I have had this photo of Pete in his cabin, for well over three decades. It used to hang in my teaching studio in our Clearwater Guitar Gallery back in 1979. Then it moved with me to Nashville in 1987 and hung in my writing and recording studio. During a move in 2002, it got packed away, but this week ( Jan 27, 2014 ) I went rightfully searching for it. It's going back in a frame and up on my studio wall again. As it should, because Pete has been in my life for 64 of my soon to be 67 years. I always used to think Pete would always be around for at least 100 years. His father Charles lived to be 101. So why not Pete ? When Toshi, Pete's wife of 70 years, passed away last year, I started to rethink that idea.
I was only around three years old when I asked my folks for the Irene Goodnight record that was all over the radio in 1950. My folks thought it was kind of odd, that I was crazy about that song, much more so than the kiddie picture records like Big Rock Candy Mountain my brother and I shared then. So they got Irene for me, along with other Weavers 78's, On Top Of Old Smoky, Shenandoah, Tzena, Tzena . I played them over and over for years and years. My grandmother Spooner's favorite Weavers tune was On Top Of Old Smoky ( she played it a whole lot on both the record and on piano ) She would also always request my brother and I to play it for her on his harmonica and my guitar in later years. Butch didn't stay too long with the harmonica though and Smoky was one of the very few tunes we ever played together.
Although it was Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, and Rockabilly music that would lead me to first pick up the guitar in 1956, ( actually a Uke, that I had to pretend was a guitar for a very long year until the following Christmas, when I got my first flatop 6 string ) it was those early sounds I heard and rediscovered again at the end of that decade, and into the start of the '60s during what they called the "Folk Scare" that have kept coming back, weaving in and out of my life. I also discovered through Pete , many other 12 string players and folk influences , like Bob Gibson, Dick Rosmini, Fred Neil, Jim McGuinn ( who later changed his name to Roger )and founded The Byrds. Then in the early '70s, Gordon Bok, and the ear opening Leo Kottke, through another Pete & Bob Gibson influence, Judy Collins, who also played 12 string at times. You have got to love the "folk process"
A true musical citizen of the entire world, some of the songs Pete first introduced many of us to, crossed into other styles of music e.g. Wimoweh aka ( The Lion Sleeps Tonight ) a top 40 R&R hit for The Tokens, When Pete sang it in his hey day, there was no sleeping for the lion or anyone else ...PETE FLAT OUT ROARED on it. Kisses Sweeter Than Wine, a top 40 hit for Jimmie Rogers, and Pete's own tunes, Where Have All The Flowers Gone (recorded by many including The Kingston Trio, If I Had A Hammer also covered by many, notably Peter, Paul and Mary and Trini Lopez, and Turn Turn Turn that The Byrds turned into a huge hit in 1965.
I'm not going to soapbox much here, as this memoir is mainly about Pete's music and how I was effected by it. Pete's humanism and activisim legacy is well documented and hopefully will be spoke, written and sung about forever. But you really can't seperate the two either, as it was as much as what he was all about as any of ways he tried to convey it. There seems to be a touch of ironic justtice in Pete getting , some well deserved royalties for his own tunes in the '60s , because if anyone stood for justice for ALL, it was Pete Seeger, even though he was personally denied it for over decade, thanks to Red Scare hysteria and demagogues like Joseph McCarthy and his ilk, who idealogicaly kept Pete from fully following his trade with their very Un- American "Blacklist". I still recall the night Pete returned to the national airwaves, thanks to Tom & Dick Smothers , when they had him on their CBS show around '68 and he performed "Waist Deep In Big Muddy", a song that took a clear hard look at the war LBJ and his cronies had lied us into. Even that performance was initially partially censored, though corrected in later years.
Though I never took up the 5 string banjo, the Twelve String however as you can see here, more than compensated for it, in the make a joyfull noise department. A quack shrink might argue that I gravitated to the 12 String because of the 2 strings I was denied for my frst year as a guitarslinger ? I would argue it was THAT HUGE SOUND they make, especially when played ( Leadbelly - Seeger Style) tuned down two whole steps below concert pitch by using special heavy strings. LaBella string company used to make them for Pete and his disciples. ( They actually had WOUND B strings ! Go ahead & Bend 'Em , I TRIPLE DAWG DARE YA )
ALWAYS A GREAT TEACHER, PETE USED TO ADVISE WOULD BE 12 STRINGERS
WHEN YOU PICK UP A 12 STRING, MAKE SURE TO PUT THE CAT OUTSIDE,
'CAUSE THEY DO MAKE A RACKET.
