From the November/December 2019 issue of Acoustic Guitar | BY JEFFREY PEPPER RODGERS
Tony Trischka grew up with Pete Seeger’s banjo ringing in his house, by way of his parents’ records of the Weavers, the Almanac Singers, and Seeger’s folk songs for children. In 1962, at age 13, Trischka started getting serious about wanting to play. So he got ahold of Seeger’s seminal book How to Play the Five-String Banjo and decided to contact the man himself.
“I wrote a letter to ‘Pete Seeger, Beacon, New York’—it was like writing to Santa Claus at the North Pole,” Trischka recalls. “And I said something to the effect that ‘You’re the best banjo player in the world.’”
To Trischka’s astonishment, a couple of weeks later came a handwritten reply. “Dear Tony,” wrote Seeger, then 43 and a star of the ascendant folk revival. “Art is not a horse race, so I must disagree with you. There is no such thing as ‘Best’—but I’m glad you like my music.”
Trischka, who of course became one of the great banjo innovators of his generation, is far from the only aspiring musician to be stunned to receive a letter from Seeger. In 1970, as a college student in Minnesota, John McCutcheon was working through Seeger’s banjo book but was stumped about how to frail, so he wrote the author for advice. Seeger not only wrote back, but said he was playing in Minnesota soon and could give a firsthand demonstration.
Hardly believing he’d received this invitation from someone who was drawing audiences of thousands, McCutcheon approached Seeger after the concert. “He was walking out and had his banjo over his shoulder,” McCutcheon recalls. “He said, ‘Oh, yes, yes, I remember you.’ And with the crowd around him, he took out his banjo and said, ‘You use the back of your fingernail.’” When McCutcheon asked how to learn more about the frailing style, Seeger suggested he go south—to the banjo’s home turf in America.
“That was the very first time somebody said to me, you have to go where it is to get it,” says McCutcheon. “After hearing this one more time from [musician and musicologist] Guy Carawan mere months later, I decided, OK, that’s what I have to do. And nearly 50 years later, here I am, still on that odyssey.”
It’s a remarkable fact that one of the most influential musicians of the last century—as a banjo player, guitarist, songwriter, arranger, song leader, author, teacher, and activist—was also one of the most accessible. In addition to meeting people everywhere he traveled, Seeger got mail by the bushel from all over the world, and he made a herculean effort to answer every letter in longhand. As his fame grew, the job became overwhelming, and he tried to keep up by dictating letters to be typed, returning letters with responses in the margins, or sending apologetic form letters. Seeger’s mission to answer his mail was not just a quirk of personality. It reflected the core beliefs of a man who dedicated his life, as he often put it, to planting seeds—in particular, encouraging others to make music and get involved in their communities.
This past May was the 100th anniversary of Pete Seeger’s birth, an occasion marked by the release of the six-CD set Pete Seeger: The Smithsonian Folkways Collection (following similar collections devoted to the music of Lead Belly and Woody Guthrie) and a wave of tribute concerts and albums—including McCutcheon’s newest release, To Everyone in All the World: A Celebration of Pete Seeger, featuring guests Tim O’Brien, Stuart Duncan, Corey Harris, Suzy Bogguss, and more.
The lead-up to the centennial got me thinking about all the anecdotes I’d heard from musicians about their letters and interactions with Seeger and how influential they’d been. I was fortunate, too, to have corresponded with Seeger as editor of Acoustic Guitar and interviewed him several times. So I began asking around for musicians to share their letters from Seeger, and I also gathered some stories from those who shared meals and stages and conversations with him, as recounted here. What’s clear from all these communications is that although Seeger left us in 2014, the impact of his mentorship and example lives on in the music and musicians all around us.
Keep On Keeping On
Much of what Seeger offered musicians in his letters was simple encouragement to stay on the path—one of his typical sign-offs was “Keep on.” And he often slipped in bits of advice. In the late ’90s, Seeger replied to a letter from Josh Ritter, another college student and aspiring songwriter who’d sent him a tape, stressing in just a few words the importance of putting down roots, and of sharing his music. “Find a place and dig in,” he wrote. “Songs can change the world.”
“It was really special to receive that letter,” says Ritter. “It was a reminder to me that, even with all the road there was in front of me, there was still a place somewhere that I would love above all others and that I would need to call home.”
Seeger was quick to praise songs he liked, and he constantly forwarded recordings and lyrics to Sing Out! magazine for possible publication. In a 2002 note to upstate New York singer-songwriter Pat Lamanna, Seeger complimented several songs on a CD she’d given him. “You should write more songs!” he wrote, adding in his typically self-effacing way, “Even the one about me was good, tho it didn’t mention any of my faults (many).”
