Ilya S. Savenok, Getty Images The sad news came across late Wednesday afternoon…
- Posted on Nov 20th 2007 12:00PM by Steve Hochman
But the film also shows Seeger to have taken a truly global embrace of music, well before it was remotely fashionable. There are clips of him with the Weavers, the postwar folk sensation, singing their first hit, the Israeli song 'Tzena, Tzena, Tzena,' of him performing the first Western-popular version of the Zulu singer Solomon Linda's 'Wimoweh (The Lion Sleeps Tonight)' and of him just a few years ago, at age 84, having an easier time with the Spanish than with the English translation of Jose Marti's 'Guantanamera' in a Carnegie Hall duet with his grandson Tao Rodriguez-Seeger (himself a member of the "subversive acoustic traditionalist" band the Mammals.
Of course, there's plenty in the film about his political activism, as well as his incalculable impact on the explosive Bob Dylan-led generation of folkies that followed. What will be most tantalizing to today's global music fans, though, is a brief bit of the movie showing Seeger taking a truly worldwide trip, literally, on a year he spent circumnavigating the Earth with his family, starting in 1963, right after finally being cleared of charges from his refusal to name names to the Cold War-hysteria-fueled U.S. Congressional House Un-American Activities Committee hearings, a stand that led to him being blacklisted by radio and TV across the nation. In these brief clips, we see films of the trip shot by his wife, Toshi Seeger, with sound recorded largely by their then quite-young son Danny. There's a bit of a traditional "rice dance" in Japan, a village hunting ceremony in Tanzania and a singing fisherman of Ghana on a canoe outing.
That's just a teaser, though. There are hours and hours of film from that excursion, and in the not-distant future it will be made available for the public.
"The Library of Congress is doing something wonderful," Seeger, now 88, says from his longtime home in the Hudson River Valley of upstate New York. "They're taking all the film, some of it raw footage, some edited by my wife and son, and they're digitalizing all of it. It's 16 millimeter film that was on its way to oblivion. But these cans had not been opened and exposed too much, and skilled professionals are now transferring a lot of 100 foot reels."
One respected ethnomusicologist who saw some of the films at a Library of Congress event last spring says that the collection holds great value -- even if he might be a little biased: Dr. Anthony Seeger, formerly director of Smithsonian Folkways Recordings at the Smithsonian Institute and currently a professor at UCLA, is Pete's nephew.
"They were quite impressive," says Dr. Seeger, who specializes in indigenous music of South America. "These are nice films, as well as some amazing things he did in the U.S., such as recording Big Bill Broonzy right before he went in for an operation and never sang in public again. These are wonderful things that have been restored."
Pete Seeger's curiosity about music from varied cultures came early in his life -- and with music that didn't always come from far away. "My father was a musicologist," he says. "He listened to music from all over the world, even before phonograph records were out of the cradle. In the '30s I remember him playing a record of banjo music that was from the Appalachians and I could hardly understand a word. And he said, 'Where do you think that's from?' I said, 'It sounds like China to me.' "
And he not only inherited his father's hunger for "foreign" sounds but also a desire to teach as much as possible about songs and their origins for his audiences. "I often talk too much about where a song comes from," he says. "Some people don't know that the words to 'Turn, Turn, Turn' were composed around 250 B.C. by a man named Qoheleth. And I found myself putting a tune to them and never imagined the Byrds would make such a wonderful version that the whole world would hear. But I try to explain without wasting too much of their time. A song can mean different things at different times to different people. What people might have thought of just a nice tune, years later, 'Gosh! There's a deeper meaning!' "
And with that, he starts to sing: "Swing low, sweet chariot, coming for to carry me home," his oh-so-familiar voice natural and easy, almost conversational. "Nice words. But later we realized it's about someone risking their life to help slaves to Canada."
He finds it a little ironic that people tend to identify him with specifically American music. "You might consider that American music is half African and half European. People around the world say, 'I love American music!' But they love the African rhythms."
If the availability of the travelogue films can help further the sense that music is just one extended community, then it will be progress, he says. Of course, it's a desire that he doesn't just limit to music.
"My hope for the world is that we will learn what fun it is to participate not just in the arts but in politics as well," he says.