[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?
*”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.