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

Saturday, June 05, 2004


I forgot to mention in my recent reports on Seattle’s Folklife festival that I enjoyed hearing a local singer whom my spouse knows from political activism, a guy named Tom Rawson. He’s what they call a true folkie, meaning, someone who got his style, including his long-neck banjo, from Pete Seeger. (“Everybody got extra long-neck banjos after Pete Seeger did,” he told me the one time I met him.) Pete Seeger is a terrific musician & a lively polemicist, but his roots ain’t “man of the people”; he’s a second-generation musical leftist-anthropologist. His father Charles more-or-less founded ethnomusicology after giving up his career as an avant-garde Euro-tradition (“classical”) composer.

What struck me, though, after reading STOMP AND SWERVE by David Wondrich (which I wrote about on May 12) was the irony of sincere white leftists like Rawson and Seeger playing an instrument that became popular with white people from minstrel shows. Banjo was originally an African instrument -- I knew that -- and Wondrich shows how the 19th century blackface minstrel tradition, which featured banjo, had a huge influence on white folk & country music.

I heard Tom Rawson sing Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land,” with some new verses (presumably by Tom) and a great gospel tune called “Up Above My Head I Hear Music In the Air,” which the amazing Sister Rosetta Tharpe recorded in at least two terrific, very different versions. A light rain fell on the lawn of the Seattle Center as Tom sang his heart out and beat out the beat on his long-neck banjo, and some of us sang along and lightly bounced to the rhythm.

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