Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Helluva Hootenanny

It isn't every Monday night that a musicologist with ties to folk royalty hits Richmond.

But tonight was UR's annual Neumann lecture and the speaker was Tony Seeger, UCLA professor emeritus and director emeritus of the Smithsonian Folkways Recordings.

Not to mention Pete Seeger's nephew, so given the legend's death last week, we got part music talk, "Is Music Prophetic or Reflexive? Music, Activism and Social Change," and part family tribute to his uncle.

Walking in to Camp Concert hall at UR, I heard a woman motioning a friend to her row with the entreaty, "This is the 'Hootenanny' crowd."

I have to assume what she meant was here were the people old enough to remember when Pete Seeger was blacklisted from the "Hootenanny" TV show for his overly left wing views.

I didn't qualify, so I sat elsewhere, but I did spot a row of WRIR DJs front and center.

Coming onstage, Seeger used a banjo ("My travel banjo," he called it. "It didn't travel too well") and a computer to give a lively talk and singalong about protest music and his uncle.

It was a far-ranging talk starting with his assumption that all cultures had protest music. Not so, he discovered while studying Brazilian music which had not only no protest songs, but no children's songs or love songs.

Refusing to sing or dance constituted protest for Brazilians, a novel concept to a mouthy culture like ours.

He put the lyrics to "We Shall Not Be Moved" on the screen and then played banjo and led us in singing it, encouraging us first to be louder and then to try it with harmony

"The experience of singing together is part of what this talk is about," he said.

Discussing whether protest music was reflective (like the laments of the blues) or prophetic (music that gives direction or information and leads to change), he showed a quote to explain the power of music.

"People read a pamphlet only once but sing a song a thousand times," said Joe Hill, an IWW member and songwriter of the early 1900s.

Explaining that political parties had songbooks up until the '20s or '30s, he sang one about John Quincy Adams and how if he wasn't elected, Satan was coming.

Imagine what they could have come up with for Nixon or W.

Saying that the union movement was a singing movement because it was more fun for unionizers to sing than to listen to speakers, he proceeded to sing "Union Maid" about a female worker.

Having firmly grounded us in protest musicology, he got down to family business with a picture of the Seeger clan backstage at Carnegie Hall in 1963.

In it, he was a teen and I'm sure to the students in the room there was no resemblance between the young man in the photograph and the one on stage 50 years older.

He said the key to protest music's role was what it meant to people and that was affected by all kinds of factors: changing the speed of the song, the volume, or even the place and time.

To illustrate his point, he played Hendrix's rendition of "The Star Spangled Banner" at Woodstock, something I am embarrassed to say I've heard but never seen.

I was mesmerized by how beautiful his hands were, the fingers long and expressive, but not everyone was.

When the lights came up, half the students were grinning like fools and the other half were texting, ignoring the performance all together.

Does it say something about me that I wanted to slap the phones out of their hands and banish them from the room because they were not worthy?


Seeger made the point that even when no words were sung, changing the speed and place of the anthem amounted to using sound to make a statement.

He showed another video clip about Seeger's civil rights movement work, singing "We Shall Overcome."

The footage of Pete Seeger had him saying all he'd done was add a few verses and change "will" to "shall" and that he'd gotten far too much credit for that song.

Everyone else interviewed disagreed, saying him singing it had played a huge role in the movement.

We even saw a short clip of him singing "If I Had a Hammer," to a school group, a song I remember singing in music class in elementary school.

And throughout the videos and the talk, Tony Seeger would periodically have us singing "We Shall Not Be Moved" again and again.

Pete Seeger's last big effort had been years spent in getting the Hudson River cleaned up, so he'd built a sloop called "Clearwater" and performed on it up and down the river so people would notice how polluted it was and start cleaning it up.

No surprise, it worked and the river became swimmable and clean again.

The talk couldn't end until we sang together some more and harmonized one last time, his final slide saying, "Sing together," a message that might as well have come from his uncle.

During the Q & A, someone asked why Seeger had gotten so angry with Dylan when he went electric for the first time at the Newport Folk Fest.

When Seeger began with, "Well, I was 17 or 18 and I was there," I knew we were in for a good story.

He explained that part of the beauty of Newport was that it was a democratic event with all performers being paid the same and no one getting more attention or time than anyone else.

So when Dylan plugged in at an all-acoustic festival, his music became louder than everyone else's.

And since there weren't supposed to be electric instruments, the equipment wasn't designed for anything but acoustic. "The sound was an unholy mess," Seeger recalled, unpleasant and muddy. "it became an unequal field for the other musicians."

Imagine hearing first-hand why Pete Seeger took issue with Dylan for plugging in from someone who not only was there, but talked to his uncle about it afterwards.

Man, I love me some musicology.

After that kind of excitement, I could hardly go home so I stopped by the Camel to catch the last band of a three-band set.

Quintet Clair Morgan was getting set up, so I talked to the dance party king about the local DJ scene and the pot roast his brother had made him for dinner.

I checked in with the friend I'd seen Saturday night to see if he'd followed through on his plans to sleep in and take a bike ride in yesterday's glorious warmth.

Yes to the first, no to the ride, but he had spent the afternoon on his porch and proudly shared that he'd left his phone at work the day before, so he'd not only had porch time but a phone-free day.

Kind of like every day for me.

The band was having problems with their computer, eventually electing to start even though it wasn't working, meaning some songs were absent the ambient sound the computer provides.

But Clair's voice, songwriting and guitar playing are all stellar, so the band rallied around and made do without technology.

Toward the end, he taught the crowd a line for us to sing and had us practice, so I found myself once again singing together with others.

Instructing us to sing louder once he began the rest of the song, he said, "You, guy-on-a-first-date, sing really loud and she'll be impressed. So impressed she'll go out for coffee with you."

Maybe even come to your apartment and listen to Sigur Ros with you. Eventually move in.

As I learned tonight, such is the power of singing together.

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