During the past two or three weeks, PBS has been showing the film “Pete Seeger: The Power Of Song” on its national network. I hope many of you have had a chance to see that, or if not, that you may have a friend who’s recorded it, because it provides a link to how bluegrass first entered a lot of city dwellers’ consciousness.
To a lot of city-dwellers, it was the brilliant, sparkling sound of “Scruggs-Style” banjo picking that first caught our ears, leading us through that low garden door through the barrier wall of pop music into the then-secret place called bluegrass. And it was Pete Seeger, now remembered mainly for his song leading political activism, that first brought Scrugg’s three-fingered banjo technique into our realm in his book “How To Play The Five-String Banjo”. Pete had fallen in love with the sound of a banjo from a 1936 visit to a folk festival in Asheville, North Carolina. There he found Bascom Lamar Lunsford, a local attorney and a complete mountain music fan who helped run the festival and played a mean two-fingered banjo roll himself. Bascom’s recording of “I Wish I Was A Mole In The Ground” is still one of my favorite banjo songs, and effectively disproves the adage that thirty lawyers, buried up to the necks at the bottom of the ocean is a good start.
Seeger had been taken down to North Carolina by his father Charles who hoped to inoculate his son into the lore of mountain music. Though living in the Washington DC area at that time, Charles Seeger was no stranger to California, teaching at UC Berkeley in the teens of the last century. As he explained to me in 1965, “I began as a musicologist studying opera and other western classical musics, but slowly came to realize that the area I was familiar with covered less than five percent of the world’s music.” His decision to investigate what the rest of the world was up to, musically-speaking, resulted in the foundation of an entirely new discipline of study, ethnomusicology. By becoming aware of music from central Asia and the middle-east for example, we find instruments not unrelated to that enigmatic five string banjo we now associate with bluegrass. (But that’s another story, as Tom Ashley used to say, and perhaps we’ll cover that in a forthcoming column.) Charles got his son Pete connected up with Alan Lomax, who was then busily collecting as music folk music as he could from the people who made it as a part of their lives. Pete helped select banjo field recordings from the holdings of the Library of Congress for issuance as 78 RPM records to be made available to the general public, thereby hearing an amazing range of great banjo tunes and songs performed by the likes of Wade Ward and Thaddeus C. Willingham.
I met Charles Seeger at (I believe) the 1965 edition of the Berkeley Folk Festival, produced by Barry Olivier and friends. Charles, attired in British khaki shirt and shorts, was hanging out with other folklorists, such as Carl Erskin and DK Wilgus, speaking about things which I had begun to take great interest in. It was a revelation that people actually studied such music seriously, as my efforts along such lines had been made essentially on my own. I’d met his son Pete four years earlier in Chicago, while I was working at the Field Museum of Natural History in the botany department. I rented a room on the near north side and took the “El” down to the Loop and out to the lakefront. It was fun going to work in a huge Roman Temple, even when its steps were covered in ice. At any rate, I had met a man named Bob Parrish, an editor and author, who specialized in works on magic. As it turned out, he was an old friend of Pete’s, stemming from the time they both served in the army on Saipan during WW II, entertaining troops with music and card tricks. It was at a concert “The Seeger Family Reunion” that I first got a chance to hear a lot of fine music, and a chance to meet and visit with several Seegers, including Pete, Penny, Peggy, and Mike.
Pete, on hearing all that great banjo music at the Congress’s Library (isn’t it a pity those Congresspersons don’t ever bother to listen?), quickly took up the instrument and decided to get others to play too. His banjo instruction book, written in a time when there were no banjo instruction methods except Eddie Peabody’s, made a huge difference in the instrument’s acceptance in areas outside the Appalachian region. His half brother Mike helped Pete annotate Scrugg’s three finger rolls near the end of the 3rd edition of that book. Bill Kieth is one player who remembers being introduced to the style by that paperback work, priced around $3.50 as I recall.
For those interested in following up on some of the music involved in this story, I would strongly recommend that they visit the website of the Library of Congress (LOC.gov), specifically the Archive of Folk Song or “Folklife” as they now call it. Back in the days of “BC” (before computers), the Library used to issue 78 and later 33-1/3 RPM discs from their collections. Now, many of their sound archives are available for listening on-line, presuming you have a good internet connection. Also available is a quarterly publication, the “Folklife Center News”, the last two issues of which have great articles on the whole Seeger family. Downloadable PDF files are available at: http://www.loc.gov/folklife/news/index.html