Mike IversonMusic, clawhammer banjo, and more...

Music, clawhammer banjo, and more...

A Folksinger’s Perspective...


Pete Seeger

When asked about the artists who have influenced my music, I immediately think of Doc Watson.  When asked which artists have had a profound impact, not only on my music but on my life, another name comes to mind: Pete Seeger. 

If I'd never had the opportunity to hear his music, but had access to his writings and could have observed the way he's lived his life, Pete's example would have still helped shape me into the person I am today. 

For example...

One Christmas morning I opened a present given to me by my daughter, Heather.  Inside the box was a bumper sticker with a message that read "Use Less Stuff".  It was the perfect gift.  Heather said "as soon as I saw it, I thought of you dad".  Pete has lived a minimalist's life and his example has rubbed off on me.  This is the power that Seeger has over those who have come under his influence.

This isn't to say Pete hasn't influenced my music as well, for he has, and his musical influence extends far beyond just me; almost anyone involved with "roots music", whether they know it or not, owes Pete a hugh debt of gratitude.  Do I dare suggest that without Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie there might not have been a folk revival and the subsequent popularity of "Americana" music (singer/songwriter, bluegrass, old-time, folk, cowboy, folk-rock, etc.) that we enjoy today?

Here's a just few ways in which Pete has inspired me personally.

  • I'm best know for my clawhammer banjo instruction site featuring an on-line collection of banjo tablature.  Pete published what I believe to be the first "modern" banjo method and pioneered the use of tablature (although a couple of banjo methods from the late 1800s used a primitive version of tab). It was this book, 'How To Play The Five String Banjo', which started me on my banjo journey.  The first edition was self published in 1948. With the help of his family, Pete reworked and expanded the book into the 1962 edition which has since sold over 100,000 copies.

  • I use the banjo more than any other instrument to accompany my voice, even when performing solo.  Pete was the first solo act I remember hearing who used the banjo to back the voice.

  • Being a baritone, I find the extra range offered by a "long-neck" banjo to be invaluable.  When Pete modified his banjo by adding three additional frets, he essentially INVENTED the long-neck banjo.

  • I'm very vocal (and opinionated) about our county and feel every citizen has an obligation to discuss and debate it's policies and politics.  Pete's passion and unceasing work toward social change (civil rights, environmentalism, nonviolence, etc) is more than just inspiring; it's legendary.

  • I love all forms of american folk music, from cowboy ballads to the blues.  Pete, in a very real way, pioneered the "folk" revival of the 50s and 60's which opened the door for most other forms of "Americana" (bluegrass, old-time, singer-songwriter, etc.).

  • I don't like the idea that clawhammer banjo is usually labeled as an "old-time" style.  I believe clawhammer has as much to contribute to rock, blues, classical, country, or any other style of music as it does to “oldtimey” music.  Pete has always been an innovator when it comes to the banjo, and his book introduced me to all sorts of non-traditional songs and techniques.

The Good Fight

Historically, folk songs (and singers) have been at the fore front of many of the social movements that have helped us grow as a people.  These songs were the voice of the civil rights movement, they educated the public on environmental concerns, they helped the working class poor fight off an oppressive "american aristocracy" and truly helped make America a "land of equal opportunity". 

Pete Seeger 2
I believe that this marriage of folk song and social reform is at its best when the songs come, not from professional singers, but from those fighting the good fight each and everyday.  Once heard, who could ever forget the haunting refrain of "We Will Overcome" as sung at civil rights protests?

This isn't to say that professional singers can't play an important role in the bringing about societal change, and they often lend their support to these causes.  Some, such as Pete Seeger, have taken a more active role and actually put their reputations and careers on the line supporting the causes they believe in.

Here’s an excerpt from the testimony Pete gave in 1955 when he was dragged in front of the House Committee on Un-American Activities after being accused of singing for an organization with communist ties:

Mr. TAVENNER: It is a fact that he so testified. I want to know whether or not you were engaged in a similar type of service to the Communist Party in entertaining at these features.(Witness consulted with counsel.)

