Pete Seeger’s New York Roots


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Pete Seeger, second from left above, plays with Woody Guthrie, left, at 129 Macdougal Street in 1943.

Credit
Courtesy of the Seeger Family

The poet Carl Sandburg called him America’s tuning fork, and for good reason.

Pete Seeger drew upon many traditions of American folk music, from spirituals to mountain music, throughout the almost eight decades he sang, wrote and collected songs. By the time he died at 94 last year, nearly every region of the United States could lay claim to him.

It was in North Carolina, for example, where in 1936 he first heard the five-string banjo, which would become his instrument of choice, at a square dance festival.

There he was at Bowdoin College in Maine in 1960, performing his protest song “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” after he had been blacklisted from national venues and indicted on a charge of contempt of Congress because of his political affiliations, including membership in the Communist Party in the 1940s.

In Hattiesburg, Miss., hand-in-hand with churchgoers in 1964, he led rounds of “We Shall Overcome,” which he adapted from old spirituals.

And in 2009 in Washington, D.C., Mr. Seeger gave Americans what was likely their last memory of him: The beanpole-thin 89-year-old implored thousands to join him in singing Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land” at the Lincoln Memorial at President Obama’s Inaugural concert.

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The townhouse on West 10th Street where Mr. Seeger and his band lived.

Credit
Tony Cenicola/The New York Times

Considering the many places his music took him, you would be forgiven for forgetting that, in a deeply rooted sense, Mr. Seeger was a New Yorker. It was Greenwich Village that made him, in the early 1940s, the musician who would champion the American folk music revival. And in Beacon, N.Y., about 65 miles north, he later became an environmental activist, working tirelessly to clean up the Hudson River.

Raised on his children’s songs, I had always been a fan of Mr. Seeger and of the many folk artists he influenced, from Peter, Paul and Mary to the tradition’s great innovator, Bob Dylan.

But lately I encountered folk music only in hyphenation with some other genre like alternative, rock or country. This summer folk-rock bands and singer-songwriters like the Decemberists and Neko Case will gather at events, including the Newport Folk Festival, July 24 to 26, or the Clearwater Festival, which Mr. Seeger helped found, on June 20 and 21 in Croton-on-Hudson, N.Y.

But where does folk music reside year-round? Setting out to explore Mr. Seeger’s old haunts in Manhattan and Beacon, I hoped to stumble upon a scene alive with his spirit.

Though Mr. Seeger was born in Manhattan in 1919, the son of a well-to-do musicologist and concert violinist, and the family had an estate in Patterson, N.Y., he spent his youth largely at a Connecticut boarding school. After losing his scholarship to Harvard in 1938, he also briefly moved into his brother’s apartment at 118 East 11th Street, opposite Webster Hall, where he would headline in the early 1950s.

But in 1940 Mr. Seeger was still an amateur banjo player who had just returned to New York after a stint cataloging and transcribing folk music at the Library of Congress. It was his friend the folklorist Alan Lomax who had pulled him into an eclectic group of folk musicians, like the Kentuckian singer and union activist Aunt Molly Jackson and the Louisiana-born Huddie Ledbetter, better known as Lead Belly, who taught Mr. Seeger the 12-string guitar.

These musicians orbited in and around Greenwich Village. It was in Mr. Ledbetter’s tenement apartment at 414 East 10th Street that Mr. Seeger first heard the blues singer’s haunting rendition of “Goodnight Irene,” a folk standard Mr. Seeger would later turn into a sanitized pop hit with the Weavers in 1950.

“Lead Belly knew hundreds of songs and introduced them to Pete,” said Stephen Petrus, an author of “Folk City,” which accompanies an exhibition by the same name at the Museum of the City of New York through Nov. 29.

This was the Greenwich Village before youth counterculture took root in the late 1950s. It was before Bob Dylan crooned “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” in the Gaslight Cafe on Macdougal Street (now the craft cocktail bar Up & Up). It was before the Village attained a mythic status, evoked in the 2013 film “Inside Llewyn Davis.”

In the early 1940s, the neighborhood was largely an immigrant enclave, and folk music was still played mostly in people’s homes, or studied by the likes of Mr. Seeger’s father.

It was Mr. Seeger’s generation who brought folk songs out of their homes and to the workers. They played in union halls and at labor rallies.

One important address was the Forrest Theater on West 49th Street (now the Eugene O’Neill Theater), where in 1940 Mr. Seeger made his first public performance, fumbling through the ballad “John Hardy,” at the “Grapes of Wrath” benefit concert for Dust Bowl migrants. There he also encountered Woody Guthrie, the scrappy Okie songster who would become his mentor.