In 1988, Chicago banjoist Michael Miles received a life-changing letter about his first album, a collection of clawhammer banjo duets. “It is one of the most beautiful tapes I ever listened to in all my 70 years,” Seeger wrote. “It is enough to make me want to start learning how to play the banjo all over again.”
“Pete was such an encourager to so many,” reflects Miles, who at the time was also program director at Chicago’s Old Town School of Folk Music and often talked with Seeger about teaching. “I was one of the lucky ones, as I had 25 years of correspondence with him and could literally say that his encouragement truly shaped my work as a musician. And that was not to necessarily be like him, but rather to pursue my own muse.”
The book Pete Seeger in His Own Words, edited by Rob Rosenthal and Sam Rosenthal, includes a notable example of Seeger’s encouraging words in a letter written to a young Bob Dylan. Traveling overseas in 1963, Seeger came across the notorious Newsweek hit piece on Dylan that described how “his singing voice scratches and shouts so jarringly that his success, at first, seems incredible” and repeated the unsubstantiated rumor that Dylan did not write “Blowin’ in the Wind.”
“Once a week we try to look at an American magazine so we don’t get too out of touch with U.S. events,” Seeger wrote to Dylan. “So what should we see but the article about you in the November 4 Newsweek. All I could think of was, ‘Bastards.’ These guys can sure think of more clever ways to crucify a person. I have hopes and a feeling though that you are not going to let it all bother you too much, but just keep on doing what you think best, and making up good songs.”
Pete plays Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” in Australia, 1963:
Everybody Sing It Now!
Seeger’s responses to songs weren’t all blanket praise. He had strong, clear opinions about the kinds of language, vowel sounds, melodies, structure, and more that made songs memorable and—most importantly—singable.
He often asked songwriters for lyric sheets and returned them with mark-ups. Pat Lamanna shared with me a chart for her song “Peace Pilgrim” on which Seeger suggested a few adjustments to the melody and also commented on minute details of page formatting—such as using line breaks, indentation, and all caps for the chorus. Similarly, Adirondack folk musician Dan Berggren shared a lyric sheet for his song “From Every Mountain Side,” a rewrite of “My Country ’Tis of Thee,” with Seeger’s comments on which verses he thought were good and which one was “not your best” (Berggren did ultimately follow Seeger’s advice and drop the offending verse). In addition, Seeger noted, “I urge you to print your words in short lines, so it’ll be easier for folks to pick ’em up.”
Getting other folks to pick up songs was, for Seeger, the ultimate goal. He was an unparalleled song leader, and he advised other musicians on how to get an audience to sing along by supplying clear instructions and calling out the lyrics line by line. (This habit was so engrained that Seeger even called out “Everybody sing it now!” when he was picking a song in his own living room with an audience of only me.)
On the topic of song leading, John McCutcheon notes that Seeger took care to pitch songs just right for groups—lower than they often are played in churches and other settings. Spook Handy, a younger folk singer whom Seeger mentored in the last decade of his life, noticed that Seeger would slow down leading into the chorus, to allow the sound to swell. In one of his letters to Handy, Seeger talked about signaling to an audience. “I usually point at the crowd on the words they should repeat,” he wrote. “Maybe an open hand, palm up, is better.”
“One time I asked Pete, ‘What is the most important tool for getting people to sing?’ and he said, ‘Listen to the audience,’” recalls Handy, who this year released Vol. 2 of his tribute Songs of Pete, Woody, and Me. “When I learned to do that, that really changed everything. It changes the sound that comes out of your mouth, and it invites people to fill in the space and sing along.”
The Working Musician
Along with his thoughts on songs and singing, Seeger sometimes gave advice on the practicalities of (in the words of Utah Phillips) making a living, not a killing, in music. Vermont multi-instrumentalist/singer Rik Palieri, whose duo the Rix (with Rick Nestler) just released an album of maritime songs from Seeger’s repertoire titled Steering Pete’s Course, shared a few examples with me. Palieri’s correspondence with Seeger ranged over many topics, from the origins of songs and the history of the Almanac Singers to tips on house-building. In response to a query about his iconic long-neck banjo, Seeger sent Palieri a full-size pencil rubbing of his instrument with notes on its construction.
“Many times these cards were followed by a phone call, and that is where the real mentoring took place,” says Palieri. “Pete would talk for sometimes over an hour, telling stories, singing songs, till [his wife] Toshi would yell at him to get off the phone.”
In a 1988 letter, Seeger wrote about ways to stay afloat in music through a day job, teaching, or busking. And he shared his decidedly down-to-earth perspective on the musician’s trade. “I think that one of the bad things about modern technological society is that people feel that they haven’t ‘made it’ unless they are well known outside their home village,” wrote Seeger. “Once upon a time, only a few kings and pirates were known outside their home village. Everybody else was quite happy if they could do a job, whatever it was, and be known by their neighbors as being a dependable worker.”
