beautifully in that role and it inspired millions to play. If you saw the film Let It Be you know he handled his job quite well through 1970. Bernard Purdie used to say that he actually did all the Beatles studio work, subbing for Ringo on records every session, and while I don't believe that is true, it is odd that Ringo basically stopped playing shortly thereafter.

He played with no back-up on an early John Lennon album but had Jim Keltner drumming along with him on his own solo records. And in '71 when George Harrison organized The Concert for Bangladesh, Ringo was the drummer--but then so was Keltner! They double-drummed each song that night. Ringo, in interviews, said he loved playing with Keltner, commenting that they were thunder and lightning. OKay, so that's cool but then later when Ringo toured with his own All-Star band he had Sheila E on drums. Ringo would sit down at his own drumkit  next to Sheila's just for "Boys" and maybe one other, otherwise his sparkle kit sat idle. All of this wouldn't be an issue until tonight. Here was Ringo's chance to get back into the driver's seat and really dig into a song with his old band-mate, a guy he'd made history with. Sadly, as a drummer, Ringo seems to simply refers to the sentiment in his solo hit from the 70s, "All I've got is a photograph to remind me..." He was never much of a singer so the fact that Ringo would basically walk away from his actual role in rock history is beyond me. Did he just get lazy and stay away from the drums so long that there was no returning? Why would he trivialize what he did by letting his chops and groove simply fade away? Oh well, my ignoring of the Grammys for so long may have been a good move after all. Next year I am scheduling an anti-Grammy gig--all of my expansive jazz comrades are invited! LOL and I will not ask any other percussionist to join me!

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