Archive for the ‘Pete Seeger’ Category

Wasn’t That a Time?

April 5, 2015

By Mike Ayers (

In 1961, two brothers, Michael and Philip Burton, set out to make a documentary about the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) by examining the citizens that were affected by their witch-hunts. One of their subjects was folk singer Pete Seeger, who granted the two young filmmakers, then in their early 20s, remarkable access.

The Burton brothers pitched Seeger on the project at his Beacon, N.Y. home over pancakes, which ultimately led to the 26-minute documentary Wasn’t That a Time. “He was open to participating in the film from the get-go,” Michael Burton tells Rolling Stone of working with Seeger on this project. “He was self-effacing, wanting to hear as much from us as we heard from him. When he finally saw a rough cut, he momentarily showed a more image-conscious side of himself, but within a day gave us his permission and an endorsement.”

In the clip above – only recently made available online – viewers can watch 10 minutes of footage spliced together, which gives an impressive snapshot of Seeger’s life in very different phases: On his way to being sentenced for contempt of Congress in 1961; on his Beacon homestead; and lastly at a concert he gave at New York City’s Town Hall, where he plays “This Land Is Your Land” and greets throngs of young fans afterwards.

Watch throughout the video as Seeger explains his philosophies on the Constitution and the power of music. But take time to cherish just how cool he was, whether it was staring down time in the slammer or playing in front of 1,000 people.

Wasn’t That a Time premiered in January of 1962 at the New Yorker Theater. Over the years, occasional screenings have been shown at the Anthology Film Archives. Talks about wider distribution occurred, but distributors wanted narration and the filmmakers passed on that option. Still, it’s a fascinating peek inside a small fraction of Seeger’s life that would later become a defining part of history. “His affect was nearly always like the persona he displayed on camera,” Burton says. “Folksy, extremely earnest, idealistic to an unrealistic degree, community-minded, obsessed with curing social ills through music and a model family man.”

How to play the 5 string banjo

July 15, 2014


edited from Michael Eck (

In the 1940s, Pete Seeger did have a unique perspective on the banjo.  Ever since hearing Samantha Bumgarner frailing on a five-string at the 1936 Mountain Dance and Folk Festival in Asheville, North Carolina, Seeger had become an avid student of the banjo, soaking up its history, its styles and the peculiarities of players like Pete Steele, Rufus Crisp, Bascom Lamar Lunsford and Uncle Dave Macon.

When Seeger self-published the first edition of “How to Play the Five String Banjo” in 1948, it was a compendium of information, with tidbits about the instrument’s evolution from “a possum hide stretched across a gourd” to its contemporary incarnation; advice on tuning and tablature; and a selection of picking patterns and samples of folk songs (including the tune that inspired Seeger’s first longneck, “Viva La Quince Brigada”).

“It was 41 pages and it sold for $1.59,” Seeger says, “and I sold 100 copies in four years.” In the burnished manner of a man with an oft-told tale, he continues. “Then I ran off the mimeograph stencils again–or rather, somebody ran them off for me. I printed 500 copies, and they sold within four years. Then I got ambitious and I rewrote the book a bit and I rented an IBM typewriter and printed it by photolithography and ran off 2,000 copies, and that sold in four years. That was ’54, I think.

“In 1962, I got my family to help, my children and my wife, and I pasted up 72 pages. The 1962 edition has now sold 100,000 copies; it’s my best seller. No other book I ever wrote sold 100,000 copies.” In a lesson recorded in 1991 for Homespun Tapes, also called How to Play the 5-String Banjo, Seeger says proudly of the book, “It put my kids through school.”

By the time it expanded to 72 pages, Seeger’s book had already been massively influential, with revisions covering trends like the pioneering three-finger, bluegrass wail of Earl Scruggs (which, according to Neil V. Rosenberg’s Bluegrass: A History, Seeger first heard around 1950) and the similar but less aggressive style of Ralph Stanley and his forward rolls. Seeger’s half-brother, Mike, is credited in the book with “assistance in preparing this [bluegrass] chapter,” but the younger Seeger humbly says that his contribution was essentially one night’s work.

(In his book When We Were Good: The Folk Revival, music historian Robert Cantwell notes how Seeger distilled the famous “Basic Strum” from elements he’d learned from the rough-hewn Rufus Crisp. “By nestling a resonant chord between two precise notes,” Cantwell wrote, “a melody note and a chiming note on the fifth string, Seeger gentrified the more percussive frailing style, with its vigorous hammering of the forearm and its percussive rapping of the fingernail on the banjo head.”)

Eric Weissberg says, “It was the only thing like it at the time, as far as I know.  Before that, most of the knowledge was handed down from person to person, and not much of that was happening up in the North. That was mostly a down-South thing, so as far as the urban development of banjo players, it was vital.”

