I first heard Pete Seeger on a mono record player at a friend’s tiny flat in Calcutta. It was sometime in the early or mid-1970s. My friend, with whom I have long lost touch, along with his entire family, was a deep supporter of the Communist Party of India and a huge fan of Pete Seeger and Paul Robeson.
The record that my friend, older than me by a few years, made me listen to was called Songs of Struggle and Protest 1930-50 and after he put it on the tinny sounding record player, I remember him shutting his eyes reverentially as song after song played.
The song I recall most from that album was Joe Hill, which I’ve heard many people sing versions of, including, of course, Joan Baez’s famous rendition of it at Woodstock in 1969. I later learnt that the song itself wasn’t a Seeger original but written as a poem by Alfred Hayes in 1930 and turned into a song by Earl Robinson, who, like Seeger, was a singer and composer with Communist leanings.
Anyway that first experience with Seeger’s music didn’t really have a major impact on me, given that at that time I was already swaying more toward songs like Happiness Is A Warm Gun (The Beatles, The White Album), Sister Morphine (The Rolling Stones, Sticky Fingers), Kosmik Debris (Frank Zappa, Apostrophe) and their ilk. I was, obviously, hanging with the wrong ‘uns in school.
But growing up in Calcutta in the 1970s, you couldn’t avoid listening to Seeger. While the Left Front had still not started its dream (or nightmare?) run in West Bengal that began in 1977 and is only now beginning to show signs of waning, the dominant colour of student politics was red that came in ever deepening hues. And Seeger, along with Baez and Robeson, was a folk hero.
So, when I heard that Seeger would be headlining the Newport Folk Festival’s 50th anniversary on August 1 and 2, I was naturally curious. More so, because I knew he had turned 90 this year. I wondered how his famous split tenor (somewhere between an alto and a tenor) voice would sound at this age. Thanks to the Internet, I could actually check it out on live webcasts where on two nights, Seeger, with help from his grandson, singer Tao Rodriguez-Seeger and host of other musicians, led spirited sing-along sessions that the audience joined in with great gusto. True, his voice sounded a bit frail but his spirits and remarkable wit made up for it. There are free downloads available here and also here.
Indeed during August 1 and 2 as well as in the following couple of weeks, I actually over-dosed on Newport Folk Festival. To mark the 50th anniversary of the festival, which is held on Rhode Island, the organizers had first invited Bob Dylan, a staple at early Newport fests, including in 1965 when he had gone electric at the festival and alienated many of his erstwhile “folk” fans. Mister Dylan, however, is believed to have declined the invitation. Seeger, a co-founder of the festival, agreed and so did Joan Baez. As did R&B great Mavis Staples, who, I discovered, at 70 still has enough power in her voice to bring the house down. Another folk music great, Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, now 78, and considered, along with the late Woody Guthrie, to be a great influence on Dylan, also performed at this year’s fest. I caught them all via the web and thoroughly enjoyed the shows. Incidentally, Woody’s son, Arlo had a nice long gig at Newport too this year. And I caught them all via the web and thoroughly enjoyed the shows.
But there were many contemporary musicians too at this year’s Newport festival. The Avett Brothers, a folk rock band from North Carolina, who play folk with a lot of raw energy, played songs from their soon-to-be-released album, I and Love and You. Their brand of folk is unique—it has a punk and grunge twist and is highly adrenalin charged. Other new, at least newish, acts worth checking out, included The Decemberists, who delved into their back catalogue as well as more recent playlists to give a crowd-arousing performance; Gillian Welch and her partner David Rawlings played an enjoyable set, including a reverb-soaked version of Jefferson Airplane’s White Rabbit; and Neko Case, the highly talented singer (earlier with Canadian rock band, The New Pornographers), who performed songs from her new album Middle Cyclone.
But my new discovery from the Newport 2009 sessions was a young band from Rhode Island itself called Deer Tick. They play a blend of folk, blues and country but with the same kind of endearing haphazard, slapped-together feel of grunge bands. They are just two small-batch albums old, but a band that I’m going to follow.
All in all, I’d say it was a good Newport 50th anniversary. And talking of anniversaries, as you read this we’ll be bang in the middle of another one—the 40th for Woodstock 1969 (held during August 15-18 that year). I haven’t heard of a concert to celebrate that event but a new box set of six CDs with 38 previously unreleased tracks is out. It’s called Woodstock—40 Years On: back to Yasgur’s Farm. Go get it!
Listen to ‘virtual’ tracks: