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The Seeger Long Neck: America’s Third Banjo By Peter McKee Pete Seeger, 1944 Along with Earl Scruggs, Pete Seeger was one of the two pillars of the 5-string banjo in the 20th century. We mourn his passing and celebrate his life. We should also celebrate his amazing banjo playing. Now into our second decade of the 21st Century, the world of banjos and banjo playing appears to have gravitated into two schools or camps—bluegrass and old-time. Each genre has its preferred banjo. Bluegrass has the resonator banjo, epitomized by the much-cherished and iconic pre-war Gibsons. Old-time has a host of preferred banjos, but all are open-backed, with some being made with scooped necks near the banjo head to enhance the frailing or clawhammer style of down-stroke picking. Bluegrass, of course, has Earl’s three fingered picking—crisp and driving. Sixty years ago, the much smaller banjo-playing community of the day was not so clearly divided into these two neighborhoods. Today in the pages of BNL and other banjo-centric publications and web sites, banjos and their players are often cast into one of these two categories. I believe there is, however, an often-overlooked third banjo neighborhood that should, at least occasionally, be recognized. That is the world of the long neck banjo, invented in 1944 and played from that day forward by Pete Seeger and a small group of long neck enthusiasts who appreciate that the long neck is unique unto itself, and possibly better suited for a particular use than its other two banjo siblings. Vega Long Neck First, a brief history of the long neck’s creation. By 1944, Pete Seeger had been learning to play the 5-string banjo for eight years. As a member of the Almanac Singers from 1940-43, Pete played a variety of standard length open-backed banjos. He had developed his own picking style, a variation of frailing. Instead of first hitting a string with a downward stroke of the back of a fingernail of his right hand, Pete developed what would become known as the Seeger “basic strum” or “up picking.” In his 1948 self-published book, “How to Play the 5-String Banjo” (still in print), Pete describes his basic strum as starting by plucking up on a string with his right index finger, followed by a brush down across the strings with the ring and sometimes middle finger, then followed by ringing the 5th string with the right thumb. Sometimes he used picks on the right hand and sometimes he didn’t. Frailing does not usually involve the use of finger picks. While Pete mastered many styles of banjo playing and could frail and three-finger pick with the best of them, Pete’s signature “basic strum” was developed for a particular purpose—to accompany his singing of songs, both traditional and political, where the words of the song were was as important as the music. Seeger’s basic strum was also central to his masterful ability to get thousands of audience members singing together with him, often in three-part harmony. For Pete, his banjo was always a tool he used toward the achievement of both political and musical goals. Indeed, the words emblazoned on his banjo head for more than 50 years—“This Machine Surrounds Hate and Forces It To Surrender”—make it clear that, for Pete, his banjo was just that —a machine, a tool. In 1944, Pete realized his standard length open backed banjo needed to be adapted to meet his particular needs and abilities. Pete long said that his solo singing voice was never a stellar example to be emulated. Many folk performers had richer, stronger or clearer voices and many had a wider range. Fortunately for us all, in 1944 Pete devised a solution to a particular limitation he faced with a standard banjo. Pete and the Almanac Singers played a song in Spanish honoring those who fought against Franco’s fascist forces in the Spanish Civil War. Pete played the song Viva La Quince Brigada, out of C tuning because he liked that tuning with its lowered fourth string. Unfortunately, playing out of that tuning in C minor made the song just a bit too high for his voice. If he could lower the tune one full step to Bb minor, Pete figured he could sing it comfortably. His unique solution gave birth to the long neck banjo. Just before he shipped out to Saipan during World War II, Pete took his Vega Whyte Laydie to legendary luthier John D’Angelico in New York’s Lower East Side and asked him to saw off the neck at the nut. He then had D’Angelico insert a neck extension which allowed the addition of two extra frets and had it glued in place. Now, with his extended neck, Pete could lower songs played out of C down to Bb. For five years, Pete