In his very long life, long-time Hudson Valley resident Pete Seeger made a name for himself as, among many other things, an iconic (probably the iconic) folk singer and banjo player. Pete was known to everybody, even those who didn’t know a banjo from a canoe paddle. Pete Seeger was a self-described Johnny Appleseed of American folk music, planting a love for the music in the minds and hearts of people all over the country. Today’s column addresses a narrow but (for our purposes) important part of Seeger’s musical legacy. Through his popularization of traditional American folk and old time music, his banjo virtuosity, and his television program, Pete Seeger was an important influence on bluegrass music and in particular on the banjo and banjo players.
He certainly influenced this picker. The oldest record in my collection is “American Favorite Ballads Tunes and Songs, Volume Four,” Folkways FA 2323, a seventh birthday gift from my parents. They already knew I liked banjo and folk and bluegrass music. This record was my introduction to “Froggie Went A-Courtin,’” “The Erie Canal,” “Banks Of The Ohio,” and other American folk classics. Pete’s energetic performances, especially his banjo picking, fixed these songs and melodies in my memory. I was not alone in this regard.
Pete Seeger was born in the Hudson Valley in 1919. Pete had a musical background; his father was Charles Seeger, a Harvard-trained musicologist and an authority on American folk music; his mother was Constance de Clyver Edson, a concert violinist. In high school he took up the tenor banjo and played the popular music of the day, but a trip south with his father in 1936 to Bascom Lamar Lunsford’s Asheville folk festival changed his musical path.
Captivated by the old-time music and picking that he heard there, Pete began playing the five string banjo favored by Lunsford and the other Appalachian folk musicians. Lunsford lent Pete the five stringer Pete learned on. For several years Pete worked at learning the music, first at Harvard, where his classmates included John F. Kennedy, and then, after Pete dropped out, in Washington and New York City. Banjo playing competed for his attention with painting and journalism, at which he hoped to make a living. Generations of folk music lovers should be grateful to the art teacher who asked Pete if he did anything besides painting. When Pete replied that he played the banjo, the teacher said, “I’ve never heard you play the banjo, but I’d suggest you stick to that.” (This quote is from the excellent biography “How Can I Keep From Singing: Pete Seeger,” by David Dunaway. Pete’s own book, “The Incompleat Folksinger,” contains autobiographical selections, profiles of other musicians, and Pete’s own thoughts on the music.)
New York City had a thriving folk music scene when Seeger arrived in the late 1930s. Pete eventually mastered a number of different banjo styles as well as the challenging skill of singing and playing the banjo at the same time. In the 1940s and early 1950s, Seeger was a member of two influential folksong groups, the Almanac Singers and the Weavers. The Weavers in particular were hugely popular, with television appearances and records on the national charts, all of which ended in the early 50s when Seeger and the Weavers were blacklisted. Nevertheless, the Weavers helped get the post-war folk revival rolling. After the Weavers went on hiatus, Seeger continued to perform as a solo artist, often playing for children and young people at colleges, camps, and schools. In this way, he built a youthful fan base for himself and for folk music in general that helped make both very popular in the 1960s.
I think it’s safe to say that, especially in the north, Pete Seeger was the first banjo player and the first singer of traditional American folk music that many people ever heard. (But not me–the first banjo player I heard was John Hasted, a British atomic physicist [you read that right] who was a disciple of Pete Seeger on banjo and who accompanied Irish singer Dominic Behan on a record of IRA songs that my mother had.) Seeger covered many of the songs from the Harry Smith Anthology of American Folk Music (see blog post #10), making that music available to a much wider audience than the relatively few folk music cognoscenti who ferreted out the Smith collection. Many of the people whose introduction to traditional music was through Pete Seeger went on to discover and eventually play bluegrass.
In 1947, Pete and Alan Lomax made a short documentary, “To Hear Your Banjo Play,” which documents Pete’s banjo virtuosity at that time. By then, Seeger’s banjo playing had already caught the ear of would-be pickers especially in the north. Two of Pete’s early banjo disciples in New York City were Roger Sprung and Billy Faier. Sprung later became a master of Scruggs style banjo playing and an influential and innovative recording artist and teacher, as well as an inveterate jammer. He is a character and a fun guy to pick with. Faier, perhaps a little more under the radar, took the Seeger banjo style even further and developed a highly individual style. Like Seeger, Faier was a captivating solo performer and the author of a book on how to play the banjo.
In 1948, Seeger published the first edition of his manual, “How To Play The Five String Banjo,” and in his 1954 second edition, he added a chapter on Scruggs style picking. Subsequent editions, including the 1962 third edition, which I have at hand, included detailed tablature for Earl Scruggs’ solos on “Foggy Mountain Breakdown,” and “Molly and Tenbrooks” as well as Ralph Stanley’s “Hard Times,” and Sonny Osborne’s “Down In The Willow Garden.” To the best of my knowledge, this was the first detailed instruction manual on how to play bluegrass banjo. Many banjo players (again including this one) studied bluegrass banjo from this book.
Among others that Pete inspired to play the five string banjo were banjo pioneer Bill Keith, who, like Pete, had played the four string banjo first, and Kingston Trio founder Dave Guard. Bill Keith developed the melodic style of banjo playing and popularized it during his tenure with Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys (see blog post #6). The melodic style is the main alternative to Scruggs style in bluegrass banjo playing. Guard attended a Seeger concert at Palo Alto in 1954 and bought a copy of Pete’s banjo manual after the show. (Joan Baez and her sister attended the same concert.) Although not a bluegrass picker, Guard influenced many of them, including most notably Tony Trischka, who was inspired to play banjo by Guard’s solo on the Trio’s “MTA.”
Finally, in the mid-1960s, Pete hosted a public televsion program called “Rainbow Quest,” where he showcased many notable old time musicians, including Doc Watson, the New Lost City Ramblers, Cousin Emmy, and Roscoe Holcomb, and bluegrass bands including the Stanley Brothers and the Greenbriar Boys. This program exposed the Stanleys and the Greenbriars to an entirely new audience that likely had never seen them before.
Pete Seeger’s commitment to spreading American folk and old time music inspired many fans and pickers to listen to and play bluegrass, especially the banjo, and in doing so he contributed significantly to the growth of bluegrass.