For as long as Pete was in my life, it seems queer that I only got to see him perform live just one time. It was when the Newport Folk Festival was held in NY City at Carnegie Hall in 1973. It was a real hot summer day and there were technical sound problems that made the crowd have to wait outside for close to an hour or more past when the doors were supposed to open. Some of the headliners were James Taylor, Richie Havens, and Arlo Guthrie. In terms of Folk festival senority, I don't think anyone came close Pete, but true to form, and of his concern for all of us, Pete chose to do his set while the crowd was coming in, because he knew how long we were waiting outside in the heat. I missed a few tunes while getting to my seat up in the balcony , but man when Pete picked up that 12 String that English luthier G. Stanley Francis built for him, it resonated through the hall with just a mic near that magic triangle sound hole. BOOM SH BOOM ! & RAMA LAMA DING DONG TOO... it sounded like I was seated next to him at his kitchen table on the PBS show Rainbow Quest, he used to host.
ORIGINAL 1960 DRAWING OF THE TYPE OF GUITAR U.K. LUTHIER G. STAN FRANCIS
BUILT FOR PETE - NOTICE THE STRING COURSES SHARE SINGLE PEGHOLES
PROBABLY TO STRENGTHEN THE BRIDGE
My first year of living in Florida in 1977, I fell in with a group of folkies and was invited to perform at the oldest folk festival in the United States. It was up in the north part of the state on the Suwannee River at the Stephen Foster Folklife Center ( BTW although he wrote a song about that river and many about the south, like Camptown Races, Foster never set foot into Florida) But Pete Seeger did, and for some reason or another I kept on missing him, while I was there. I did meet and become friends with some of Pete's folkie friends like Will McLean "Florida's Black Hat Troubador " Pete once brought Will to Carnegie Hall with him to give him some wider exposure. Much to Pete's chagrin, Will fainted dead away along side of Pete as he introduced him on the Carnegie stage. Some say from fright but Will said it was a wee bit too much "nerve medicine" Will didn't faint on me however when I presented him to a far more modest audience inside of our Clearwater guitar shop. I also met troubador Gamble Rogers there and our friendship endured for 14 years until Gamble's untimely passing as he heroically tried in vain to save a drowning man.
THE WRONG NECK LONG NECK
Pete's little instruction book "How To Play The 5 String Banjo " has been in print for over 50 years and probably inspired thousands more players than his majestic 12 String ever did . One of those disciples was St. Pete Times newsman and old time banjo player, the late Rick Abrams, who befriended me very early on.
Sing Out, the folk song magazine Pete helped start and nurture for years, was having a subscription drive in the '70s and Pete graciously offered up one of his iconic Vega long neck banjos as a premium to whomever sold the most subscriptions. Most banjo players I know, be they bluegrass, tenor, plectrum or clawhammer specialists tend to be a wee bit over the top in their dedication to their instrument. Rick was certainly no exception. He was so determined to obtain that musical machine that claimed to "surround hate and force it to surrender" that he bought over 600 subs to Sing Out and distributed them to the wilds of banjodom. Overjoyed that he was soon to be the proud owner of one of his musical heros personal instruments, it was all he could talk about for days. Heck he had me all jazzed about it. All was well until said banjo turned up at his doorstep. It was not the instrument described in the offer and was most likely sent out by some intern at Sing Out who went rumaging around in a closet? Rick made a call to Pete and Pete rectified that situation pronto. After all it's hard to play sad songs on the banjo.
WHITE SPRINGS FOLK FESTIVAL 1977
This candid photo turned up in the Florida papers that covered the festival. Rick Abrams on the banjp and yours truly on the 12 String and some wayfaring stranger on the harmonica. The Seeger spirit of music and community was alive and well that day.