played this original long neck with two extra frets, only to have it stolen from the back of his car in 1949. Photos of Pete after 1949 show him playing a variety of extended neck banjos and at some point in the early 1950’s Seeger’s long neck sported three extra frets. This would allow a rich bass sound to songs played out of open G tuning, when dropped three half steps to E. It also allows a similar rich tone for songs played out of C, lowered three half steps to A. Just recently, I smiled while reading Pete Wernick’s January 2014 BNL column which urged banjo players to become more versatile in playing in the keys of E and F. Wernick notes these keys better suit the vocal range of women singers. As a long neck banjo player, my first thought was, “Well, just capo down two half steps from open G (Key of F) or three half steps (Key of E).” Admittedly it’s a “cheat,” but then so is the use of a capo. By the mid-1950’s, Pete’s long neck banjo was becoming iconic in the growing folk music revival and the Vega Instrument Company of Boston, with Pete’s permission (though he declined any royalties), began to produce a top-end Vega “Pete Seeger Model” long neck. In 1958, the new Pete Seeger Model retailed for $295. One of the first to purchase the new Vega Pete Seeger model was Dave Guard, soon to become famous for playing his Seeger long neck as a founding member of Kingston Trio. Quickly the sound of the long neck became “the” folk revival banjo sound. Seeger’s basic strum was perfectly matched with his long neck banjo to help him pursue a fundamental life-long quest—getting people singing together. Scruggs three finger picking is the “over-drive” to bluegrass, but it is not well-suited as a solo instrumentation for song leading. Frailing, the model upon which Pete based his basic strum, is somewhat better suited to the task. But for Pete, the combination of his long neck and his basic strum seemed to foster a special connection with his audiences, encouraging them to sing along. Maybe it is the wider range or the richer lows of the long neck. Maybe it’s the less percussive, at times simpler, picking style of Seeger’s basic strum that has the ability of encouraging audiences to join in. Of Seeger’s basic strum, music historian Robert Cantwell has noted in his book “When We Were Good: The Folk Revival”: “By nestling a resonant chord between two precise notes, a melody note and a chiming note on the fifth string, Seeger gentrified the more percussive frailing style with its vigorous hammering of the forearm and its percussive rapping of the fingernail on the banjo head.” Even the longer banjo neck, in the hands of a master like Seeger, can be effectively used as sort of a musical baton, urging the co-performers—the audience—to join in the music. Today, the long neck has largely faded into relative banjo obscurity. In 1989, Deering acquired the rights to the Vega name and has produced some top-quality long neck banjos, including a replica of the original 1958 Vega Pete Seeger Model. Gold Tone and other companies also make long necks. However, as a percentage of all banjos purchased and played, we “longneckers” are a rare breed. Today, both bluegrass and open backed frailing banjos are enjoying a golden age of banjo making; not so with long neck banjos. It is telling that on the internet site Banjo Hangout, there are only 120 or so diehard members who subscribe to the long neck discussion forum. It appears that many of us trace our love of the instrument to our youthful banjo exposure during the folk revival of the 1950s and 1960s. It is also interesting to note that while Pete was repeatedly recognized for his seminal role in the folk music revival of the 1950’s and 1960’s, there has been no updated appraisal, analysis or teaching of Pete’s unique banjo playing styles. We all know of the many books and DVDs which explore, analyze and teach the finer elements of Scruggs picking, Monroe’s mandolin style and Tony Rice’s guitar wizardry. To my knowledge, however, only one book currently exists which attempts to reveal Pete’s banjo playing techniques—Pete’s own. Would not our world of banjo players benefit from a fresh, detailed analysis and teaching of Seeger’s unique take on the banjo? Bela Fleck, Tony Trischka, and Pete Wernick have all publicly acknowledged that Pete, his banjo playing, and his banjo book played a formative role in first bringing them to the banjo. For those of us who did not grow up in a rural, Southern environment where the five string banjo did have its own life—without Seeger and those first exposed to the banjo via Seeger in the 1940’s and 1950’s, we ourselves would likely never have been exposed