Pete offers some guitar tips on his Rainbow Quest TV series in the late ’60s:
Beyond The Cult Of Personality
Seeger was, of course, very well known far beyond his home village of Beacon, New York, but he resisted fame and constantly tried to turn the spotlight away from himself—and onto the music or the audience. In the Smithsonian’s Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives and Collections, I found a letter to Folkways founder Moe Asch in which Seeger complained about his name being underlined in an ad in Sing Out! and about posters proclaiming him as “America’s Favorite Folksinger.”
“If it were true, which it is of course not, it wouldn’t be necessary to say it,” Seeger wrote. “The puffier the publicity gets, the more embarrassing the collapse later on, no? Why not put the emphasis on the songs?”
Seeger sounded a similar note when I interviewed him at his home in 2006, in the wake of Bruce Springsteen’s album We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions and all the attention (and mail) it generated. “I wish he hadn’t used my name in the title,” Seeger said. “He could have given me credit inside, saying he got onto a lot of these songs after listening to my records.”
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Though Seeger always aimed to encourage and mentor other musicians, he bristled at any kind of adulation. Spook Handy learned this the hard way, when he had the opportunity to introduce Seeger at a festival. “I talked about him as a hero,” Handy recalls. “He came onstage and looked like he was going to bite my head off. He didn’t like that.”
More than just being uncomfortable with personal attention, Seeger objected to the whole idea of putting any artist on a pedestal. Through his whole performing life, he invited onstage countless musicians, famous as well as unknown, and insisted on treating everyone equally.
“He was someone who, by his mere example, broke down the whole cult of personality, and there was no bigger personality in folk music than Pete,” says McCutcheon. “He rejected the whole notion of hierarchy and someone being worth more, whether it be in notoriety or in money.”
Even more than breaking down the hierarchy among professional musicians, Seeger wanted to foster music-making by those who never venture onto a stage. This desire prompted the first postcard I received from him; in 1997, I wrote a “Letter from Home” for Acoustic Guitar about how my daughter, Lila, then two years old, had stirred all this informal family music-making, and had helped me appreciate what we lose by relegating music to professionals and recordings. Seeger’s one-sentence postcard, still a treasured keepsake, simply said it was “the best article all year!” Three years later he wrote again to ask permission to quote from from the article, and added, “I hope Lila still likes to make music, now that she is five, perhaps going on six.”
A letter Seeger wrote to producer Joe Boyd in 1986, included in Pete Seeger in His Own Words, explained his objections to the professionalization of music—and it also set the record straight about his famous threat to axe the cables when Dylan went electric. “I did not object to the loud volume of sound when Bob was singing at Newport in 1965,” Seeger wrote. “I was outraged at not being able to understand his words.”
The problem with amplification and even instruments themselves, he added, is that “they tend to discourage the ordinary average person who just likes to sing a song into thinking that they can’t sing without it. And in the long run what the human race needs in the way of music is the ability and the confidence to sing a song, whether it is at the fireside, bedside, tableside, workside, sidewalk side, or anywhere side without having to think of it as a ‘performance.’ . . . Skiing and swimming are participation sports for millions, but music still seems to be in hock to the experts, and most of the millions listen.”
The Last Chorus
In 2014, Tony Trischka paid a visit to a Seeger at home along with musician/producer John Dull. Then 94 and walking unsteadily with two canes, Seeger asked for his banjo (the reach on his long-neck hurt his shoulder, so he used a shorter scale instrument) and sang his song “Quite Early Morning,” which beautifully expresses his desire to pass music to the next generation.
And so keep on while we live
Until we have no, no more to give
And when these fingers can strum no longer
Hand the old banjo to young ones stronger
The next day, Seeger went into the hospital for the last time. Seeger’s grandson Kitama Cahill-Jackson told Trischka later that this may have been the last song that Seeger sang. It’s hard to imagine a more appropriate closer to his life in song than “Quite Early Morning” [learn to play it here], with its theme of, in Trischka’s words, “Keep on singing, keep on keeping on, things are going to be OK.”
That is a message Seeger imparted to everyone—whether they considered themselves musicians or not.
“He mentored the world really,” says McCutcheon. “I always thought when I was a kid that a concert was one guy showing off for a whole bunch of other people that were paying him to show off for them. With Pete, you were entering into a choir, and you went out of there feeling, wow, look what we did.”
Pete, on banjo, performs “Quite Early Morning” from the Homespun DVD How to Play the 5-String Banjo:
This article originally appeared in the November/December 2019 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.