Mr. SEEGER: I have sung for Americans of every political persuasion, and I am proud that I never refuse to sing to an audience, no matter what religion or color of their skin, or situation in life. I have sung in hobo jungles, and I have sung for the Rockefellers, and I am proud that I have never refused to sing for anybody. That is the only answer I can give along that line.

(Read more at: History Matters)

More testimony...
Pete Seeger 3

Chairman WALTER: What is your answer?

Mr. SEEGER: I will tell you what my answer is. I feel that in my whole life I have never done anything of any conspiratorial nature and I resent very much and very deeply the implication of being called before this Committee that in some way because my opinions may be different from yours, or yours, Mr. Willis, or yours, Mr. Scherer, that I am any less of an American than anybody else. I love my country very deeply, sir.

Chairman WALTER: Why don’t you make a little contribution toward preserving its institutions?

Mr. SEEGER: I feel that my whole life is a contribution. That is why I would like to tell you about it.

Chairman WALTER: I don’t want to hear about it.

(Read more at: History Matters)

This inquisition, spearheaded by Sen. Joe McCarthy and carried forward by his colleague in the House, was (and is) something no citizen of this country should ever be subjected to.  America’s greatness lies in the freedom to associate with ANY religion, philosophy, or political organization without fear of reprisal.  Even though no longer affiliated with the American Communist Party, Pete was still “blacklisted” and subsequently banned from any television appearances for seventeen years!  It was one of our country’s darkest moments when the lives of so many of it’s citizens were permanently damaged by actions taken by Congress because they were sympathetic to the communist cause.  In the United States, you have a fundamental right to belong to any political party without the threat that some fanatic in the House or Senate will destroy your life because you don’t happen to agree with his or her personal political philosophy.

I can't understand how some folks, to this day, can't understand that Pete's politics have simply evolved along with the changes in our society and that he realized, long ago, that communism doesn’t work in the real world.  Pete himself has said that "if by some freak of history communism had caught up with this country, I would have been one of the first people thrown in jail"...

AMERICAN MASTERS | Pete Seeger: The Power of... by pbs_usa

Pete turned ninety in a year which saw him singing Woody Guthrie's "This Land Is Your Land" at the inauguration of this nation's first President with African American ancestry.  I can't imagine anything more fitting...

Now in his nineties, Pete is still writing songs and "fighting the good fight" as can be heard in this song about Martin Luther King:

In this time of great social upheaval (economic crisis, two wars, health care reform, illegal immigration, etc), I can't help but wonder: where are the songs and singers to help bring these fights to the public's attention?

Fortunately there are some still raising their voices, and being heard.  On the issue of universal health care, Peter Yarrow (Peter, Paul, & Mary) recently wrote:
"When we are sick we are most vulnerable and, in truth, a nation's decency is most truthfully revealed in the ways it treats its most vulnerable and needy. We are the only nation that fought in the second World War (WWII) that does not yet have universal health care (except for the elderly through Medicare). Now is the time for America to join with other nations in this humane and just perspective, not only for our good citizens, but also to show the world that we are not so mean-spirited as to withhold treatment from those who cannot afford it. Through Medicare we who are older get the care we need, no matter what. Should we not extend this fundamental right to all? To children, to the poor, and to all who need it? Let us sing "This Land" and other such songs that express our gratitude for our country, not to confront or protest the absence of an equitable health care system, rather to affirm our commitment to allowing all Americans the right of affordable medical care."

Here’s a link to the rest of the article: The Huffington Post

We Shall Overcome at Newport
Peter Yarrow on far left (appropriately)
Pete Seeger, second from far right (ironically)

As a child growing up in the sixties, even elementary school was a weird experience.  Did anyone else have a bomb shelter in their school’s basement and have drills on what to do in case of a nuclear attack?  What exactly were we being taught (other than “sight words” instead of phonetics)?  This clip about sums it up:

As I search back through my earliest childhood memories, I realize that the first song that made a lasting impression on me was one of Pete's; the powerful anti-war message of "Where Have All The Flowers Gone" still resonates with me today...

Mike Iverson

Pete's Banjo

Throughout history, the leaders of countries have been very particular of what songs should be sung. We know the power of songs.” - Pete Seeger

"This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender" - written on the  the head of Pete Seeger’s banjo