Utopian Turtletop. Monsieur Croche's Bête Noire. Contact: turtletop [at] hotmail [dot] com

Tuesday, January 20, 2004


I bought the current issue of “Sing Out!” magazine because the cover story is on Sister Rosetta Tharpe, and I’ve been interested in her lately. One of the great musicians of the 20th century, a titanic singer, a riveting lead guitarist, and a first-rate bandleader. The article filled me in on aspects of her career I didn’t know about, but per usual it shortshrifted her brilliance as a guitarist and bandleader. I’ll probably post more about Tharpe at another time -- she’s amazing.

You can tell I’ve never read “Sing Out!” by the following sentence. Omigod, Pete Seeger still writes for it! I’ve read a bunch of Pete Seeger’s “Sing Out!” columns and articles in his terrific, argumentative collection, “The Incompleat Folksinger”; I knew he’s still alive; but I didn’t know he was still writing. “The Incompleat Folksinger” is sometimes full of baloney, like when he talks retrospectively about the Weavers getting Number One hits by simply singing the good old songs of the people plain and hearty. Well, that’s true, except that the versions that went to Number One on the Hit Parade had slick orchestrations by one of Frank Sinatra’s more rococo arrangers, the great Gordon Jenkins. Well, when Pete made those claims, it turned out he had just forgotten about old Gordon, and a subsequent mention in the same book from later in his life sheepishly admits his mistake. So props for admitting a mistake.

Along with the argumentation, “The Incompleat Folksinger” has a lot of great tales to tell. Like how when Pete & Woody were barnstorming the country, playing work camps and union halls and wherever they could, in the late ‘30s or early ‘40s. They played a lumberjack camp somewhere in the north country, for a bunch of Scandinavian American lumberjacks. Woody and Pete played a song. Silence. They played another. Dead silence. They played a third. Not a peep. They wrapped up and went to bed. Next morning, a lumberjack approached them and said, I don’t know why you stopped, I could have listened all night, it was so beautiful. (Paraphrased.)

Pete’s still a zippy writer, and his new column is all about the mystery of melody, a belief I fervently subscribe to. He’s still alluding to Woody and Dylan and Arlo, but he’s mellowed since his “folk and only folk” heyday -- now he allows as to how he digs Gershwin and Harold Arlen and people like Schubert too. Great tune writers. As a longtime amateur-sometimes-semi-pro songwriter myself, I’ve learned that you can learn harmony, and you can learn rhythm, but melody is a gift. Pete says that as old as he is (he’s 84 now), if there were a school where he could learn melody, he’d go. And he’s written some great ones -- “Bells of Rhymney” is beautiful. But he may have stolen it, and he wouldn’t mind admitting it if he did, which is only respectable.

One thing I love about Pete, besides that he’s a great musician, he’s never made any bones about being a patrician New Englander. His dad, Charles Seeger was a music professor, a one-time composer in the European-institutional tradition, and an early and influential ethnomusicologist. He pretty much gave up composing to focus on studying the music of “the people.” Pete inherited that, and, eventually, he got to his father’s lack of dogmatism.

The first words of the Introduction to the first widely respected general history of jazz ever written, "The Story of Jazz" by Marshall Stearns, from 1956, is the name “Charles Seeger.” What’s an ethnomusicologist and Euro-tradition composer doing at the beginning of a history of jazz? Here's Stearns:

"Chalres Seeger tells the story of a conference of musicologists after which one of the most famous confided: ' You know, I don't hate jazz; I think it's probably very important and it certainly deserves serious study. The trouble is that all the jazz people treat it as holy, holy, holy!' To this, Seeger replied: ‘Well, now, don’t you consider the area of classical music in which you specialize as holy, too?’ ‘Ah,’ said the musicologist, ‘BUT IT IS!’”

Music is holy, and it can be hard for me to remember not to diss other people’s religious beliefs, namely, if I think someone’s music is drab.
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