to the instrument we love. Vastly oversimplified—No Seeger = no Dave Guard. No Dave Guard = no Kingston Trio. No Kingston Trio = no folk revival as we know it. And then I and many others would not have been playing our banjos for the last many years. Thank you, Pete. Peter McKee Since 1967, Seattle-resident Peter McKee has been an admirer and student of Pete Seeger’s banjo playing and political activism. Peter can be contacted through the website for his one-man show: “Pete: The Songs and Times of Pete Seeger” at From Chuck Ogsbury, founder of ODE and OME Banjos, on the Seeger longneck: In the late 1950’s most of the popular “folk” groups (Weavers, Kingston Trio, Peter Paul & Mary, Christy Minstrels, Chad Mitchel Trio, etc.) were using the longneck 5-string banjos, based after Pete Seeger’s instrument. Pete’s banjo had a Vega Tubaphone pot and a custom neck. At that time, the only company making longnecks commercially was the original Vega Company of Boston, which made the “Pete Seeger” long neck model. These banjos were in high demand then and they were hard to find, and expensive ($365 list price). About this time, while attending Colorado University in Boulder, I was searching out and fixing up vintage fretted instruments for myself and my classmates in my spare time. Following up on a newspaper ad, I ended up buying a used Vega longneck for a friend. Before turning it over to my friend, I took the time to thoroughly evaluate it. I found the instrument to be disappointing, as I felt it was poorly made with a clubby neck, funky hardware, faulty fretting, purple finish, and was over priced. About this same time, I was playing with the idea of building banjos with an aluminum pot as an alternative to the traditional wood and brass pot. I felt the aluminum construction would cost considerably less to make and might sound good. It wasn’t long before I made a prototype, which worked so well that I decided to build 100 long neck banjos under the name ODE. These original ODES sold for about $75 with a hand-made, coffin shaped case for an additional $25. Unexpectedly, as fast as I could put these banjos together, they sold by word of mouth out of my garage shop. This inspired me to make a second batch banjos, with many of the second 100 being standard length 5-strings. Tenors, Plectrums, Guitar banjos and resonators soon followed, and ODE was on its way. I also had the opportunity to visit the Vega “factory” about 1961. Bill Nelson Jr., the son of the original Vega owner, was still running the company and he showed me through their shop which was located on the second floor of an old industrial building in Boston. I recall that their shop was surprisingly small and “old-school” as they were still using much turn-of-the-century machinery and tools, and the whole place seemed a bit funky and disorganized for a “factory.” They were making, at the time, mostly the longneck Pete Seeger models, a few Vega Vox tenors and plectrums, and some 4-string tenor guitars. In the early 1960’s, other companies that made longneck 5-strings were: Gibson, Bacon, Harmony, and a few other small builders such as Christy and Epic. As the long neck popularity faded, the long neck was dropped and bluegrass banjos took over. Vega came out with the “Earl Scruggs” bluegrass model which never sold well because of its Tubaphone tone ring and stamped flange construction. C.F. Martin Guitars bought Vega on the recommendation of their historian Mike Longworth, who was also a banjo person. Martin never did well with Vega and sold the instrument section to a Korean man who made the Vega in Asia for a while before going bankrupt. The original tooling and Vega work in progress never went to Asia but was stored for years in a warehouse in Los Angeles. It was stored in crates stacked 20’ high and was offered for sale at $60,000. Apparently, it failed to sell, and a few years later in liquidation proceedings, most of this original Vega tooling and parts went for scrap at a bankruptcy auction. Greg Deering told me he found out about this after the fact, and unsuccessfully attempted to track down and retrieve some of it from junk yards but was largely unsuccessful. ______________________________________________________________ Remembering Pete Seeger Béla Fleck Bela Fleck and Pete Seeger I looked up to Pete immensely. His purpose was so much more than music itself, he considered music a tool with which to influence social change. His bravery dealing with Joe McCarthy is what elevated him for me into ‘legendary status’. He was one of the few who had the gumption to stand up to that heinous injustice, and he paid a bitter price for it. Yet—this was the