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Pete Seeger Tag

A Fan's NotesYou can never go wrong by giving me the gift of a book. I love to read, and in particular I love to read biographies of great musicians, or other music-related books. There were a number of excellent music books published in 2015. I’ve picked out a few here in the hope that it will serve as something of a gift- giving guide for the music-loving reader in your life.

While you can get these titles online, or at big book chain store, let me suggest that you support your local bookseller. They’re a vanishing breed, and much like the local record store, they very much need our support to keep going.

Alright, I’m late with this. What can I tell you? It’s six discs long, and unlike some other reviewers, I like to listen to the whole thing, maybe a few times, before adding my two cents. There’s been a lot written about The Basement Tapes Complete (Sony/Legacy) so you already know that Dylan had a motorcycle accident in 1966. A few months later he summoned his backing group, still known as the Hawks, to Byrdcliffe, NY. Beginning in March, 1967, the assembled musicians began recording in Dylan’s living room there, which was known as the Red Room. That summer they moved to the basement of the house in Saugerties that was known as Big Pink.

It’s that time of year again. Beginning on Friday, some of the world’s greatest musicians will descend on Newport for two of the longest running and most prestigious festivals in the world. This weekend the Newport Folk Festival is in town, and next weekend is the 60th (!) annual Newport Jazz Festival. I’ll be covering both for Popdose, so be on the lookout for those stories.

There are several artists playing the Folk Festival this year who I am excited about seeing. Chief among those is Mavis Staples. I’ve seen Mavis many times, including several appearances at the Folk Festival, but this year she will be closing out the festival on Sunday night. It is an honored spot, one that was often given to giants like the late Pete Seeger or Levon Helm in the past. I can think of no one more deserving than Mavis of a place on that stage at that time on Sunday.

I moved to Jamestown, RI back in January after living in NJ for nearly my entire life. It was an interesting and occasionally difficult transition, but one of the best things about the move was my new proximity to Newport. From my living room window I can look across Narragansett Bay and see Fort Adams, the site of the annual Newport Folk Festival.

All through the long winter, and on into the spring and early summer I stared out there and dreamed about the festival, which has been my favorite weekend of the year for quite awhile now. In the past I’ve covered the event for Popdose, but for the 52nd Newport Folk Festival there was an additional wrinkle for me.

Welcome to 1963, loyal readers! This year we see some subtle but important changes in the American pop music landscape. While love and romance continued to be dominant themes, more socially conscious fare started to appear on the charts. On the flip side, the Beach Boys — with their joyful celebrations of girls, cars, and surfing — were just getting warmed up for their assault on the charts.

Elsewhere in America, 1963 was a year of incredible highs (Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech in August) and devastating lows (President Kennedy’s assassination in November). On the pop culture front, the first James Bond feature film (Dr. No) debuted, James Brown’s legendary Live at the Apollo album was released, and Patsy Cline died at age 30 when her plane crashed near Camden, Tennessee.

Trini Lopez, "If I Had a Hammer"#1: Trini Lopez, “If I Had a Hammer” – #3 U.S., #4 U.K.

Jack Feerick – My son is singing this in his third-grade chorus, and I recently rounded up a bunch of versions for him—but I’d never heard Trini’s version before now. It’s just become my favorite.

“Hammer” is a profound song, self-consciously so, and its imagery is mythic. And most performers, from Peter, Paul and Mary to (God help us) Leonard Nimoy, treat it earnestly, even reverently. Lopez, though, turns it into a party song, a hand-clapping singalong. And he’s right to do so, for a couple of reasons. He’s capturing the moment when social justice is morphing from a movement into a counterculture—a cohesive social cohort with its own shared values, its own cultural signifiers, its own music. Lopez’s “Hammer” is not a cry for action or a wake-up call aimed at the square world; it’s a celebration of belonging, shared by those within the scene.

And if its easygoing charm is at odds with the urgency of Pete Seeger’s original vision, that too is appropriate. The task of creating a finer world is not necessarily grim—it can be joyous. In fact, if it’s going to succeed, I think maybe it needs to be.

Jon Cummings – I like this track just fine, and I like what Jack says it,  though I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of early-’60s folkies and movement types didn’t see it that way. Did the people who chastised Dylan for going electric appreciate Lopez turning the Weavers’ iconic “If I Had a Hammer” into “La Bamba”? (Speaking of which, the same live album that features this track also features Lopez’s “Latinized” takes on “This Land Is Your Land,” “What’d I Say,” “Bye Bye Blackbird,” and “Unchain My Heart,” as well as “La Bamba” itself.) Of course, Lopez’s most memorable hit was “Lemon Tree” — which always reminds me of George Costanza’s “safe word” when he’s trying to switch the tape in a woman’s answering machine on a classic Seinfeld episode.

