Season 1 EPISODE 1 TRANSCRIPTION
It didn’t happen that often that Pete Seeger mis-read an audience. In fact, few were better at the art of drawing a small or large crowd together—united by song and the sound of singers rising and blending together, hinting at the hope of a unified voice. Here’s Pete explaining this technique from an interview I did with him in the Autumn of 2008, in his 89th year.
Clip Amazing Grace
But in October of 1962— 8 months before his historic concert at Carnegie Hall—Pete found himself in Albany Georgia to give a concert and demonstrate the power of community singing for a cause.
Albany Georgia in 1962 was the site of a thousand arrests. They seemed seemed poised for a race riot. Dr. King had been arrested along with dozens of other clergy. Churches and crosses were burning and Pete was answering an invitation to sing at a black church—the same evening, by the way, that James Meredith—accompanied by hundreds of National Guard soldiers—was registering as the first black student at the University of Mississippi.
According to biographer David King Dunaway, Pete did something that night he didn’t often do back then— he made a set-list—he planned in advance what he would sing and say about his experience adapting and singing songs for the labor movement. They were already singing when he arrived.
Clip: Singing from the movement
In fact, a strong singing movement was already in place, and it didn’t take long for Pete to realize that there would be more to learn here than there would be to teach. Between the spontaneous musical outbursts, Pete heard horrific stories of the struggles going on in the area and then…more singing.
Clip: More Civil Rights Singing
Here it is in Pete’s words, “There I was, repeating the same unrhythmic melody over and over with little or no variation…I sang with a deadpan expression purposely not to detract from the words, and this only made the melody seem more boring to them.”
The only song that seemed to land with the audience was “We Shall Overcome,” a song Pete had a hand in adapting from an old spiritual that was changed for the labor movement and again for the Civil Rights movement. It was during the performance of this song Pete gave it all to the audience to sing.
Pete spent the rest of his life thinking back to that concert as a failure. Out of this failure though, Pete’s commitment to singing these songs and spreading the message of the movement strengthened. He learned what all great song leaders learn at some point. These songs, this act of singing together, is not about the the song leader—it’s about the singers.
He had a chance to show off what he learned in front of a sold-out crowd on June 8, 1963 at New York City’s Carnegie Hall—and, lucky for us, Columbia records was there to record the entire evening.
Crowd to opening banjo tune clip
When We Shall Overcome was released in 1963, the LP contained thirty six minutes and fifty eight seconds of a program, when unedited, was 9 minutes short of an hour and a half. Almost 45 minutes was cut to fit the Long Play format. That was all we had to go on until 1989 when an expanded version came out as an unedited 2 CD set. It Was called We Shall Overcome: The complete Carnegie Hall Concert. Throughout our time together, I will be referring to both of these releases (it’s just too hard not to) but I will stick to the original one as much as possible.
Audience sounds clip
The Civil Rights Movement wasn’t the only thing Pete Seeger sang about on June 8, 1962 at Carnegie Hall, but that is how the 1963 version begins.
If you Miss Me clip
While Pete was in Albany, Georgia the autumn before he took notes like a journalist on the songs being sung—all the variations and versions he could collect:
The “wobble” Clip
And of course he included the tried and true spirituals co-opted and adapted to reflect what was going on down there—even while this concert was taking place.
Keep Your Eyes on the Prize and Oh Freedom Clip
If it sounds like the audience catches on quickly, it’s because Pete had a whole gang of singers, rehearsed and on stage and that didn’t seem to intimidate the singing audience in the slightest.
In the unedited version of the concert, this set of songs from the movement closed out the first half. Prior to this, Pete warms up the audience with a banjo tune, sings two old ballads, a Woody Guthrie children’s song, and then introduces the audience to the relatively new songwriting voices of Malvina Reynolds, Bob Dylan, and Tom Paxton.
Play Paxton intro clip
I played that clip just in case Tom was listening to the podcast—he told me once he just can’t get enough of Pete calling him young. On the LP, Paxton’s “What Did You Learn In School Today is up next.
