U.S. Intellectual History Blog

“I Am So Glad I Was There” (Guest Post by Jesse Lemisch)

[Editor’s note: This past weekend Jesse Lemisch attended a tribute concert for Pete Seeger, who was posthumously awarded the inaugural Woody Guthrie Prize. Professor Lemisch wrote up a brief reflection on the event and posted it to his Facebook page. He has kindly given us permission to publish his remarks here.]

February 22, 2014

Thanks to Carolyn Toll Oppenheim and her daughters, spectacular seats tonight at the posthumous award of the first Woody Guthrie Prize to Pete Seeger at Symphony Space, 95th and Broadway. One of the daughters had known when Pete died that it would be sold out – as it was – and immediately bought these seats. Present on stage were Arlo Guthrie, Steve Martin, Tony Trischka, Nora Guthrie, other performers, relatives of Leadbelly in the audience. The whole thing was streamed live to Tulsa, apparently for an audience at the Guthrie Center there.

Arlo, I hear, has become a Republican, though this didn’t seem to affect his patter. He was more engaging than I remembered, telling stories in the style of Alice’s Restaurant, including hilarious and doubtless partly or wholly invented stories of Pete. After saying that he lacked Pete’s magical skills in getting the audience to sing along, Arlo did it pretty well, and anyway, this being almost all that’s left of the Upper West Side, everybody knew the words. Of course, “This land,” “If I had a hammer,” “Joe Hill,” and a wonderful sing-along of “Goodnight Irene,” led by Arlo, accompanied by the instruments mentioned below. In a documentary that I had seen, Pete said that his father, a Harvard music professor, had pointed out that music like this can have all the complexities of classical music. Martin, who I had not known was going to perform, is very good (and of course comical and as good unrehearsed as in rehearsed performances). Others played banjo, guitar, mandolin, and I think we came out of it with enhanced appreciation of Pete and Woody as musically skilled. A couple of weeks ago, I had enjoyed current groups performing Beatles stuff in their own way, and this too was a kind of homage with great performances which were not simply imitative but evoked the spirit.

I am so glad I was there. Across the country, people are converting such events to sing-ins, and it was all very moving. But the audience was quite ancient or mostly so, as ancient as I am. Carolyn remarked that our youth was passing before us as we listen to and participate in this music, and in some ways this fulfills what I said in my Nation articles back around 1986, to one of which they gave the clever title, “I Dreamed I Saw MTV Last Night.”* This music will survive Pete’s death, but will have a hard time going on after the rest of us die. People like Springsteen and, in a way, Martin, can keep it going, but that’s not what it was. At some point in the far-off future, maybe “This Land” will replace the “Star Spangled Banner,” but that may be pie in the sky.

This was the same theater in which I had seen/heard a German klezmer band, early in the 80s; my mother commented that the UWS audience, more German than eastern European, merely tolerated the music. And I had heard Si Kahn there, doing a very poor imitation of Seeger, which is what drove me to write the Nation articles. So the hall is full of memories, back to the time when Symphony Space was a movie theater, and in the 95th street basement, the Thalia made us make annual trips to see Potemkin, Good Earth, and whatever else, even before we had to see the French movies. And there were two movie theaters between 96 and 97th in what is now a barren no-movie wasteland. What will keep these cultures alive?

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*”Pop Front Culture: I Dreamed I Saw MTV Last Night,” Nation 243, no. 12 (October 18, 1986): 361-376. Lemisch wrote a follow-up article, “The Politics of Left Culture,” Nation 243, no. 21 (December 20, 1986): 700-704.

19 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Jesse Lemisch 10:19am Feb 24
    Thanks for posting. I look forward to discussion, perhaps touching on such matters as gentrification, the destruction of cultures, what happened to an Upper West Side that was thought of as a stronghold of left Jewiish intellectualism, what about other pockets of such culture, and, of course, the future prospects of folk. It occurs to me that all the many arguments for Seeger’s greatness — and I can make those arguments myself — constitute a nail in the coffin of his kind of participatory folk music. He was one of a kind, and it will be hard to keep this culture going without him. And where do movies fit into this picture, at a time when even seeing the previews, with their flying exploding cars, is an intolerable experience? Are we back to little art films? Will we look back nostalgically at an era in which Pauline Kael taught us how to look st US movies?