Dw. Dunphy – I recently rewatched Martin Scorsese’s doc No Direction Home – Bob Dylan, and was once again amazed by the earnestness and naivete of the folk culture. I suppose you had to be to survive those turbulent times. If they were as cynical then as we (I) are (am) now (now), nothing would have ever happened. Even so, the overall belief that their songs were changing the world and were a force for good, well, I still don’t buy into it. The music made for a great soundtrack, but the movements could have survived without them.

And it is through the tri-focaled lenses of cynicism that I have to view this version of “If I Had a Hammer.” It certainly does groove and as a piece of music, I think it is more enjoyable than some of the stridently political versions I’ve heard in my lifetime. Yet I also believe the proliferation of the track among artists had less to do with spreading a message than it did with latching onto the spirit of the times and hoping for a hit. For some it meant the message, for others it was a way to a hit.

I personally love Lopez’s live take on this because there’s something bizarrely endearing to him singing “Eef I Yad a Yammer.”

Chris Holmes – I never even knew what the hell this song was about, so learning that it’s so tied up with the Progressive and Civil Rights movements comes as a shock to me. In Trini’s hands this just sounds like a fun little ditty, with no greater meaning. But to me this song will always be Leonard Nimoy’s.

Tony Redman – At first I thought this uptempo version of the song seemed inappropriate somehow. But as I thought about it, I realized maybe that’s what the song needed. There’s nothing wrong with being excited about justice, freedom, and the love between my brothers and my sisters, is there?

David Lifton – See, I went the opposite way. I guess this makes sense in that it combines the two sounds big on college campuses at the time – folk music and frat party rock – but I’m not getting the sense of righteousness that I get from Peter, Paul & Mary’s version. Maybe it’s the heavy drums and Lopez cutting off the final syllable of every line. I guess that makes him the anti-Kevin Cronin.

And here we are. They said it couldn’t be done, and occasionally I believed them, but we have arrived at the Top Ten on my list of CCM albums you ought to consider worthy of your time and hard-disk space.

It wasn’t easy though. Right up to the end, like anyone involved with a likewise undertaking, I wondered if my choices were sound. After careful scrutiny, I’m pretty happy with the final ten, but this is not to say it is a definitive list, and that’s not really the point anyhow. The point was to de-stigmatize a section of this music from being considered “church tract junk.” In most cases, the world and spiritual views of the artists remain clear, but the presentation and intentions are artfully accomplished, and art in the end is a great expression of faith in itself.

The Preservation Hall Jazz Band has always been rooted in tradition, and at this point, the group is a tradition itself — to the point that quite a few of its albums are compilations with the kind of sepia-toned artwork usually reserved for artists who have been dead for decades.

Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, the band has enjoyed an artistic renaissance over the last decade, and the tragic aftermath of Hurricane Katrina — whose destruction forced the temporary closure of the historic Preservation Hall, their home base for nearly 50 years — has only fueled their fire. They don’t venture into the recording studio often — their last album of new material, the wonderful Shake That Thing, was released in 2004, and Preservation Hall Recordings mostly functions as an archival label — but when they do, they make it count. For proof, look no further than Preservation: An Album to Benefit Preservation Hall, an album whose matter-of-fact title doesn’t even hint at the many treasures it holds in store.

For starters, there’s the band itself, proving with each note that holding fast to tradition doesn’t mean trading away creative vibrancy. Though most of these songs will be immediately familiar even to listeners who don’t know New Orleans music from cheap theme park Dixieland, they aren’t rote covers; each performance is infused with the kind of loose comfort that comes from a lifetime of dedication to a craft (and, in this case, to a culture). None of these songs sound like tributes; they’re joyously, brilliantly alive — which is how you’ll feel as they come spilling out of your speakers.

51CO+1aESFL._SCLZZZZZZZ_Pete Seeger’s unlikely late-career resurgence continues with Live in ’65, Appleseed Recordings’ latest contribution to the folk icon’s vast catalog. Culled from a performance at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Music Hall, these previously unreleased recordings capture Seeger in his post-blacklist prime, leading a loudly appreciative audience through a 31-song set of standards, covers, and originals, including “Oh Susanna,” “Turn! Turn! Turn!” “This Little Light of Mine,” “Greensleeves,” and “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.”

The fidelity, as you might imagine, is a little suspect; though the tapes were cleaned up using the Plangent Process (recently used to tremendous effect on Woody Guthrie’s The Live Wire), they’re still more than 40 years old — and getting a pristine live recording out of Seeger was a tricky proposition anyway, because he had a tendency to move around the stage, and cared more about getting the crowd to sing along than putting himself squarely in the mix. The result is an album that sometimes sounds like it’s been swaddled in cotton, but believe it or not, that doesn’t make Live in ’65 any less entertaining — in fact, I think it adds to its charm: Seeger sounds so loose and carefree here that the imperfections make perfect sense.

