Don't Say It Can't Be Done! -- This Brave Nation
June 24, 2008 1:52 PM   Subscribe

Pete Seeger and Majora Carter sit down together and bridge the generational gap with a discussion on environmentalism, activism, history, and music.

A kind of "living history" project composed of short videotaped conversations, This Brave Nation brings together the most intelligent, passionate and creative voices of one generation with the activists, journalists and artists of the next to dialogue on loves, lives, politics and history.
A coordinated effort from The Nation and the The Brave New Foundation.
posted by carsonb (19 comments total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Thanks for this, carsonb. Despite the fact that I respect him and recognize that the society owes him a debt for the change he helped to lead, Pete Seeger as an individual and as a musician has always really grated on me - his penchant for the simple 'zinger' line over a deeply thoughtful conversation, a good story over an accurate history. However, the documentary series looks great.
posted by Miko at 2:14 PM on June 24, 2008

Previous post about Carter.
posted by homunculus at 4:19 PM on June 24, 2008

I'm a fan of Carter but Seeger lost his relevance when he ran for the axe in '65. ;)
posted by dobbs at 8:28 PM on June 24, 2008

Thanks, carsonb and homunculus! I saw Carter speak at our mutual alma mater last month and promptly went home to see if Sustainable South Bronx were hiring. New hero. If any of you have a chance to see her speak in person, take advantage of it--she really is tremendously affecting and down-to-earth and inspiring.
posted by hippugeek at 10:15 PM on June 24, 2008


True story: I was interviewing the daughter of a famous Appalachian musician a few years ago. Her first words to me were: "You aren't one of them Seegers, are you? I'll talk to you as long as you aren't one of them Seegers."

How that phony baloney half-assed musician who regularly disrespected the actual people whose music he used to enrich himself and build his career achieved the legendary status he still enjoys has always perplexed me. Patricians can't be folk musicians.
posted by fourcheesemac at 10:58 PM on June 24, 2008 [1 favorite]

Can you expand on these anti-Seeger statements, fcm? In what ways did he regularly disrespect folk musicians? Why is he phoney and why are they actual? (I'm just asking.)
posted by pracowity at 3:32 AM on June 25, 2008

What would Woody say?

I guess getting blacklisted and investigated by the House UnAmerican Activities Committee was all part of his marketing plan.
posted by aiq at 4:15 AM on June 25, 2008

As I said above, his political work, environmental work, and principles are basically unimpeachable, and I'm thankful that he took the stands he did. But he is hard to separate from the values and styles of the folk revival that he helped create, and both he and that revival were mixed blessings for people who love American musical traditions. If you like roots music, at some point, you have to wrestle with the enormous figure of Pete Seeger and the misconceptions and impressions his stature created around it.

Some of his original compositions are very good and were iconic pop songs. But at the same time, he lifted songs from the tradition, dumbed them down and smoothed them into commercial-pop-influenced shapes, styled himself as a very rootsy person but rarely ventured away from his white middle-class college crowd, and told pretty but sometimes false stories about the songs and how they were found. He used folksong as a political tool rather than as an end in itself. He rejected traditional banjo techniques and invented his own picking style, seeding a couple of generations of "Seeger style" people that don't really know how to play the banjo and are immediately out of their depth when they join a session.

He's done so much good, and been a catalyst for activism and starting point for inquiry into music history for so many people, that I've never been willing to throw him off a cliff. But his lionization as some kind of American saint, or as a tradition bearer par excellence, has always been problematic for me. What his career has been about is something rather different than just being an American traditional musician. His agenda takes precedence, and while he created a movement that brought values into popular music (and was largely responsible for creating the hybrid of singer-songwriter, acoustic, original/traditional genre we call "folk music" today), at the same time, he ended up reinforcing some of the class boundaries in musical culture that he wished to oppose.
posted by Miko at 8:51 AM on June 25, 2008

He rejected traditional banjo techniques and invented his own picking style..

I'm trying to comprehend how inventing his own picking technique is showing up on your list of things that are/were wrong with Pete Seeger.
posted by kingbenny at 9:06 AM on June 25, 2008

It's not wrong in and of itself - of course different communities and players evolve different techniques. It's just that he developed the technique and then wrote a book about it, which replicated like a zebra mussel as young newcomers to folk music used it to teach themselves banjo. The problem is, they were only teaching themselves Pete Seeger banjo - no traditional players, Irish or Appalachian or jazz, play that style. So it's of limited usefulness in a folk context where people are playing music in the style of the folk revival. If you learn Seeger banjo and then sit in on a traditional session, you won't be able to keep up easily, and won't have much to contribute.

It's like learning a language. You can make up your own Italian based on a few Italian words, but you won't be able to make yourself clearly understood to fluent speakers of Italian. His style now stands in for all banjo to such a degree that often the first thing banjo teachers do with their students is UN-teach them Seeger style.
posted by Miko at 9:16 AM on June 25, 2008

[thinking more about it] I guess at some level I'm responding to a basic Seeger paradox - that a man who talks so much about "the folk" and tradition and community collective action and such things should have become such a dominant, even overwhelming figure, shaping an entire musical movement according to his own aesthetic as opposed to aesthetics established more organically within musical communities. That's sort of the opposite of what "folk" was supposedly about.
posted by Miko at 9:18 AM on June 25, 2008