  2. Thanks for this wonderful piece of writing.

    Pete Seeger sang in an epic mode which, as Hegel observed long ago, is one suited for a particular state of development.

    As a child of the 1980s, Pete Seeger always made me sad, because to be Pete Seeger after the Popular Front was to force the listener to ask the question “how will this survive?” which is too much to think about when one’s mind and body are consumed with the business of listening.

    There is music today doing what Seeger’s music did then, because that’s what humans do. We may not know what it is; for now it might not even be our business to know.

    “It occurs to me that all the many arguments for Seeger’s greatness — and I can make those arguments myself — constitute a nail in the coffin of his kind of participatory folk music.” His kind. That’s how history goes, no?

  3. What matters *more* than Pete Seeger’s style of music is *the spirit* that informed it. As Kurt noted, there is a sense of mystery there. But there’s also a sense of timely engagement.

    How can you watch one of the clips of him from the 1960s (e.g. Big Muddy) and not hear the engagement and passion? There’s always room in popular culture for stylish, different sounds that hits hard on the issues of the day—the kind of music that meshes form and substance.

    As for participatory music, well, how will that play in an America that devalues art in our classrooms? To be participatory as an adult, childhood participation is a must. – TL

  4. Thank you for this thoughtful and beautifully written piece on Pete.

    I was fortunate enough to see Pete perform two years back with Ramblin’ Jack Elliott at the Newport Folk Festival. It was wonderful to hear Jack’s stories about Pete’s activism and his relationship with Woody Guthrie (he’s called Ramblin’ for a reason). I was impressed by Pete’s vibrancy. He was frail and struggled to play his banjo, but he was eager to sing along with Jack and remind the audience to never trust the government because “THEY LIE”. When he wasn’t on stage Pete was usually at the children’s tent performing for the kids or doing crafts with them. Pete was always trying to reach out to the next generation.

    What was tragic about Pete’s presence at Newport was not his relegation to the smallest stage at the festival or his frail appearance, but how much the Festival has moved away from his vision. The Newport Folk Festival is no longer interested in politics. They have big corporate sponsors, have massive headlining bands like The Avett Brothers who do ads for GAP, and are more interested in discussing the Festival’s beautiful location in Fort Adams’ Park than political strife anywhere. Sure, there was the odd politically oriented artist (there seems to be a quota of one per year) like Tom Morello whose calls for political engagement would be enthusiastically applauded by kids in seersucker shorts and popped-collar polo shirts. What was tragic about Pete’s presence at Newport was that he was an anachronism. He represented a far away time when Newport was a staging ground for political activism: integration in the south, criticism of the Vietnam War, and domestic wealth inequalities.

    Of course none of this is the Newport Folk Festival’s fault. With the exception of hip-hop, music has shied away from purposeful political engagement. Newport also does a great job discovering new artists, providing families with a safe and clean place to experience music, and bringing back older musicians to perform for my generation (Mavis Staples has already been added to Newport’s 2014 roster), which did not experience them in their primes. Even so, it’s a little sad at the time of Pete’s passing that Newport has drifted so far from its origins. The Newport Folk Festival will always be an important part of Pete’s legacy, but I’m not sure if, in its current iteration at least, it will be a part of his legacy he’d be proud of.

    • Speaking of Tom Morello, Bruce Springsteen (with whom Morello is now touring) has recently had some success by being *more* engaged politically. So that’s something, though it doesn’t help rejuvenate the Newport Folk Festival at its roots.

      • Oddly, many of the most overtly political musicians writing in the folk tradition are British. Billy Bragg has probably drawn the most interest stateside, but Frank Turner was a big hit last year at Newport though his politics largely fell on deaf ears.

      • Matt —

        I’m just not sure that it’s totally correct to call Newport a “staging ground for political activism: integration in the south, criticism of the Vietnam War, and domestic wealth inequalities.” Yes, those intersections of folk music and New Left activism were present, but if you watch a documentary such as Murray Lerner’s Festival, there is just as much evidence of their divergences at Newport into a new kind of commercial music market developing. It’s in “play” with political activism, but also part of a middle class youth culture that could turn just as apolitical as today’s seems to be.