defining moment in which he stood his ground, and it played a large part in making him into the symbol that he became. On a personal level, I really first got to know him in 2006 at MerleFest, where I didn’t feel he was treated with the same kind of awe that was usually accorded to him up north. I used to go see him play when I was a kid, before I started playing banjo, and was a performer at the Clearwater as a teenager. I remember him going up on stage to encourage musicians with stage fright, during their performances. I wasn’t nervous, and I assume he figured I didn’t need his help, so we didn’t meet back then. But in 2006 at Merle, he was extremely warm and open, and we hit it off. From then on, we had a very sweet relationship. A couple of years ago at the Clearwater Festival I had agreed to perform a rare solo set. To my surprise it was programmed in a prime evening slot on the main stage for 10,000 or so people. I actually was quite nervous now. I noticed 92 year old Pete standing at the side of the stage where he remained for the whole set, being gently supportive. Maybe he realized I needed him this time. Alan Munde Munde Before I even owned a banjo I had read through Pete Seeger’s instruction book many times so that when my banjo arrived, a Vega Ranger (now located in the attic of the International Music Museum), I could put my fingers in the correct places and play a tune or two from the book. I had already practiced the basic strum on the side of my desk at school for weeks and had that down pretty good. The book was and is a wonderful introduction to the banjo and the world of music. I recommend it for all, even if you already play. Many years later when writing a column for Frets Magazine on beginning banjo I offered an arrangement of Home Sweet Home in what Seeger calls the “Basic Strum” and recommended his book in glowing terms in the text of the column. He sent me a very nice note thanking me for the mention of his book. Wow, a note from Pete Seeger to me. What a thrill. A few years later Country Gazette played in Oklahoma City at the centennial celebration of the 1889 Land Run in Oklahoma. Pete was also on the event. I did not get a chance to hear his performance but saw him sitting in the hotel lobby. Feeling it might be my only chance to speak to him, I stopped to say how much he meant to my music making. I got no farther than saying my name and he leapt up and gave me a big hug and went on to say how much he enjoyed and appreciated the column. He said he was glad to know that people were still interested in his book and that I would recommend it so highly. He even offered that if he were to do it again he would begin with the key of G rather than C as his book does. I was really taken aback with his recognition of me from a very small moment in his very huge life. Good ole Pete Seeger. John McEuen John McEuen, Pete Seeger and Eric Weisberg Pete Seeger...the contributions he made will be felt for a long long time. We are all better for having Pete in our world. I had his red book, as did many I was and is a road map to how to make music with the banjo that gave me my first directions to a new life. The door he opened led me to Earl, Dillard, Keith, and the rest. Thank you, Pete, for the inspiration of music and how to be. I’ll never forget driving late last century from one stage to the other at the Tennessee Banjo Institute (about 150 yards) when I pulled up along side Pete walking to the same place (we’d just left one workshop to head to another), and offered him a ride. He looked at the sky, looked at the car and where we were headed, looked up again at the sun and said “well, thanks...but it looks like a good day to walk.” I wish I would have walked with him. It was a good day. The enclosed photo was at a ‘Why Hunger’ event in New York (hosted by Tom Chapin), with great banjo player Eric Weissberg and my self, both feeling fortunate to spend an evening with Pete. I got to play with Pete, and will forever be grateful for that. Wayne Shrubsall I first heard Pete with the Weavers, and then I learned more of him through his troubles with the House Un-American Activities Committee witch (and wizard) hunts. We had all sung Irene, Goodnight and Old Smoky as kids at camp or in talent shows, but by 1960 I was bitten by the banjo bug. His was the only good book on banjo stylistics at the time, so I bought the Red Book and learned all his ideas of banjo style—even the bluegrass section that Mike, his half-brother, had added to the edition I got in the 60’s. Naturally, he was a genius. I was attending college in 1963 when Pete played a concert at Earlham College, a liberal Quaker college in