Josh RitterTo be honest, I had my doubts about Day Two of Folk Festival 50. First of all, I was still tired from the day one. Next, it appeared that the lineup wasn’t quite as strong as it was on Saturday, and yet it was hard to deny that there were some compelling artists scheduled. The weather was also a bit iffy, with rain and thunderstorms predicted for the afternoon.

Josh Ritter was the first performer on the Fort Stage on Sunday, and he was one of the prime reasons that I was at the festival. I’m a big fan of the Idaho songwriter, and his set did not disappoint. He appeared with his full band, and they sounded great on songs like “Right Moves,” and “Real Long Distance” from Josh’s most recent album, The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter, and on the title track from his 2003 album Hello Starling. The real standout however, was one that Josh played solo, the beautiful and powerful anti-war song “Girl In the War.” He dedicated “Another New World” to Pete Seeger and Joan Baez. Not only is Josh a wonderful songwriter and performer, he comes across as a completely genuine guy, and the early audience at Fort Adams was very appreciative.

Pete SeegerThe word “legend” is sorely abused and overused by music journalists, just as the word “genius” is. I am as guilty as anyone else, but I have an excuse ready to go. The older you get, the more legends your life seems to take on. People who were just great musicians when you were younger take on a sepia-tinged status with the fog of time. Now that I’ve said that, I have to ask a more or less rhetorical question: how does a writer avoid using the word “legend” when he attends an event at which there are performances by Pete Seeger, Joan Baez, Judy Collins, Guy Clark, Arlo Guthrie, and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott? Legends all, no matter what era you came up in.

They called it Folk Festival 50 this year, but the event was a celebration of the of the birth of the Newport Folk Festival. It’s a long, twisted story, but a few months ago there was a real possibility that the great event would not live to see its 50th birthday. Then the man who started the whole thing in the first place, George Wein (who also established the Newport Jazz Festival in 1954), stepped in to make sure that his baby had life. Wein had sold the rights a few years back, and the subsequent owners had failed to meet some of their obligations. As a result, Wein returned, but he still hasn’t won the right to use the name that he honored for so many years. Hopefully that will change soon, and next year it will become the Newport Folk Festival again.

You may have heard of Newport, R.I., or even paid a visit. It is one of America’s playgrounds, famous for its great mansions, and as the home for sailing’s America’s Cup for many years. The city sits on a peninsula, surrounded by Narragansett Bay, and Rhode Island Sound. There are beautiful water views in every direction, and the city takes full advantage of its location. On the northern end of the peninsula sits Fort Adams. The Fort was established on July 4, 1799, and has been home to the festival since it was revived after a 15 year absence in 1985.

About a month ago, while I was working on my Soundtrack Saturday post about Shag: The Movie, I tweeted that I never got sick of hearing Lloyd Price’s version of the blues folk song “Stagger Lee,” which is what Annabeth Gish and Scott Coffey’s characters dance to during the shag dancing contest at the end of the movie. In fact, I think I listened to it about 20 times just in the few hours it took me to write that post. The first time I’d ever heard any version of “Stagger Lee” was while watching Shag, and every time I hear Price sing it, I think of that scene and just want to put on my shaggin’ shoes and go to town. (Okay, so I don’t really know how to shag, but whatever.)

Seeing my tweet about my love for Mr. Price’s “Stagger Lee,” the lovely Jeff Giles asked if I’d ever heard the version by Chris Whitley & Jeff Lang. I replied that I hadn’t, and within the hour an MP3 was waiting in my in-box. After listening to it and telling Jeff how much I liked it, a discussion about some of the other versions of the song began, ultimately leading to the idea of this feature, which I hope continues with the thoughts of members of the talented Popdose staff on other oft-covered songs.

Now, much has been written about the Stagger Lee story and even about the many versions of the song; I’m certainly not going to try and rehash everything for you here. Instead I’d encourage you to read this and this, and if that’s not enough Stagger Lee history for you, there’s always Wikipedia. Rather, what I wanted to talk about here is what I love about the song and its many renditions.

Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel gave the world something that has never been fully recognized, I think. Now, I enjoy folk music and several of its most recognizable proponents, but I cannot deny the inherent sanctimony of a lot of Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan’s most famous tunes. Sure, these were protest songs, and the subjective “us versus them” attitude was an obvious tack, but over time, some of these songs lost luster. Some lost it because of modern cynicism: “Yes, you’re outraged over this Tower of Babel. Where were you when it was being built? Is singing about it all you can do now?” Others lost it because of an overbearing quaintness, hymns to Ralph Waldo Emerson that smacked of being so out of touch, they might as well be alien transmissions.