        Not saying the politics weren’t there as you suggest, just not convinced at how resolutely different it is from now on this particular count. The culture-politics relationship could be as confounding then as now, and we should be careful not to romanticize that moment and create a declension narrative (or a progress narrative for that matter). Need other ways of thinking across the similarities and the differences of music, audience, social structure, politics then and now.

  5. Two brief points:

    First: Speaking of “participatory” music, I didn’t mean people who are musically trained playing together (something of value in itself), but, more simply, people singing together. This is so much of what Seeger was about, what Arlo was about last Saturday night, but I don’t see or hear much of it. There was plenty of it in the Movement. Right now, where is it, outside the churches? Maybe singing together is one of the factors that have historically brought people to church. What am I missing: Where does this occur now? (Crowds swaying to current pop and waving their arms don’t count.)
    Second A shameless family boast: Naomi Weisstein’s Chicago Women’s Liberation Rock Band, which recorded with Rounder “Papa Don’t Lay that Shit on Me” (see also Naomi’s essay on the band in Feminist Memoir Project). In rebellion against the sexism of the Stones and others, and so much of rock’s alienation from and bombardment of the audience, CWLRB fully engaged their largely female audiences with joyful and fully participatory performances. A clip of one such performance will be in Mary Dore’s forthcoming film, “She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry.”
    Finally, there is the important matter of the politics of the performance. This leads back to the whole question of the irrelevance of Popular Front culture and politics today. Too much to go into right now.

  6. “It pans, zooms in on detail, pulls back.”

    In his 1986 article, “Pop Front Culture: I Dreamed I Saw MTV Last Night,” Jesse Lemisch bemoaned the outmoded (and perhaps always distorted) representation of politicized “people’s” culture found in the New York-centric, liberal/radical culture of the East Coast folk revival. This was an aesthetic born in the radicalized wings of the bohemian and political Old Left, given full expression in the Popular Front years, and continuing on through figures such as Pete Seeger. It’s the world lampooned in a film such as Christopher Guest’s mockumentary “A Mighty Wind” (a far better primer on the Sing Out! Magazine-style folk revival than the Coen Brothers’s recent “Inside Llewyn Davis,” though that film has its moments of cleverly referencing this world of self-righteous representation of “the people” too).

    Seeing a Pete Seeger performance in the mid-1980s, Lemisch wrote, “Sullenly, I mumbled things like ‘blue overalls,’ ‘disingenuous,’ ‘archaic aesthetic’ and ‘dead end for the left.'” Or as Bob Dylan put it in 1966, “Folk music is a bunch of fat people…. It’s all those paranoid people who think that someone’s going to come and take away their toilet paper – they’re going to die. Songs like ‘Which Side Are You On?’ and ‘I Love You, Porgy’—they’re not folk-music songs; they’re political songs. They’re already dead.”

    Lemisch viewed this kind of “folk music” presentation made popular by Seeger as a kind of haranguing, outmoded already by 1986, blown out of the water by MTV style entertainment (Dylan, and many in the folk revival, found it outmoded in 1966!): “There are new ways of looking at the world, some from inside the left, some from outside,” Lemisch wrote in his 1986 article in The Nation. “Say what we will about the values of television advertising and MTV, we recognize their form as distinctly contemporary, and so does much of America. They offer us rapid movement, mobile cameras, quick cutting, excitement, condensed expression, wit, comedy and attractive color. While I hold plenty of reservations about content, anyone who wants to talk to Americans—as the left presumably does—must understand this language.”

    Lemisch called for a new aesthetic for communicating radical history and culture in the US, and he found examples of it in the music of Artists United Against Apartheid and Steven Van Zandt’s song “Sun City” as well as in the documentary film work of the American Social History Project, particularly “1877: The Grand Army of Starvation.” “In that year, propelled by economic depression and pay cuts, 80,000 railroad workers struck, and across the country hundreds of thousands of others joined a national protest which was called the Great Uprising,” Lemisch wrote, continuing, “Describing these events, ‘1877’ is full of visual excitement, much faster than what we expect from this genre. The color is beautiful, and the camera is wonderfully active: it pans, zooms in on detail, pulls back.”