A condensed version of the book appeared within the sleeve of the 1954 Folkways LP The Five-String Banjo Instructor with Pete Seeger, a recording that, like the book, has long been supplanted by an entire shelf of hot-shot instruction manuals with attached CDs. But it was Seeger’s book–which coined the terms “hammering on” and “pulling off,” among others, in its landmark pages–that returned the instrument to American music.


Lunsford, Scruggs, and Rhumba

August 4, 2013



During the summer of 1935, the same year he moved his family to Washington, Charles Seeger took his son Pete to a mountain square dance and music festival in Asheville, North Carolina. This was the event begun and run for many years by the legendary Bascom Lamar Lunsford.

Here Pete, sixteen years old at the time, heard his first folk music. He says that it was love at first sight, after hearing a five-string banjo being played and listening to old ballads about lords and ladies. It’s probably safe to assume that if Seeger had not taken his young son on that fateful journey, there might have been no renewed interest in folk music.


Pete Seeger:  “Bascom Lamar Lunsford.  He gave me my first lesson in playing a 5 string banjo.  Instead of going and just playing chords, clunk, clunk, clunk, you’d pick up on maybe the middle string and then pick up on the first string, five notes higher.  And then come down with your thumb on the fifth string.

Gradually, I didn’t learn this all at once, I learned you picked one of the strings with your left hand.  So now I could get four beats there.  Up on the middle string, plucked the first string with your left hand – my mother says that on the violin that’s called Left Hand Pizzicato.  I just call it pulling off, but you know my phrase has been picked up by the whole music world now.

Guitar pickers all around the world, it’s pulling off when you play a note with your left hand.  And sometimes you can, instead of pulling off, you can hammer down on one of the strings, usually a lower string.  You pick it with your right hand and then come down strongly on the fretboard with your left hand and the string is still vibrating in the new pitch.  And of course, a man named Earl Scruggs invented a way to divide up 8 short notes into 3, 3 and 2, that adds up to 8.

And if you analyze it, that’s basically the rhumba rhythm.”

A Musical Journey

July 6, 2013


A Musical Journey – The Films Of Pete, Toshi & Dan Seeger


Here are some of the most unusual “home movies” you’ll ever get a chance to see. After sitting on a barn shelf for decades, a few of them are finally being offered here, including rare footage of Sonny Terry, Big Bill Broonzy, Pete Steele, Jean Carignan and others, selected for this video by Stefan Grossman.

Pete Seeger remembers: “In 1955 I bought a secondhand Auricon, a 16mm camera with single system optical sound, used for making newsreels. . . . In 1963, Toshi and I took our three children out of school and travelled around the world, filming whatever good music we stumbled upon.

There was no theme or plan. Three years later, with our 21 year old son Dan, we arranged to film African-American worksongs in a Texas prison. I’m so glad some of these films will finally be seen. For 30 years they’ve sat in our barn and Toshi and I would say ‘When are we going to have time to work on them?’ — and we never had time. Along comes our friend Stefan and says, ‘Let me see.’

Track Listing
Sonny Terry & J.C. Burris, 1958
Crazy About You Baby
Buck Dance
Hand Jive
Jean Carignan, 1957
La Grande Fleur
Sherbrooke Jig
Irish Tune

Big Bill Broonzy, 1957
Worried Man Blues
Hey Hey
How You Want It Done
John Henry
Blues in E

The McPeake Family, 1964
Jug of Punch
Will Ye Go Lassie Go?
Pipes/Harp Instrumental
Oro Se

Pete Steele, 1962
Pay Day at Coal Creek
Coal Creek March

Ellis Unit, Huntsville Texas, 1964
Working All Day Long
Grizzly Bear/Down the Line
I Believe I’ll Call My Baby

Oklahoma Fiddle Contest, 1957

Schuyler Michaels, 1957
Two Tunes
Soldier’s Joy

Pete Seeger

May 21, 2013

pete and bob

edited from “The Incompleat Folksinger” by Pete Seeger:

In 1935 I was sixteen years old, playing tenor banjo in the school jazz band.  A good deal of song collecting was being done under the auspices of different government agencies such as the Resettlement Administration.  Such work was called boondoggling at the time, but through the work of these agencies, the famous Library of Congress collection was first built up.

My father, Charles Seeger, as an expert in several branches of musical scholarship, was involved in these projects.  And I accompanied him on one field trip to North Carolina.  We wound down through the narrow valleys with so many turns in the road that I got seasick.

We passed wretched little cabins with half-naked children peering out the door; we passed exhibits of patchwork quilts and other handicrafts which were often were the main source of income.  I first became acquainted with a side of America that I had never known before.

At the Asheville square dance and ballad festival I fell in love with the old-fashioned five-string banjo, rippling out a rhythm to one fascinating song after another.  I liked the rhythms.  I like the melodies, time-tested by generations of singers.  I liked the words.