When Pete Seeger died on January 27, it prompted an outpouring of reflections across all media. Most commentators focused on Seeger’s amazing record of activism, which stretched across more than seven decades and encompassed just about every cause the Left has advocated since the New Deal. Much less mentioned by commentators is that folk music was the foundation upon which Seeger’s identity as an artist was based and that he dedicated a substantial portion of his life and work to popularizing a repertoire and building an audience for folk music.
Pete Seeger came out of the milieu of the 1930s and ’40s Popular Front era when leftwing musicians and cultural workers were looking for popular, working-class musical forms that could serve as an alternative to capitalist cultural production. Seeger himself worked with Alan Lomax at the Library of Congress Archive of Folk Song in the late 1930s and would soon form his first group, the Almanac Singers, with Woody Guthrie and several others to promote “people’s music.” They identified the music of the American rural working class, which had an old and venerable non-commercial culture, as being that of “the people.” Their musical styles, such as banjo music, ballads and guitar blues became the basis for a new concept of “folk” or “people’s music.” Since then, folk music has been associated with leftwing politics in the United States.
Left political movements in this country are very weak at the moment and that is reflected in the dearth of topical protest music being created by folk music performers. However, there is a legitimate, non-corporate, underground music movement rooted in the traditions of folk music that New York and the rest of the country should know about.
Today’s inheritors of the folk music tradition do some great songwriting but are also focused on reintroducing the all-but-lost traditional material — Elizabethan ballads, old work songs and blues played on the banjo. These old, rural proletarian forms are of no use to the music industry. But, they are robust, beautiful styles of music that like the best original songs of today, tell human stories. In a way it brings us back full circle to the spirit of discovery that drove the folk music movement of the 1930s.
The music and presentation of this new folk music is very personal, human in scale and has a great respect for history, not just the contemporary moment. This is also music that aligns with similar interests in slow and local food movements, environmentalism and other humanistic impulses toward building community and creating a more sustainable world.
Eli Smith is the producer of the Brooklyn Folk Festival and Washington Square Park Folk Festival. You can listen to his internet radio show and blog at downhomeradioshow.com.
Building Community Through Music
Are you interested in folk music and the community-building aspect of Pete Seeger’s legacy?
If so, you should check out the Jalopy Theatre & School of Music. Located at 315 Columbia Street in Red Hook, this venue/music school/ coffee shop/bar/restaurant/instrument store/repair shop is the thriving, non-corporate home to a community centered on music.
The Jalopy Theatre presents folk music of various stripes six nights a week, and their “Roots n Ruckus” show, free on Wednesday nights, is especially good. The music school for adults and children offers classes in banjo, guitar, mandolin, ukulele and fiddle in various folk styles. It also provides group classes to learn harmony singing and repertoire and ensemble classes to learn how to play with others in various styles. Jalopy also has its own internet radio station at jalopy.biz.
Also, don’t miss this year’s sixth annual Brooklyn Folk Festival, which will run from April 18-20. Most “folk festivals” today exclusively present “singer-songwriters.” Performers in this one subcategory of folk music have monopolized the field because the music industry is only interested in original songs that they can exclusively own and promote as new. This does a grave injustice to anyone actually interested in the true diversity and richness of folk music.
The Brooklyn Folk Festival offers an authentic folk festival, along the lines of the early Newport Folk Festivals that Pete Seeger helped to found back in 1959. Seeger presented a diversity of folk music styles in his own performances, and the Newport Folk Festival certainly presented an incredible range of music in its early days; old-time string band musicians, blues, jug band music, folk singers, Gospel and spirituals, traditional music from other parts of the world, as well as Bob Dylan and other “singer-songwriters.” The Brooklyn Folk Festival strives to present this diversity with contemporary performers of amazing quality who are largely unknown to the general public. For more, see BrooklynFolkFest.com.
— Eli Smith