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

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Pete's brother Mike (coincidentally, the name of my dad and his brother, in reverse order)


We got back from the Vancouver Folk Music Festival a week ago but it seems like forever. I had a bad cold all last week and didn't feel up to writing about it, and the images of the week-end are no longer freshly burning. But tonight’s the best night for setting down some thoughts, so here goes.

At the center of the fest are Seegers. The mascot is Pete Seagull, in honor of, and P. Seeger’s synthesis of trad music, political progressivism, and masterful (and subterranean) pop-music instincts remain an ideal. (Seeger doesn’t often get discussed as a pop musician, but the Weavers had a Number One hit with a Leadbelly tune (Goodnight, Irene, not, it’s worth pointing out, trad material), accompanied by Gordon Jenkins’s slickest studio orchestra, and their version of “Wimoweh” was Top Ten and rising when they got McCarthy-blacklisted and it dropped like a shoe. Seeger wrote “Turn! Turn! Turn!” which went to Number One in a recording by the Byrds in 1965. He co-wrote “If I Had a Hammer” and “Where Have All the Flowers Gone” and “Kisses Sweeter Than Wine,” all folk-pop standards, all hits. If having Number One hits 15 years apart as a singer and a writer doesn’t make you pop, I don’t know what would.)

P. Seeger has been on my mind because his brother Mike and his grandson Tao were among my favorite acts this trip to Vancouver. Mike appeared with New Lost City Ramblers, amiable scholars of rural Southern music who’ve been playing together since 1958. Highlights of their sets were seeing Mike tap the drum head of John Cohen’s banjo like a drum while Cohen was singing and playing it, and seeing Mike dance a graceful jig -- twice! The first time I saw him do it was on a small stage, and he seemed to do it just to show he could. It was lovely but not inspired.

The second time I saw it, I could feel the love & passion way back in the back of the crowd. The Ramblers were sharing a stage with another straight-up string band and with the Mammals, Mike Seeger’s great-nephew’s band. The Mammals feature Tao Rodriguez-Seeger on banjo, guitar, harmonica, and vocals; Ruth Unger on violin, guitar, ukulele, banjo, and vocals; and Michael Merenda on guitar, banjo, and vocals. A first-rate rhythm section -- bass and drums -- put the rock in their re-synthesized folk rock, a folk rock quite different than that of the Byrds. Back in 1965, McGuinn, Clark, Crosby and the gang made the Dylan + Beatles equation, mixed in McGuinn’s gorgeous, chiming, careening guitar, and came up with modern sonic (folk) rock with a capital lack of roll. Instead of Dylan + Beatles, the Mammals come out of the much more trad folky New Lost City Ramblers, plus Nirvana. They do the old folk songs much straighter than the Byrds ever did, and more rounded out than solo folky Dylan ever went, and they sing without Dylan’s or McGuinn’s hipster irony, all guts, and when they turn on the rock, it’s loud and darkly riffy with shouted vocals and a rockin’ leg-split leapin’ Rodriguez-Seeger hitting his banjo at the top of his leap.

I liked their covers better than their originals -- almost the opposite of the Byrds, whose covers are usually the weakest things on their first two albums (Pete Seeger songs and “Tambourine Man” excepted) -- and, of course, the re-synthesizing of folk rock is unlikely to be as influential as the original synthesis. And although all three frontline players are super solid, none of them touch McGuinn for innovativeness as a soloist.

But -- here’s the thing -- as good as the Byrds were as singers, I like the Mammals’ singing even better -- at least their group singing (can’t say a bad thing about Gene Clark’s lead singing on his own gorgeous broody lovelorn songs with the Byrds -- or solo). Solid three-part harmonies, like the Byrds, but lusher voicings -- not just the major chords -- and more guts.

I saw the Mammals three different times over the week-end, and seeing them play the same original song twice gave me pause. It was OK, not a bad song, the kind of thing I’d hear on college rock radio and find decent and pleasant and uncompelling and unmemorable. That they played the same song twice made me think -- oh no, this is their GOOD one. Another original I liked better, an anti-Bush diatribe with stretched-out substitute harmonies over a traditional tune.