Richmond, Indiana. The year before, a few of us attended a concert there featuring Joan Baez. By then I was much more interested in acoustic music than in rockabilly and crossover “race” music. In 1963 I’d heard or bought many of Seeger’s records. Seeing him at Earlham awoke my social conscience, and I became a dedicated civil rights activist and liberal thinker. My fondest memory (among many) that still stands out is of seeing him at the wedding of John Cohen’s son, Rufus. This happened in Albuquerque, where John visits frequently, and I got an invitation. The reception was at Rufus’s house, and there was a huge jam session around a bonfire in Rufus’s back yard. As I listened to the music and noticed many leading folk figures—John, of course, Mike Seeger, Alice Gerard, and others, I saw a bald-headed, bearded guy sitting on the ground and playing along with the primarily traditional Appalachian music pickers. He was playing a 12-string guitar and holding it close to his ear as he played. Lost in the music, I thought—and then realized it was Pete. Well, why not? After all, Rufus’s mother was Penny Seeger Cohen, Pete’s half-sister. It was for him a family affair. Then his grandson (I think Ty?) came over and said something. Pete stood and wove his way slowly through the crowd. I couldn’t stay silent. I had just reviewed his Homespun video, and he had sent me a thank-you card. (I have it framed.) He had also intended to correct something I had stated. Then he changed his mind and crossed out the correction. Hah, I’d thought at the time. Why waste trees to send a new postcard? The consummate ecological warrior! I introduced myself, and he thanked me again for the review. Then his grandson started to lead him away back to their hotel room. He was in his 80’s, and the night had turned chilly. “Well, I gotta go,” he said. And as he walked away, I said, “Oh, and Pete—” and he turned in response. “Thanks,” I said, “for everything. For everything.” Being a humble genius, he smiled, almost shrugging it off. Then he and his grandson were gone. Jens Kruger The passing of Pete Seeger touched my heart and soul. Pete was a wonderful man and was one of the first banjo players that came into my life when I was still a child living in Europe. It was a live recording of the Woody Guthrie song This Land Is Your Land; he had everybody singing along and the magic on the track was life-changing. The fact that just one man singing and playing a banjo could make people have such an intense positive experience seemed to me to be the essence of what music could do. I remember how my parents would sing with us children all the time, and when I heard Pete Seeger, I realized that playing the banjo would be the perfect thing for me to do. Wherever people play and sing, the light of life seems to shine that much brighter. Pete showed me that the hopeful and loving togetherness of our family through music could be put out into the world, and that is exactly what my brother Uwe and I are still trying to do in all of our performances. Pete was and always will be in my heart as a hero and role model. He loved people and gave the world through his music the gift of strength and courage to embrace hope and love. And still, to this day I have not yet found a more noble way to spend a lifetime. Cathy Fink Marcy and I worked with Pete many times, including children’s concerts, benefit concerts, the Grammy winning “cELLAbration: a Tribute to Ella Jenkins” recording and more. One recollection: About 20 years ago, we performed at Merlefest, as did Pete. We shared a stage during a family concert. Marcy introduced a song, saying the song wasn’t finished, but she wanted to share the chorus. Pete heard the song and said, “Don’t add a thing, that song is finished!”: Take good care of each other, from the very start Care to share with each other, the love what’s in your heart If you’re there for each other, the ones you love will know Take good care of each other, and watch your friendships grow. Later, after our mainstage set, Pete made his way backstage, gave us both big hugs and said, “You girls do so well in this bastion of male supremacy!” We will be grateful to Pete for years to come. Mike Kropp Pete Seeger’s passing marks the end of an era that spanned several generations of banjo players. After hearing Pete and the Weavers in the 1960’s, I was consumed with playing the banjo. His Red book was my bible. While still in high school, my buddy, Don McLean, and I would often call Pete to ask him questions about playing banjo. Amazingly, he was always cordial and helpful! I attained full circle with Pete in 1970 when, as a staff producer for Columbia Records, I