Containing Multitudes Since 2004
“America has folk music that is more alive than any other country with the exception of Spain, Hungary, and Russia . . . Only in Russia is music still free. The real folk music is now centered in Russia and America." Charles Seeger, Deputy Director of the WPA’s Federal Music Project. address to teachers of Florida Music Project, Jacksonville, March 21, 1939; “You lily-livered bastard, sit down: you don’t know anything about life.” George Bede, venerable Wobbly, to Professor Charles Seeger during a Seeger lecture on migrant farm workers at the IWW Hall, San Francisco, 1914 "The better the art, the better propaganda it makes: the better the propaganda, the better art is." “On Proletarian Music,” by Charles Seeger, from Modern Music, 1934Back in 1920, when Pete Seeger was just a curly-headed baby, his father had been the one who introduced him to life on the road. Charles had begun as a promising young modern composer, gotten sidetracked as Professor of Music at the fledgling University of California at Berkeley, and eventually suffered a nervous breakdown. By way of recuperating, Seeger and his first wife Constance had set off on a mission to bring culture in the form of classical music — “good” music was how they thought of it quite literally; morally uplifting and everything — to the benighted hillbillies of North Carolina and thereabouts. Moreover, it was meant to be a profitable venture of some type, though the power points of the business plan were a little sketchy. This, I can only assure you, was not as altogether far-fetched as it might sound, aside from the the money-making part.. Charles Seeger was sort of far out, in the late ‘60s sense, his entire life, but this wasn’t so far out front as to be entirely avant-garde. By the 1920s, the Southern hills and mountains were honeycombed with all manner of well-meaning prospectors, all of ‘em just a-diggin’ away for the cultural gold to be found there. (It was, however, just about typical of Seeger that he had come there to deliver cultural riches.) Whether he knew it or not, Charles Seeger (who before it was all done would be known or at leasted promoted as the Father of Ethnomusicology) was part of an intellectual mass migration. The hills were alive with the sound of sociology. Or what they had more often in those days instead, which was eugenics. “I had the pleasure of hearing one of these fancy violinists last year. He came a pesterin’ around through the mountains on the trail of what he called folk music. He got three or four of us fiddlers together and prevailed on us to play for him, and he put down little crooked notes in a black book. Evertime I’d get good started on a tune, he’d stop me while he caught up, and then tell me to start over. When he got through I asked him to play us a tune and he took my fiddle and projected with it a little bit and then sawed the bow up and down and seemed to be hunting around for something he never could find, and then he quit. Uncle Jim Watson asked him why he didn’t go ahead and play something. “Why I’ve just played it,” this fellow said. But I don’t know but what he was joking. If he played any tune whatsoever, I clean missed it.” “Judge” Tump Jackson, fiddler, quoted in the Atlanta Georgian, November 18, 1920Charles Seeger and his family showed up in North Carolina driving a Model T touring car with a custom-built camping trailer; the trailer had a portable pump organ and a big pot for doing laundry, and the organ-pumping driver had a portable plan for doing a little white-washing of his own. Cleverly commencing his cultural missionary work to the mountain folk in mid-November, the Seegers got stranded almost immediately. With the unerring cultural sensitivity that would mark his endeavors for the remainder of his long and very busy life, the Father of both Ethnomusicology and Pete Seeger pulled his rig up next to what he thought was a pile of old rusty junk, and prepared to camp there for the remainder of the winter. What looked like rusty junk to Charles Seeger was a perfectly functioning moonshiner’s still, of course, and the people whose land he was trespassing on figured him for a revenuer, so late at night they snuck over, dismantled their still, and spirited it away. Now as good and shaggy a tale as this works up to be, it shakes out even better and shaggier yet. The Seeger clan wintered there in the wilds of North Carolina, saved by the savage hillfolk, though the Father of Ethnomusicology managed to never take much notice of any folk music or fiddle tunes any more than he’d sniffted out the moonshine still. Well, first thing you know, the Berkeley Hillbillies loaded up their truck and they moved to Washington —D.C., that is. Where they worked connections (this will become the way; the grantsmanship and patrimonial patronage and foundation-founding and such will become a way of life, and ironically, it will all be done in the name of keeping Folk Music alive, even if the folks who make it must get righteously fucked in the process) and promoted themselves a gig at the National Theater, right across Lafayette Square from the White House. Paid admissions were scarcer than hen molars, so the house was papered with free tickets but rather perfectly papered with powerful potential patrons, from Mrs. Coolidge on down. The first half of the concert was genteel and unsurprising, though no doubt Charles Seeger played a Charles Seeger composition or two. Then, when the curtain rose after the intermission, an artful stage campfire was a-blazin’ away under the Seeger’s laundry pot, red and orange and yellow ribbons flapping in the electric fan breeze, and the family’s camp was set up onstage, trailer, pump organ and all. As anybody who had ever attended a Pete Seeger concert half a century later could have retro-reverse-predicted blindfolded, Charles started the second half with a speech meant to raise consciousness, and funds. Within moments, Seeger’s press agent brother-in-law sent cute little curly Peter Seeger scooting out from the wings to sit on Dad’s lap while he played — this was Pete’s first stage performance, not the fabled 1940 migrant benefit in New York City The whole thng was a hyped-up high-toned hillbilly act, presented to the governing elite, the grant-givers, the powerful. This was nothing like an accident. It was an archetype. Charles Seeger was aimed like an arrow. He had failed, he had been stranded all winter, following a nervous breakdown, following the death of his composing career, following the loss of his Berkeley professor job, following the birth of his third son, following the flop of his long-planned missionary trip to the moonshining mountain savages. It was a pretty good moment to make his pitch to the powers-that-be, late in the latter days of the coonsong, the cakewalk, ragtime, and early the burgeoning years of jazz and blues. Most all of which were considered a foul Jewish plot, or at least splattered in an urban mud of the most vulgar; all of which had hit a level that even the most earwax-impacted of the elite couldn’t help but wish it away fastIt was the inspiration of Charles Seeger then and later to come up with a proper remedy. It was an early work-up of the minstrel act that generation after generations of Seegers and Lomaxes would soft-shoe all along the corridors of the Library of Congress, all across the District of Columbia, so much so, so frequently, and so financially successfully, that it is often difficult to decide whether it’s actually New York City or Washington DC that is the true home of folk music
Belated thanks for the essay, that guy!
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