Hush little baby don’t you cry
Daddy’s gonna buy you an alibi
And if that alibi don’t work
Daddy’s gonna bribe the county clerk
And if that county clerk don’t bribe
Daddy’s got Congress on his side
And if that Congress still won’t budge
Daddy’s in tight with a Supreme Court judge

So that was promising, and I bought their most recent CD, Departure. As I suspected, the covers rock me, the originals, eh. “Hush Little Baby” isn’t on it, alas.

It’s the covers that interest me. As it happens, they cover a ‘50s moralistic country waltz that the Byrds had recorded early on, “Satisfied Mind.”

Little they know that it's so hard to find
One rich man in ten with a satisfied mind.

And the Mammals blow the Byrds out of the water. They sing it HARD. They sing it like they mean it. It’s wonderful.

“Departure” also features a cover I heard them sing at the Fest: an Argentinian political song strongly sung by Rodriguez-Seeger (who grew up in Nicaragua); I was glad to hear it again on the disc. But the album’s tour-de-force is a fierce re-working of a powerfully insinuating song that never worked so well for me as here, Nirvana’s “Come As You Are,” sung in 6/8. My stumbling block with the song had always been the bridge, where Cobain sang in a low register, “And I swear that I don’t have a gun, no I don’t have a gun.” Vaguely menacing and unsettling when Cobain sings it, especially given the mode of his own demise, but also too repetitive and ultimately slacking, at least to my ears. The Mammals jack it up: Cobain sang the bridge in a lower register than the verse; the Mammals sing it an octave higher, and the way I hear it, Cobain’s suicide inflects their version with terror and passion and compassion. This terrible knowledge undercuts the literal meaning of the words, and their vocal tones contradict their meaning: Yes he did have a gun.

I’d be content with them not writing such vivid songs themselves if they limited the contributions of their own “pens” (or laptops) and gave more focus to re-imagining better songs. But I’m still glad to hear what they’re up to, and I wish them well. They seem like nice people.

The Mammals hosted the stage they shared with the New Lost City Ramblers and another band (whose name is escaping me). After Mike Seeger’s band played a song, Mike’s great-nephew urged them to play another because the one they’d just finished was so short. The Ramblers decided what to play, and Mike disappeared behind the curtain to pull out whichever of his myriad instruments would be best for the one they’d chosen. Tao Rodriguez-Seeger said, “It reminds me of a family reunion at grandma’s. Everything grinds to a halt as someone goes to look for the autoharp.”

Pete Seeger’s grandson called the last tune that set: an old traditional song all three of the bands could play together. Three banjos, three fiddles, two guitars (plus bass and drums from the Mammals), and what’s Mike Seeger going to play? He goes backstage and comes back with a mandolin, plays it for a while, then sets it down and does this marvelous funky jig, much goofier and more joyfull than the one I’d seen the day before, he’s loving the music so much. Seeger’s a wry, dry, smart, pedantic, witty, somewhat puritanical and dour presence on stage usually, and it moved me to see him so happy. After the song he and Tao gave each other a stiff and awkward but still warm and sincere half-shoulder man-hug. Me and my uncles, whom I love to pieces, and who are roughly Mike Seeger’s age, we shake hands, but then, we don’t kick out the old-time jams together either.

* * *

More on the festival to come when I get a chance.

nice synopsis but you couldn't be more off base about the mammals songwriting. check it out: "They're fabricating outlaws, caught up in the facade, swallowed by the barrage, follow me to carthage! Don;t believe the headlines, keep yr head and body in line, do not fear for kowledge but follow me to Carthage" ... no one else right now is challenging their governmnet like that in song. In fact, most everything merenda writes is top-shelf. did you miss "Alone on the Homestead"? it'snot trad., it's original and it is brilliant. Did you miss "kissthe break of day"? did you miss 'round the bend' and "tryin to remember what city i know you from". and "Dime-a-Dozen"? Theseare a+ songs. oh well,there'sno accounting for taste. listen to that record again.
Thanks for standing up for their songwriting. I'll give them another try.
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