    All of this is background to Lemisch’s recent post, but it’s necessary background, for in this post Lemisch continues to express his ambivalence about the kind of style and presentation that Seeger embodied, its last gasps appearing at the Woody Guthrie Aware ceremony.

    But the folk revival, all the way back to the 1930s and certainly through the 1960s to the present, had all sorts of other overlapping visions of culture and politics than this one: they took the name of traditional music, vernacular music, roots music, avant-garde music, bohemian music instead of “folk music.” What’s important is that those other forms were always intersecting with the Old Left Popular Front mode that Seeger embodied (Pete that is, Mike is another story). Seeger tapped into those other strains, he wasn’t the opposite of them, but he did tilt toward one side of them. He did a kind of preservation and conservation work, as Robert Cantwell, Benjamin Filene, and others have chronicled. Already, in the civil rights movement and folk revival of the early 60s, Seeger carried forward the hidden, and hence charged energies, of the Old Left and Popular Front. That revival, now being revived to celebrate Seeger’s life at the time of his death, was itself a recovery of something that already seemed to be fading and vanishing. It was salvage and recovery work back then, now being recovered again for the tenth time.

    But there has always also been another kind of energy there, a cultural, political, social, even economic force. It is the far messier, quirkier “folk” tradition that provided a milieu, scattered and regathered back together in multiple forms continuously, for many people going back to the late 19th century to rethink relationships between personal expression and political commitment, between where they come from and where they long to go, between existential struggle and social change. This might be named as the far weirder “Old, Weird America” “Invisible Republic” of Greil Marcus’s investigations than the “One Great Union” Spanish Civil War Republic world of a certain portrayal of Pete Seeger. It was, and continues to be, connected to trying to make sense of modernity’s impurities and confusions

    Listen again to Dylan on this in 1966:

    “…folk music is a word I can’t use. Folk music is a bunch of fat people. I have to think of all this as traditional music. Traditional music is based on hexagrams. It comes about from legends, Bibles, plagues, and it revolves around vegetables and death. There’s nobody that’s going to kill traditional music. All these songs about roses growing out of people’s brains and lovers who are really geese and swans that turn into angels – they’re not going to die. It’s all those paranoid people who think that someone’s going to come and take away their toilet paper – they’re going to die. Songs like “Which Side Are You On?” and “I Love You, Porgy” – they’re not folk-music songs; they’re political songs. They’re already dead. Obviously, death is not very universally accepted. I mean, you’d think that the traditional-music people could gather from their songs that mystery – just plain simple mystery – is a fact, a traditional fact. I listen to the old ballads; but I wouldn’t go to a party and listen to the old ballads. I could give you descriptive detail of what they do to me, but some people would probably think my imagination had gone mad. It strikes me funny that people actually have the gall to think that I have some kind of fantastic imagination. It gets very lonesome. But anyway, traditional music is too unreal to die. It doesn’t need to be protected. Nobody’s going to hurt it. In that music is the only true, valid death you can feel today off a record player. But like anything else in great demand, people try to own it. It has to do with a purity thing. I think its meaninglessness is holy. Everybody knows that I’m not a folk singer.”

    I think there were times when Pete Seeger also tapped into this same strange underground pool of traditional music and cultural expression, with its own power of personal and political transformation, democratic wildness, and opportunities for pursuing a liberating kind of collective democratic existence that did not resolve into rote calls for union solidarity and self sacrifice in the name of some greater good. This was music about freedom, inquiring into it, trying to achieve it in musical form, seeking out the problems of freedom as much as its enticing appeal and continued frustration in modern America and the world. Seeger’s best music, in its best moments, got there. There are times when these qualities blasted right through the other times of unbearable sanctimonious preachiness.

    There may be no more Popular Front culture—or the remnants of it are precisely the ones that also tapped into these other, deeper, darker, but more potent energies in American life. But what matters far less is the survival of a certain kind of radical-liberal certitude about having the right position and line than the eruptions of radical spirit from those other places, energies, forces, that different kind of modern personhood that Popular Front activists noticed, sought to harness, and attempted to tame or, sometimes, unleash. This other thing is what might matter most, and it poses challenges for intellectual historians in terms of how we trace its historical legacy, where we notice it and how. It’s something like what Dylan once named when speaking of the singing of Kentucky banjo player and balladeer Roscoe Holcomb: “Roscoe does have a certain untamed sense of control.” It’s that “untamed sense of control” that I think continues to circulate, moving through the Popular Front mode, and carrying forward into a multitude of quarters, whether they be MTV (which has developed its own self-righteous legacy now) or a bazillion string bands or Beatles cover bands or other forms of culture making. One of our historical tasks is to catch that other song as it popped up in the Upper West Side context and elsewhere, hear its continuities and implicit solidarities, notice where it diverged and when, out of nowhere, it suddenly seemed to occupy (or is it Occupy?) center stage for fleeting but seizing moments.