So when Simon & Garfunkel burst on the scene, they freed up the voice and acoustic guitar from the tyranny of the right-minded (or the left, thinking politically). Their songs could be political, but they could also be nonsensical, traditional, and deep in their hearts they were always pop stars like their heroes the Everly Brothers; when they approached thorny material, Paul Simon did so as a writer, Art Garfunkel as a choir singer. When the duo was matched with a crack staff of Columbia’s studio musicians, the mass psychosis that plagued Dylan’s efforts in going electric didn’t affect the pair. Their saving grace was not simplicity but subtlety.

This all comes through on Live 1969, a collection of recordings from a tour concurrent with their finishing Bridge Over Troubled Water that year. They were on the verge of an acrimonious breakup that would result in years of sniping, famously documented in a “reunion” on the first season of Saturday Night Live in 1975. Fortunately, that subsurface nastiness is nowhere to be found here. Instead, the focus is hard set on the songs of two voices and often one guitar. You couldn’t get more traditional folk than that. And when they are backed up by other musicians, it’s never superfluous. The clearest example is when Garfunkel takes the stage, backed only by piano, to perform “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” Just as poignant is “The Sound of Silence,” the song originally intended for the stark folk treatment, then later filled in with studio musicians to produce the rock tune we recognize today. In it’s rawest, live incarnation, nothing is lost because it was always there from the start. When Simon palm-mutes the strings and thumps out a beat while moving toward the end section, it becomes as epic as anything they’ve ever done.

Pete Seeger: The Power of Song
purchase this DVD (Amazon)

You need to see this movie.

He’s happily existed on the outskirts of the pop culture landscape for the last few decades, but Pete Seeger’s influence is still deeply felt — and his music still resonates. Jim Brown’s excellent 2007 documentary, now reaching DVD for the first time, offers a wonderfully comprehensive overview of Seeger’s long career without sacrificing focus or momentum; even without prior knowledge of Seeger’s recorded output, anyone with a soul should find The Power of Song instantly absorbing.

Of course, even if you don’t know you’ve heard Seeger’s stuff, you probably have; his voluminous catalog includes a wide array of standards, both those he’s popularized and those he’s written (the latter category includes “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?”, “If I Had a Hammer,” and “Turn! Turn! Turn!”). He’s one of the most beloved living folksingers in the world — which must be particularly sweet for Seeger, seeing as how he was blacklisted for nearly 20 years after having the guts to stand up to Joe McCarthy at the HUAC hearings — and censored by CBS for daring to perform “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy” on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. Yes, America, long before there was such a thing as a Dixie Chick, suits in boardrooms were terrified of a man with a banjo.

The Power of Song makes its case for Seeger with a stack of archival footage, some from Seeger’s own collection, and a series of interviews with artists he’s inspired, including Dylan, Springsteen, Peter, Paul & Mary, Bonnie Raitt, Arlo Guthrie, Joan Baez, and — of course — Natalie Maines. But Brown is careful to avoid didacticism; the movie is as inspirational and entertaining as it is informative, anchored throughout by appearances from Seeger himself, filmed as he wanders the grounds of the upstate New York property he purchased in 1949, where he and his wife of 65 years still reside.

Ah, the fourth quarter. It isn’t as much of an event as it used to be, but even as the music industry crumbles to dust before our very eyes, artists and labels continue to focus on the last few months of the year for the biggest glut of high-profile releases on the calendar, and 2008 is no exception.

Rather than punishing your eyes with a comprehensive fall music preview, or soliciting input from everyone on the staff, I decided to put together a list of the titles I’m either looking forward to (Lindsey Buckingham, Brian Wilson), need to hear to satisfy some dark, unexplained urge (Gym Class Heroes, Queen), or simply find interesting for some reason (Todd Rundgren, AC/DC). If you’ve been waiting for someone to tell you how to spend the “music” portion of your discretionary income for the next few months, look no further — without further ado, here’s my list of 21 fall releases to watch for.

Rodney Crowell – Sex & Gasoline (Yep Roc, September 2)

In which one of country’s most freewheeling (read: consistently interesting) songwriters hooks up with Yep Roc for a song cycle that, if the press kit is to be trusted, is “about women.” You can be certain the songs do more than just live up to that simple billing, especially with titles like “The Rise and Fall of Intelligent Design” — and as an added bonus, our pal Joe Henry was behind the boards (and does a duet with Crowell on one track, “I’ve Done All That I Can”). What, you don’t like country? Yeah, me neither. But I’m buying this.