I’ve been playing folk music professionally for most of my adult life, and while I have many people to thank for that, there are few to whom I owe a greater debt than Pete Seeger. So I was very happy to be a part of a group of musicians who celebrated Seeger’s ninetieth birthday at the Ark last May. Nine of us, one for each decade of Seeger’s life, shared the stage in a concert titled “For Pete’s Sake!” paying homage to the man who has been the face and voice of American folk music for well over a half century. In true Seeger tradition, we–Chris Buhalis, Kitty Donohoe, Gemini (my brother Laz and myself), Mustard’s Retreat (David Tamulevich & Michael Hough), Dick Siegel, Paul Tinkerhess, and Matt Watroba–led the packed house in singing Seeger-penned classics like “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” “If I Had a Hammer,” and “Kisses Sweeter Than Wine,” as well as some of the countless traditional and contemporary, American and international folk songs from Seeger’s enormous song bag. In our introductions to the songs, we told stories of Seeger’s long, eventful, and influential life and of his impact on our own music.
A few highlights; first, please forgive a dad’s pride. In a very clear case of the apple not falling far from the tree, my daughter took the night off from working on her eighth-grade project, “Protest Songs of the Sixties,” and sang “There’s a Hole in the Bucket” with me. She delivered the eye-rolling scolding that Henry gets from Liza with teenaged perfection. This year, when my brother and I take our turns leading songs, she’ll join us, forming what may look like a multigenerational Peter, Paul, and Mary.
In preparing for last year’s concert, many of us resurrected Seeger songs we’d not sung in awhile–and even made new discoveries. Turns out, as Dick Siegel said, before delivering a stunning version of the song, “It wasn’t Judy Collins who wrote ‘Turn, Turn, Turn.'” When Tamulevich sang “My Dirty Stream,” he noted that Seeger anticipated the environmental movement by quite a few years when he wrote that tune in 1961. Seeger is legendary for adapting, changing, and modifying folk songs. The term “folk process” could have been invented for him, and a number of us have followed in his footsteps. Hough added hilarious verses about our George W. Bush to “Worried Man Blues.”
The Seeger birthday concerts seem likely to become an annual Ark event. This year, mostly the same musicians will be on stage (that’ll probably change in the future), but it won’t be hard to come up with a different show. We’d be hard pressed to find a folk song that is not a “Pete Seeger song.” And while we don’t need to, we probably will repeat some songs. For Pete’s sake, what’s a Seeger tribute without “Goodnight Irene” or “We Shall Overcome”? We have agreed on one condition, though: none of us will lead songs we led last year. That way even the same songs will sound different.
The second annual “For Pete’s Sake!” is on Thursday, May 6 (see Nightspots).