  7. Good discussion. For the moment, just to pick up on Matthew on Billy Bragg. Yes, there is great similarity with Seeger. I loved Bragg’s recording of Leon Josselson’s “Diggers Song,” concerning 1649. (I believe that Josselson was a British Communist). I planned to use it in class, and probably did, but wished that I had a version by Seeger, but there was none. By that time, Pete and I had made our peace. In one of the years of left governance of the OAH, he was invited to perform. We had lunch and, Pete-like as he was, he tried to fix up my dislike for Si Kahn, who had been a target of my Nation article. By the time I was teaching re the Diggers, I felt at ease with approaching Pete who, to my astonishment and delight, recorded it on a cassette, which I still have buried among my lecture notes (which latter I keep for the possibility that coll[apse of the economy will call me back to teaching in my late 80s). It’s unaccompanied, and pure Pete. I cherish it and hope I can find it.

  8. Prof. Lemisch,

    It’s interesting that you point out the churches. I think you are correct that church, broadly construed, is one of the last public spaces / public gatherings where people expect corporate singing, and where they can (generally) expect to “know the words.” However, there is a parallel narrative of declension for “sacred music” to go along with the lament of the loss of a folk tradition. I’m talking about the loss of the rich tradition of hymnody in favor of “praise choruses,” “worship bands,” etc. Some old hymns are “sampled” in newer arrangements, but there is definitely a sense among many of a vanished — or at least a vanishing — tradition, significant not just for theological reasons but also for cultural reasons. For the history of hymnody intersects and overlaps with the tradition of folk music, protest music, etc, in so many places.

    To my delight and astonishment, I stumbled upon the remnants of a century-long hymnic/protest song tradition in the most unlikely place: the “canon debate” at Stanford. I’m working on a paper that will trace out the strange career of this song that popped up in Palo Alto in the 1980s, looking at its various lyrics, sacred and secular, which were set to a tune that started as a 19th century secular song, became a favorite of the Old Left, but now survives only in sacred settings — though it has recently been reclaimed as a protest song, first by the Christian Right, but more recently among social progressives who might be classified as part of the Christian Left. I can’t be more specific than that — don’t want to spoil the fun/surprise of the paper, which I hope to give at USIH2014 in Indianapolis. (Come to the conference, everybody! It will be fun!)

    In any case, it seems to me that a great weakness of the Occupy movement was the fact that a common soundtrack was not a viable option. Maybe this is the triumph of customized consumerism via the iPod (scion of the Walkman), another “fracture” made possible (or at least visible) in the 1980s? Perhaps the “culture wars” battles over rap music might be seen as battles over “movement” music, but the movement of music more broadly during the 80s/90s — how it was produced / marketed / consumed — might have rendered the whole idea of movement music moot. What say you, Andrew Hartman?

  9. A few things about my previous post. Michael, you are probably correct in claiming that the anti-consumerism I associate with early Newport is historically inaccurate. Folk music in the 1960s was a consumer product and in many ways folkie/protester culture was something consumed by middle class America whether it be fashion or music. I think what separates Newport today is the way political disengagement is fashionable. Having a good time at a concert means not having to think about the social and political problems so omnipresent in the news. Those that do try to use their performances as platforms for political engagement are greeted with bemusement (‘an endearing relic of a bygone era’) or disdain (no one is ever at Ramblin Jack’s sets at Newport, well, until Beck joined him on stage last year).

    Newport has also struggled with a race problem in recent years. When I first started going to Newport five years ago the Festival was almost all white performers and the audience was also almost all white. In the last few years, concert promoters have made more of an effort to find diverse performers and have expanded the Festival palate to include a fair amount of soul and blues. The audience has remained the same however. I don’t really know if the Festival has any way to deal with the racial homogeneity of its audience, but it is strange (even in a racially homogenous state like Rhode Island) to be in such a white community.