After crisscrossing the country on freight trains, Mr. Seeger returned to New York and helped found the Almanac Singers, a ragtag group of a dozen musicians, including Lee Hays and Millard Lampell, who aimed to start a singing union movement.

Not before long, though, World War II broke out, and their repertory turned patriotic. To pay the rent for the three-story townhouse the whole band shared at 130 West 10th Street, named the Almanac House, they performed hootenannies in the basement, rattling out unionist and anti-Hitler tunes.

(The shy Mr. Seeger never fully embraced communal living; in “Singing Out,” by David King Dunaway and Molly Beer, the musician Bess Lomax Hawes recalled sharing a bedroom with him with a sheet hung down the middle, “in perfect sobriety.”)

The Almanac House, now a veterinary clinic and apartments, still draws a number of passers-by thanks to an audio tour of Mr. Guthrie’s homes, produced by his granddaughter, that guides you to it.

One former home of Mr. Seeger that is open to the public is at 129 Macdougal Street. His in-laws’ townhouse, where he lived with his wife, Toshi, and their young children after he returned from World War II, is now an Italian restaurant, La Lanterna di Vittorio.

Last month I had a cappuccino on its lovely back patio with Mr. Seeger’s grandson Kitama Cahill Jackson. We sat amid what we guessed was an N.Y.U. student’s graduation celebration, and Mr. Jackson showed me photos of Mr. Seeger there, when it was a simple backyard, strumming on his banjo with Mr. Guthrie and others.

Continue reading the main story
Video

‘To Hear Your Banjo Play’

Pete Seeger plays at a square dance in an edited clip of the 1946 film, “To Hear Your Banjo Play.”


Publish Date January 28, 2014.


Photo by Richard Leacock.

“My great-grandmother created an open house,” Mr. Jackson said, adding that Toshi’s parents encouraged Pete and his friends to gather and rehearse there. Sitting there for a moment, I could almost conjure the bohemian spirit of those days.

A scene in the 2007 documentary film “Pete Seeger: The Power of Song,” though, drained some color from my roseate image. The Seegers, in their 80s, are strolling through Washington Square Park nearby, and I expected Pete to begin reminiscing about his days busking by the fountain. Instead Toshi speaks.

“I used to come out here at 5 o’clock every morning because you got in from the Village Vanguard at 4,” she says. “The babies would wake you up, so I took them out into the park, all by myself at 5 in the morning.”

“Never thought of that,” Mr. Seeger begins to admit, just as a fan rushes to thank him for his music.

Today Beacon is a city of 15,000 known for its Victorian town center and its artsy spirit. But in 1949, when Mr. Seeger moved his family there, it was a small industrial city, and he sought a life with few luxuries.

On a hilltop at the town’s edge, he built, with his bare hands, a one-room log cabin where he and his family lived without running water or electricity. Later a bigger house was built a few yards away. Both remain in the family, but you can get a sense of Mr. Seeger’s view of the Hudson from the side of Mount Beacon. Hike to its top for an even more spectacular vantage point.

From Beacon, beginning in the late 1960s, Mr. Seeger spearheaded an effort to clean up the Hudson, what he lovingly called in a song “my dirty stream.” At the time, its waters, ravaged by industrial waste, oil and sewage, were so poisonous that, according to the environmental activist Robert F. Kennedy Jr., wooden boats from the Caribbean would sail upriver to kill the bore worms that were damaging their hulls.

Mr. Seeger’s idea was to build the Clearwater, a 106-foot sloop based on a century-old design, believing that the majestic boat would throw the Hudson’s ugly toxicity in sharp relief and force people to pay attention it. To lobby for the Clean Water Act of 1972, he sailed it to Washington and serenaded members of Congress.

Today the Clearwater is still sailing. Along the Hudson, from the West 79th Street Boat Basin in Manhattan to Rensselaer, a city opposite Albany, it sets out for expeditions that are open to the public through September.

I missed the sloop during my visit to Beacon last month (it was on its way to Kingston, N.Y.), and no one I met at Hudson River Sloop Clearwater, the nonprofit that Mr. Seeger helped found and which operates the boat, rushed to make me feel better about the missed opportunity.

“It’s a feeling like nothing else,” the organization’s communications director, Toni Martin, said of sailing on the Hudson.

Still, a Sunday afternoon at the Beacon Sloop Club, another organization Mr. Seeger helped to start, brought me closer to the river than I ever had been in New York City. Its clubhouse sits in a beautiful waterfront park, named after the Seegers last year, just north of the contemporary art museum Dia: Beacon.

On that bright blue day, it was hard to imagine the river had ever reeked like a sewer. I stood on the riverbank, a slight breeze coming off the water, and marveled at its breadth. From here, it is a mile wide.