Although many of the songs Pete introduced that night are considered folk standards now, you can tell by the fresh reaction from the crowd that they were most likely hearing them for the first time. That includes the Malvina Reynolds classic, “Little Boxes.” Notice there is no applause when the song starts
Little Boxes Clip
And then the reaction when it’s over:
Little Boxes end clip
Side one ends with a perfectly paired set of songs, Who Killed Norma Jean—a poem by Norman Rosten set to music by Pete, and Bob Dylan’s Who Killed Davey Moore a song about the boxer who died from injuries sustained in the ring about 2 and a half months before this concert.
Side two opens with Bob Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s A-gonna Fall.” Dylan wrote this song the Summer before and debuted it on the Carnegie Hall stage in the autumn of 1962 as part of a big Hootenanny organized by Seeger. It appeared on Dylan’s second studio recording, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan released just short of two weeks before this Seeger performance.
Hard Rain Clip
The 1963 LP continues with Woody’s Mail Myself To You. It sounds like the audience is hearing that one for the first time as well. Same with a song that has become a Pete Seeger classic, Guantanamera—not the first New York City performance, but close. Pete performed it a month earlier on the same stage as part of a Weaver’s reunion concert.
The record concludes with the title track, We Shall Overcome” edited down to five minutes and fifty-eight seconds from the original eight minutes, 14. On the unedited version, 90 seconds of that is enthusiastic applause. That’s because it was the second set closer, but not the end of the concert. Pete came back to play two Leadbelly songs, Mr. Tom Hughes’ Town, and Bring Me Lil Water Sylvy, before bringing the house down with Guatanemera.
CLIP: McCutcheon Guatanemera
When I originally reached out to my friends and acquaintances in the folk music community to comment on their personal choices for most influential record, Pete Seeger’s We Shall Overcome made several short lists. No one was as enthusiastic as John McCutcheon.
McCutcheon Well May The World
Born in Wisconsin in 1952, John discovered old-time Southern music in his 20s. He toured throughout the south soaking up the traditions and learning the songs. He became a prolific songwriter releasing over 40 albums since his original release in 1975.
McCutcheon clip Featherbed
Multi-instrumentalest, storyteller, recording artist and stage performer, John McCutcheon is revered as one of the best the folk music world has to offer. He has lived up to that reputation for decades. I asked John if he remembered hearing We Shall Overcome for the first time.
Oh, I can tell you exactly when it was, because it was July 1st, 1966. And I know that because my youngest brother was born on that day. I was the eldest of, or still am, the eldest of nine. My mother had eight kids in nine years and then she took a five-year, what she thought was the end. It turned out to merely be a hiatus.
And she had, uh, she went to the hospital and I was 13 and I saw I was old enough to sort of be left in charge. So I left my sister Mary, the next in line, in charge of the other six. And I Schwined my way down to the main music store in our little hometown. And I bought this album. It was the first album I ever bought with my own money.
Saved up from my paper route it was that Pete Seeger, we shall overcome album. And I didn't know who Pete Seeger was, but I knew the song because it had been on the news. And this was not the kind of thing that you, you didn't hear music on the news, but my mother had made me sit down two years earlier or three years earlier and watch the March on Washington.
The connection between hearing the song, We Shall Overcome on the news and then on the record ra n deep:
It sounded like a hymn, but I knew it wasn't a hymn. I grew up in a very religious family, so I knew lots of hymns, but I also knew that hymns almost without fail, rely on singular pronouns. And this song was had the, the spiritual heft of a hymn, but it was plural and that was really powerful. So I wanted that song and I took it home and we had that iconic appliance of the 1960s, the Hi-Fi, you know, with the little crappy television in the middle and a crappy radio on one side and the crappy phonograph on the other. And I sat down and I listened to this album. And it was not at all. I had expected, I don't know really what I expected, but it was a live recording of course, of a concert, and I had never been to a concert, so I didn't know what happened at them. This was a complete surprise. I thought I knew what concerts were—a bunch of people watching somebody show off, and this wasn't that at all. I mean the first song or two, was Pete, you know, playing the banjo and singing Lady Margaret, but then he got everybody singing and it was remarkable.