    Where Newport has struggled with race they have been an important platform for artists discussing gender and sexuality. Bands like Hurray for the Riff Raff and tUnE-yArDs discuss gender in their songs. Hurray for the Riff Raff have been particularly active in challenging the homophobia and male chauvinism in country music. I am hopeful that these sorts of acts will continued to be promoted and use the Festival as a springboard to larger commercial success.

    • Hi Matt —

      Thanks for your engagement with this issue. I think this issue of race and folk music are so important (and ethnicity for that matter, as Jesse Lemisch notes in his questions about the Jewish presence and interest in folk music).

      Barry Shank and Grace Elizabeth Hale have both written about these topics in eloquent ways recently:

      -Shank, Barry. “‘That Wild Mercury Sound’: Bob Dylan and the Illusion of American Culture,” Boundary 2, 29 (Spring 2002), 97-123.

      -Grace Elizabeth Hale, “Black as Folk: The Folk Music Revival, the Civil Rights Movement, and Bob Dylan,” in A Nation of Outsiders: How the White Middle Class Fell in Love with Rebellion in Postwar America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011).

      Their work asks us to place the folk revival in a deeper cultural history of expressive culture made across the color line.

      On the Jewish-folk music issue, I think Michael Rogin’s Blackface, White Noise remains one of the go to books, though not the only one.

      The folk revival need not be some pure movement here, glowing in the light of innocence and utopia. It partakes of the same troubled racial borrowings and efforts at cross-cultural communication as all other forms of American popular and vernacular culture. That there is more awareness of questions of injustice and the search for freedom is both the great gift and the difficult space of folk music such as Seeger’s. How to grapple with these matters without just making bad agitprop art has always been the challenge. When Seeger asked audiences to singalong, I think those were moments when he raised the stakes of folk participation as both political and personal. It was a politics, but not a straightforward one in those moments.

      I’ve been very moved by tUnE-yArDs’s sound myself. What can sound do politically that no amount of haranguing can? Sometimes I think that’s the most fascinating and amazing dimension of all this.

      Like I said, much appreciate your engagements here! Thanks!

      Best,
      Michael

  10. I’m impressed by the liveliness of this discussion and am stimulated by it. I can’t address all the issues that have been raised and, at the risk of contributing to a centrifugal quality, let me add another matter. One of the things that my original article was about was authenticity, and that issue relates to the Jewish Question. I have been reading a bit about Woody Guthrie and it seems that he was adored upon arrival in New York partly on grounds that he wasn’t Jewish, was genuinely working class, etc. The New York folk scene (and here I am referring to Hootenannies and other phenomena going back before the 60s) consisted to a great degree of Jews singing songs and using the accents of people who were not Jews. For people on the left, this meant that they had broken through to real Americans. (I found this particularly bizarre in the singing of Si Kahn, who I had heard in the same theatre, singing songs of the concentration camps in an assumed Appalachian voice.) Thirty years later, in the same theatre, we sing along with Arlo Guthrie in a voice and accent that would never turn up in our normal conversation.
    I guess there’s much more to be said about this, but for now I just wanted to inject in the discussion the term authenticity and raise the issue of achievement of authenticity through folk music.

  11. To the question “What will keep these cultures alive?” one might offer the answer: well, retromania! Thinking of the recent mainstream resurgence of so-called Americana, which is undoubtedly connected to the easy access US consumers now have to an immense archive of music that is growing as I write this, I wonder what is the actual place of Guthrie and company among these new artists and their audiences.

    In terms of the countercultural politics that musicians such as Guthrie articulated, it seems the way people in the US consume music nowadays, picking here and there from what and itunes as well as new media communities of all stripes, just doesn’t articulate the same social force. I see the soundtrack for social movements in the present as a soundtrack of fragments, which is fine with me. Simon Reynolds’ romantic call for a return to modernism in Retromania–a fascinating if sometimes frustrating read for fans of contemporary “alternative” music culture–is trying to get at this and critique it, though I am not sure this sort of nostalgia is particularly productive.

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