Just about any restaurant or shop along Main Street could be included in a tour of Mr. Seeger’s life, he was such a reliable presence in the town. But that day was Mr. Seeger’s 96th birthday, and a tribute concert was scheduled at the Towne Crier Cafe, so I headed there.

Alongside rock and country, the venue often has folk acts, including the singer-songwriter Peter Yarrow, of Peter, Paul & Mary, on July 17. It felt like a throwback to the Village cafe culture, serving well-prepared food and drinks during concerts.

And down the block I had noticed Main Street Music, which sells new and vintage string instruments and holds open jam sessions every second Saturday of the month. Perhaps New York’s folk scene had simply moved upriver?

Over the phone a few weeks later, Mr. Petrus said the most vibrant folk community he has come across is in Red Hook, Brooklyn, centered around the Jalopy Theater and School of Music, a co-organizer of the Brooklyn Folk Festival each April.

Though the venue does have folk artists from Mr. Seeger’s era like Michael Hurley, it focuses on pre-revival music from this country and the world, including the bluegrass Matt Flinner Trio or the Zimbabwean-influenced Polyphony Marimba.

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Pete and Toshi Seeger Riverfront Park in Beacon, N.Y.

Credit
Tony Cenicola/The New York Times

But, he added, folk artists were always at home in eclectic spaces like the Towne Crier. They performed alongside flamenco dancers and jazz musicians at the Village Gate, now Le Poisson Rouge, and comedians at the Bitter End.

“That’s always been the spirit of folk,” he said. “It’s such a baggy term, and it blends with so many different strands of music.”

Back at the concert at the Towne Crier, the performer Reggie Harris told me that while he was heartened to see folk music live on, he feared that “as a society, we’ve gotten away from collective song.” Singers now focus on performing their own songs, not sharing them, he said.

But perhaps the moment is ripe for another revival, he added. While demonstrators in Baltimore; Ferguson, Mo.; and New York have relied on chants like “I Can’t Breathe,” he has encouraged members of the Black Lives Matter organization to create simple, singable songs, as Mr. Seeger and others had done in the civil rights movement.

“We know that as we sing together, we breathe together,” he said, “and that changes the air.”

The concert was starting, so I took my seat for the first performers, an acoustic trio. At the last rock show I had been to, people did not so much as tap their feet, so I was a bit flustered when suddenly the whole room was singing in unison.

But the tune was hummable, and the lyrics easy, so I sang along, “Won’t you raise your voice with mine?”

If You Go

In New York City

To understand the history of folk music in the city, particularly in Greenwich Village, head to the Museum of the City of New York (1220 Fifth Avenue at East 103rd Street; mcny.org) for “Folk City: New York and the Folk Music Revival,” which runs to Nov. 29. It features items like Lead Belly’s 12-string guitar and several of Bob Dylan’s manuscripts, including “Blowin’ in the Wind.”

To learn about life in the Almanac House at 130 West 10th Street, buy the audio walking tour of Woody Guthrie’s life in New York, “My Name Is New York” (woodyguthrie.org).

Have a speck-covered pizza ($15) or a tiramisù ($6.50) in Mr. Seeger’s former home, now La Lanterna di Vittorio(129 Macdougal Street at West Third Street; lalanternacaffe.com).

The Village Vanguard (178 Seventh Avenue South at West 11th Street; villagevanguard.com), where Mr. Seeger often performed with the Weavers, now features mostly jazz acts.

For current folk acts as well as lessons in guitar and banjo, check out the Jalopy Theater and School of Music (315 Columbia Street; jalopy.biz) in Red Hook, Brooklyn. In April it co-hosts the Brooklyn Folk Festival.

In Beacon, N.Y.

Bed-and-breakfasts include the Swann Inn (from $155.50; swanninnofbeacon.com); Mount Beacon (from $180; mtbeaconbedandbreakfast.com); and Chrystie House (from $175; chrystiehouse.com). I tried Airbnb.com and stayed in a cottage for $199.

In a former factory overlooking Beacon Falls, the Roundhouse (roundhousebeacon.com) offers guest rooms starting at $189 (midweek) and a restaurant serving a farm-to-table menu.

At Towne Crier Cafe (379 Main Street; townecrier.com) you can watch acts like the folk-rock band the Felice Brothers while eating dishes like brick chicken ($16.50).

For a schedule of the Clearwater on the Hudson, contact Hudson River Sloop Clearwater (clearwater.org). In town, it docks at the Beacon Sloop Club (2 Red Flynn Drive) in the Pete and Toshi Seeger Riverfront Park. The Clearwater Festival (clearwaterfestival.org), also known as the Great Hudson River Revival, takes place on June 20 and 21 in Croton-on-Hudson, N.Y. This year’s lineup includes folk and rock artists like David Crosby, Citizen Cope and Los Lobos.



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