I see your point, Miko, and it's a good one. But I'd claim that 'folk' music or any other craft has never been about uniform style. It's as much about taking existing standards/traditions/methods and building on them and making them your own. The fact that Seeger-style is essentially the de facto banjo style now just says about more about the accessibility and appeal of it.
posted by kingbenny at 9:48 AM on June 25, 2008

Sure, you can take a view of it that fits it into an ongoing musical evolution in which Seeger style just becomes a newer folk tradition. But there is another view of this point:

'folk' music or any other craft has never been about uniform style

That there are, in fact, important stylistic features of certain kinds of music that are indeed somewhat specific (if not "uniform"). When playing in a Celtic or Appalachian session (just using those for example since I'm familiar with them, but you could substitute any number of traditional musical styles) you are expected to play using the aesthetics of a particular tradition. There is a musical vocabulary you are expected to use, and a particular set of stylistic elements that work within the context of that sort of music, while other elemtents are definitely not desired. When players of traditional music play together, there is some improvisation, but it's generally not a free-form jam session in which anything goes. It's a music experience with a tacit structure and a common language.

When a rock guitar player sits down in an traditional session and tries to solo and power-chord through it, it becomes clear quickly that there is a set of agreements about style in play.

The very idea that "there's no uniform style, play what you want, we're all the people and this is all the people's music, there's no right or wrong" is the type of misconception about traditional music that Seeger promulgated. Traditional music, music of the "folk," is often as structured and complicated and aesthetically specific as jazz or western classical.
posted by Miko at 10:12 AM on June 25, 2008

Why you taking the axe to Pete's oeuvre? J/K, I feel you Miko.

Yes, if you're playing Celtic there's a uniform style, or clawhammer, or ?

When the purity label gets into play tho', some get a bit fascist...and there's machines that kill that...or try to.

Like punk rock, or Pearl Jam...if a lot of people start paying attention does the thing go sour?

A lot of people think Crosby, Stills, and Nash is a folk act.
posted by aiq at 4:07 PM on June 25, 2008

When the purity label gets into play tho', some get a bit fascist.

Agreed. There's sort of a dynamic tension between originality and 'purism' in most traditions I'm aware of. If there were only musical purism, there would be not much music at all.

It's not that Seeger's impure that I dislike, it's just that he drew the robes of "the folk" around him at the same time he was replacing their traditions (whoever they are) with his own original ideas and sounds. It's the sort of unknowing hypocrisy there that seems off.
posted by Miko at 8:16 PM on June 25, 2008

Then you don't really have much against him at all, do you? He's a good guy who has done a number of good things, musically and otherwise. He isn't an unknown hillbilly playing only what and how his pappy taught him and only at small local barn dances and the like, he is (or was) a recording and radio star who played concerts to large audiences. He developed his own style (didn't slavishly follow what came before him), but his style can't erase recordings of "authentic" folk musicians -- people can still listen to recordings of unknown pre-Seeger musicians, learn how to play like the 20th century never happened, and go play in a museum or something. If there's also a little "unknowing hypocrisy" in there concerning folk music, it isn't such a great crime.
posted by pracowity at 5:22 AM on June 26, 2008

As I started out saying in the thread, I don't have much against him at all, you're absolutely right. In fact, I said I had a lot of respect for him. But it's troublesome when trying to teach and learn folk music history - even in a museum context, which I do - that he has come to stand for "folk" music in the minds of most people and has contributed to a lot of mistaken assumptions about music. You kind of have to recontextualize him for most people before they understand that's exactly what he is - "a recording and radio star who played concerts [of original songs and stylistically altered arrangments of traditional songs] to large audiences [with incomplete or erroneous historical information]." The folk revival contributed a lot to interest in and preservation of music, but like the Colonial Revival in art history, it also created a lot of myth and nonsense that scholars and musicians have to spend time undoing, and branded traditional music in a way that alienated it from a lot of people.
posted by Miko at 7:17 AM on June 26, 2008

ps - my reaction is just part of a larger struggle to understand and develop some approach to the sixties folk revival. This site hints at some of the changes it brought, both good and bad:
Two things made the folk revival culturally and artistically significant and not just a fit of nostalgia for simpler times and a simpler life. One was the presentation of ordinary working class music - which was not explicitly political - to politicize the middle class. The second was the way a new generation of songwriters used folk elements to create a music that was both contemporary and deeply rooted in the American spirit and landscape - a music that was ultimately far more powerful than either the pop songs of the day or the rallying union songs of the previous folk era.

Pete Seeger was the great presenter of folk music to the middle class. Long before the Kingston Trio, Seeger had helped create the Almanac Singers in the 40s and The Weavers in the 50s, combining a wide variety of folk and popular songs and performing them with professional quality. Perhaps more than any other performer, Seeger featured the entire range of folk at the time. After nearly a decade of working underground after being blackballed during the McCarthy era, he rode the new wave of the folk revival to return to the stage stronger than ever. By the time of his famous Carnegie Hall concert in 1963, Seeger was an experienced pro at using folk music to achieve a dramatic transformation in his audiences. Without working from a set list, he naturally and effortlessly combined children's songs, civil rights hymns and spirituals, folk songs from various countries including a song by Chilean activist Victor Jara, and new protest songs by Bob Dylan.
So you can see what I mean - the effect on the public understanding of traditional music changed, due in part to him. It became more associated with left-wing politics, the college-educated white middle class, and less closely tried to specific traditional genres in their original contexts. The effects of these changes on American music (and politics) have been complex.
posted by Miko at 7:34 AM on June 26, 2008

That's this site, sorry.
posted by Miko at 7:34 AM on June 26, 2008

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