co-produced, with John Hammond, Sr., the “Lost Suppressed Recording” of Pete performing Country Joe’s Fixin’ To Die Rag. Here’s a link to the story and music: Pete’s legacy is a true monument to world music. Just think of a world without Turn, Turn, Turn, Guantanamera and many others. A day doesn’t go by without something musical that reminds me of Pete. He was the true “Johnny Appleseed” and ambassador for music and peace on earth. Chuck Ogsbury Most likely, if it wasn’t for Pete Seeger, the “Folk” music of the late 50’s and early 60’s would have been significantly different and there probably would not have been any long-neck 5-string banjos made by companies like Vega, Gibson, Ode, Bacon, and Harmony. Like so many of my generation, it was the “Weavers at Carnagie Hall” album with Pete on banjo that first hooked me into “Folk” music about 1958, and his banjo instruction book pioneered the way for thousands to get started on 5-string. His social conscience and environmental work put Pete “Over the Top” in my book. He will be lovingly missed. Janet Davis Janet Davis Pete Seeger was a major influence for me. I learned so much from him. Listening to Pete’s music and learning from his book were when I really became a banjo player. The basic strum and frailing were the way I played at first. The 3-finger style songs in his book were fun to play, but only included partial breaks, which inspired me to expand my listening avenues. His book is one I always recommend. I have always admired his relaxed way of performing. The the audience was involved and having fun, too. Michael Holmes I first met Pete Seeger when I was 15. He used to summer near the camp where I was teaching swimming. Later, when I was 20, I was injured playing basketball and spent 7 months, on my back, in and out of the hospital. During that time it was Pete’s influence—through his “how-to” records and books, banjo and guitar—that I learned to play both instruments well enough to go on the road as a musician when I healed. Pete Seeger has been my friend and supportive of all my activities, both Mugwumps and now the Music Camps North that try to continue his teaching and philosophy. I cherish his notes of encouragement and will be forever grateful. When I invited him to come to Banjo Camp as a guest, he said he already had too many things on his “Bucket list” and sadly, he declined. Our loss and everyone else’s, too. Bruce Molsky I visited Pete at his house a couple of days before he went in the hospital for the last time. We played a little music. He read me a Shakespeare sonnet and proceeded to explain, with great enthusiasm, how they’re constructed. He stoked the woodstove and we just chatted about this and that. I didn’t realize it would be the last time I’d see him, but he did seem tired and was moving slow. Part of the power of Pete’s music was that it was motivated by something way deeper. In October of 2005 I ran into him at the post office, and he asked me if I knew any young couples with children who might like to come out and sing. I said ‘sure,’ and didn’t think more about it. In December, he called. He had secured a few parking spaces on Main Street. The sing would be an hour long (he felt that would be the limit of children’s attention spans), and would I sing a couple of songs? When I arrived, he and another guy were under the hood of a pickup truck attaching an inverter to the battery to run a small sound system. It was about 5:30 in the afternoon, and about 35 degrees. At 5:50, folks started to show up, and at 6:00, with probably 100 people standing around, Pete started off on a couple of songs. After he was done, he passed the ball to some of the rest of us to lead some songs. And that’s when you could really see what made Pete tick. As we all sang, he walked and skipped around the perimeter of all of it with joy that just seemed to flow out of him. He was so happy to see everyone there together sharing the moment. Dan Levenson Levenson I was doing a show the night before we heard Pete Seeger had passed away, and had just told the audience about meeting him after many years of listening to his music. In fact, I always mention Pete in my shows because not only was he a constant musical influence, but he also gave me the key to my performances that I continue to remember to this day. I consider myself lucky to have been raised with the music of Pete Seeger. My parents were fans of him as well as Woody Guthrie and The Weavers. In fact, part of my parent’s honeymoon trip included meeting Woody in New York City. My friend Alan and I would make trips to the Carnegie Library in Pittsburgh to listen to Pete’s albums in the listening