Clip of group harmony
And it was a harmony and everything, and people singing at the, you know, it's just singing out and I grew up Catholic and I didn't know that human beings could sound that way. Just being so invested in the music. And then there was the songs themselves, and he sang a whole bunch of songs by other writers. It took a long time for him to sing a song that he had written. And if you think about it from this perspective now, how many people who write songs would go out there and do the entire first half of their show with traditional songs and songs composed by other people? Pete, from the very beginning, had a different mission.
I remember that being the day after the 10th listening of this album, at first I wanted to be a part of that audience and then I thought, I want to do that. I, I want to be able to create this event that involves people and moves people and brings the world inside and tells everybody that I'm not doing this on my own. Here's Bob Dylan, Here’s, you know, Tom Paxton.
Well May Instr.
Beyond the incredible scope of the songs and traditions on We Shall Overcome was the opportunity to be witness to pure stagecraft—the programming of the sets and the focus on participation:
I think any performer who's paying attention to the craft of understanding that a concert is your entire time on stage. It's not just a set list. It's what ties these things together. It’s how the context of one song informs another. Going to a Pete Seeger concert was going into a university classroom.
And this is interesting because as the years went on and I learned more about this performance, he actually had a choir of people behind him on the stage that had, you know, when I heard Scotsolatsa and I thought, oh my God, people are just making this up as they go? No. It was rehearsed. And it was part of the power of encouraging people to sing songs that they hadn't heard.
It's something that people aren't as apt to do these days. Unfortunately, I think that, that part of it, it's, it's one reason that I, so mulishly include songs that everybody (can sing). Because it's kind of like, look what we did, you know, a concert, If you want to get word nerdy about it, can't be defined as one guy showing off for a big crowd of people.
The other is we do things in concert with one another and Pete provided. That definition for me. And yeah, a lot of Pete’s albums were live concert recordings, and I listened to a lot of them, so I don't think it would be unfair to say that I, and a lot of people, learned how to do what we do, by learning from Pete's example, which was so highly skilled. I can tell you as an instrumentalist, he is, he is a superb and inventive banjo player, a really solid 12 string player. Great singer. I mean, listening back to this thing this morning and prep for this conversation, you know, leading (sings) here's to my rambling boy all the way up there. And I performed with Pete when he couldn't do that anymore.
Ramblin Boy clip to Mail Myself to you
Again, as I was listening, I realized that this may have been the first time that a lot of people heard say, Mail Myself To You—and he does a great version of that. And the audience reacts as though they've never heard it. I mean they're laughing during the verses, and it's really, at least on the CD, really extended applause at the end of that song, more than more than most songs. And you just thought, wow, this is really what Thomas Merton calls the virgin point for a lot of this stuff. I mean, where else would a bunch of New Yorkers here If, if You Miss Me at the Back of the Bus? It made what was going on down there real, because this was art coming out of that experience and it would never be reported on in the news. They weren't going to read it in the New York times. No, they had to come to a Pete Seeger concert to make all that real and human.
In a quote from one of Pete Seeger’s columns in Sing Out Magazine, Pete criticized his own recorded output as,
“One of the most uneven bodies of recorded music that any performer could boast of, or perhaps be ashamed of…If one could dub onto a tape a few songs from here or there on his many LPs, one might have quite a good one-hour tape of Pete Seeger. The trouble is, no two people would make the same selections. Therein lies his defense.”
I don't think you can judge a Pete Seeger album like you judge, I don't know, a Bruce Springsteen album. You know, why is he putting that song on cause he's recorded at three different times. His live albums were, as you say, you know, studies in not only in performance, but in community building. I think that what Pete’s albums did, is they made you feel like this whole revival, which he helped spawn and which is when so many people discovered him, was about participation. And, you know, when I first started going around and playing that sense was still there in many of the folk music societies. You know, ‘oh yeah. Some guys come through, we'll put on a show, but really what we're doing is we're holding weekly or monthly jam sessions or singing sessions, or we're doing a thing where we're going to teach people how to play the guitar by just being in a big group and playing real nice and slow. And you can, you know, uh, you know, that was, it was a social activity.