WHEN WE OPENED CLEARWATER GUITAR GALLERY, PETE KEPT AN EYE ON GOINGS ON
RIGHT BEHIND THE FRONT COUNTER
IT'ZA FRAME UP !
Bob Gibson, Pete Seeger & Vassar Clements
( note the guitar is marked 50% Off )
Opening Clearwater Guitar Gallery with Anne Orologas ( who in six months became Anne Spooner ) took me off the road, but not from being involved with live music. Part of my idea was to combine acoustic concerts in the store. The very first one we did, was inspired with Seeger Spirit in both music and a good cause to use it for.
Store Concerts that followed that first one included various forms of string music ( even a luteinist ), Local musicians and touring folks like Gove Scrivenor, Gamble Rogers, Alan Block, Kevin Burke & Micheal O Domhnail, Malcom Daglish & Grey Larson and one of my all time favorites, Bob Gibson played there. Bob, who was a child of the great depression, first met Pete in 1953 and I would certainly say he was a contemporary of Pete. ( Roger McGuinn credits Bob as his influence to pick up a 12 string and so it goes ) Bob and I stayed in touch, visited with each other here in Nashville through the years and even wrote songs together until Bob passed away on September 28th 1996, but not before attending his own Wake held in Chicago where that late '50s folk revival all began. I say this for those who didn't know him, because Bob was indeed a very, very unique and creative individual. The first time we had dinner together, I asked him about Pete. He told me that the two weirdest people he ever met in his entire life were ...... wait for it .... Hugh Hefner and Pete Seeger! ...... BEWILDERING does not even scratch the surface on that statement and I regret never asking him to explain it.
A year or so after we started doing concerts in the store, we expanded and built a 400 seat music hall next door to us. This allowed us to book bigger name touring acts and Pete was on the my top 10 list to come play there. Anne and I cannot recall exactly why we never were able to book Pete. It may well be he had cut way back on his touring ( This was in the early '80s ) but we did manage to have many folks play there that Pete influenced and or performed with like Tom Paxton, Arlo Guthrie, Doc Watson, Leo Kottke, and more.
I vividly recall doing a live radio show in Tampa at WMNF which was a listner supported station. I still have a cassette of that broadcast. I was about to do my last tune for the evening when something came across the teletype that made me change my tune. It was the news about John Lennon. I closed instead with Pete's "Where Have All The Flowers Gone?"
I think it was in the late '80s or very early '90s that Arlo & Pete teamed up to do some shows together and were coming to Nashville. I know I planned to attend and was even going to call Arlo ( he gave us his home number) to see if it would be ok to come by after the show and shake Pete's hand (even though I knew darn well Pete didn't go for that kind of stuff ) Concert reviews prior to their arrival here said that Pete was quite frail and mostly sat on the side of the stage watching Arlo carry the show. That combined with the thought of what do you say to a guy like Pete, who has probably heard that stuff way more than he ever wanted to, without sounding trite. Those and probably several other things that I can't recall now, allowed that chance to slip by.
These last couple of years I cherished every time I got to see Pete on TV or hear him speak on the radio. What a clear voice he had, with a wonderfull cadence. Probably the biggest lump in my throat came when he sang at Obama's Inauguration. Last Tuesday morning songwriter Fred Koller and I had breakfast and shared our thoughts on what Pete meant to both of us.
A couple of years ago, I put together and recorded a little medley of tunes I call the "PJL Club". It consists of three songs in dropped D tuning. Something else I learned from Pete. It kicks off with Pete's "Living In The Country" segues into Jorma Kaukonen's "Embryonic Journey" and winds up ( if I don't start it off too fast ) with Leo Kottke's "Mona Ray" If Living In The Country gets to rolling too quick and anywhere near the city limits, by the time Mona Ray comes around, you'll find my Guild 512 & I are upside down in the ditch. Though I've never read or heard anything about Jorma being influenced or not by Pete, I can't listen to Embryonic Journey and think anything less than that. Thing is I could insert enough tunes in the middle there that owe something to Pete to last a lifetime. So like I wrote on many of the Facebook postings and e mails about Mr. Seeger taking his leave of us last week ...
THANKS PETE , THANKS A LOT
Photo of Judy Collins & Pete Seeger Taken in 2013 by David Rocco
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