room. I took out his songbooks, went to his concerts. The most memorable concert I attended was with my parents on July 4th in Pittsburgh where Pete was scheduled to play from the American Wind Symphony barge. I was 14. The waterfront was packed! But we got there early enough to get great seats. Well, the show began and it started to rain, light at first but then a downpour that could have easily ruined anyone’s show. But, no one moved! About a thousand umbrellas opened as we all stayed glued to our spots. Little did I know that in a few years, I would get to spend time with Pete while attending the second TBI. Pete was an instructor. I had driven from Cleveland, so I had my car. Pete needed to do some shopping and so the staff asked if I “would mind taking Pete.” Well, of course I would love to take him. So there we were, me with a childhood/adult hero of music going shopping! We talked about a lot of things: politics (of course), Pete’s hobby of the history of concrete and stone cutting to build without it, and music. It was there that I asked Pete how he decided what to play for his shows. What tunes, format, how to judge audience reactions—the things we all ask ourselves. It seemed innocent and simple enough. The answer, however, was not what I’d expected. Pete just quietly said, “Why Dan, I don’t ever do that really. I just tell my story.” My story. Of course! And since then, my show has been “My Story,” which is both always the same but always changing. And lucky for me, Pete has always been part of my story. Janet Deering Pete Seeger and Janet Deering Greg and I visited Pete and Toshi Seeger at their home a few years ago following Banjo Camp North. Pete sang us a song he had written with some elementary school children about sharing the music. Hearing Pete sing and play in his living room was an amazing experience. He was so full of life, love and the energy of music, even in his 90’s. Although we may not have agreed with everything he stood for politically, we shared the love of the banjo and the music that brings people together in brotherhood. He was a great man. We are thankful that he lived and gave so much wonderful music to the world. Pete made it a better place for having lived. Pete Seeger and Greg Deering Bill Evans Evans Pete’s “How To Play the Five-String Banjo” was the first banjo book that I discovered as a high school student growing up in Norfolk, Virginia in the 1970’s. While the bluegrass chapter in Pete’s book was what interested me the most, I also discovered a rich and varied landscape of other styles of banjo playing, from old-time to folk, classical and even Spanish music (which I later learned Pete invented for the book). How was the banjo capable of playing so many different kinds of music? In looking back, I think Pete had an ulterior motive, all the way back in 1954. He was clearly telling us way back then that any kind of music can be played on the banjo. Many musicians heard this message across the decades, and look at the incredible world of the banjo that we find all around us today. Thank you, Pete. You will be remembered and honored for all time, as long as we keep singing and making music on our banjos! Dick Weissman During the 1950’s, there were two giants of the five string banjo. Almost anyone that became interested in banjo music was influenced by Pete Seeger and/or Earl Scruggs. Growing up in Philadelphia, Pete Seeger was the first banjo player that I heard. I bought his 78 RPM records on Disc, the predecessor to Folkways, and I sent for his mimeographed five string banjo method. I literally wore out his 10” LP, Darling Corey. When I was a student at Goddard College in Vermont, in 1953, I booked Pete to do a concert. We paid him all of $35, but agreed to drive him to his better gig in Montreal. In the summer of 1954, I was a counselor at a Camp Woodland, in upstate New York. Pete came and sang. There was another banjo player who was there that night, who was a well-known Seeger imitator. He duplicated every Seeger lick or strum. They were playing an old tune called Round The Bay of Mexico, and went into a banjo break. I looked over at Pete, and he was clearly annoyed. He went into a mandolin tremolo, which the other player couldn’t imitate. Pete didn’t say a word, but he got his message across, at least to me. A few years later, Pete did a series of performances at Columbia University. One night he sang the African-American spiritual Great Getting Up Morning. I was astounded. He seemed to know dozens of verses. It was one of those indefinable moments. The song must have gone on for fifteen minutes or more. No one wanted it to end, and he had everyone singing along. For Pete Seeger musical participation was more important than celebrating his own virtuosity. My friend Frank Hamilton used to jokingly say that he wondered how many middle class kids’ lives Pete had ruined, causing them to hitchhike, ride freight trains and became folksingers and musicians. I guess I was one of them. Many of the obituaries of Pete have focused on his political views and his hit songs. I’d like to zero in on his contributions to banjo music. His banjo method was the first modern method, and it included sections on blues, calypso music, and all sorts of banjo styles. He was the first American folksinger to do music from other cultures. This included African music, West Indian music, and even Asian music. Many of the things that today’s experimental players are exploring today, Pete was attempting sixty years ago. His 1955 record The Goofing Off Suite, included some classical music arranged for banjo, as well as the pop standard Blue Skies, and original music as well. In 1959 he recorded a wonderful banjo duet with Frank Hamilton of a Pygmy tune on the Nonesuch album. The other thing that Pete did, was that he led his audience to the sources that he drew from in his own performances. That’s how we found out about Pete Steele, Hobart Smith, and all the other Library of Congress artists. He was the Pied Piper of the banjo, and the truth is that he directly and indirectly influenced players who in fact know little about his musical interests and versatility. Pete made many recordings, as he himself pointed out, maybe too many. Sometimes his music was ill rehearsed or performed, but it was always as true to the sources of his inspiration as he could make it. He was well aware of the fact that his many agendas sometimes interfered with his ability to practice and refine his playing. He was a pioneer, and he paved the way for future generations. Anyone who knew him will him, both as a musician and a caring human being. In a book that I wrote about the folk music revival, I referred to him as the anti-superstar. He liked that, and he deserved it. Bob Piekiel BNL readers know I’m a big fan of Earl Scruggs, but Earl was not my first exposure to the banjo. Rather, it was Pete Seeger. Back in 1976 my grandfather passed away and left us his home. My parents decided to move into it. But since there was no hurry for us to make the move, we leisurely began prepping the home. During that summer, I spent many days at the new home, mowing, cleaning, setting up bedrooms, etc. One day I turned on the TV and stumbled across a concert of Pete Seeger and Arlo Guthrie. I had never heard of Pete or Arlo before, but the odd combination of a young guy with an older guy, singing unusual ballads, combined with Pete’s enthusiastic showmanship and variety of banjo picking styles really intrigued me. That concert stayed in my memory for a long time. Almost by accident, the following summer I saw that that same concert was being re-broadcast. I eagerly sat by the TV, and again was treated to the magic I remembered from the year before. Tunes like “Worried Man Blues, Well May the World Go, and Pete’s whistling rendition of The Three Rules of Discipline and the Eight Rules of Attention mesmerized me once again. From that point, I was hooked, on either the banjo, Pete, or both. My school friends thought I was crazy, as they were all into modern pop and rock. The following year, PBS broadcast the famous Wolftrap concert featuring Pete and Arlo, which I watched with keen interest. I decided I wanted to learn to play banjo, and went to my local music store to buy one, along with (if available) Pete’s instruction book. They had banjos, but not Pete’s book. The salesman said I should really learn from Earl Scruggs’s book, which was the “definitive book to learn from.” The rest was history, as they say, but I never forgot about Pete Seeger. I attended all of his concerts here in Syracuse, bought his albums, and even spoke to him on the phone a few times. Over the years I’ve adapted some of Pete’s signature frailing tunes into my 3-finger picking, and to this day, acknowledge him as the influence that got me started in music. If it wasn’t for Pete, I wouldn’t be “here” today, and my life would probably have taken a very different path. I will miss you, Pete! May the angels carry you home! The Death of Pete Seeger (May Day, 2032) by Pete Wernick Read Pete Wernick’s column about Pete in the October 2013 issue of Banjo Newsletter America’s venerable folk singer, Pete Seeger, passed away yesterday at the age of 123. Seeger had never expected to die, but caught cold Jan. 16 at an all-night vigil in Siberia for disrespected former comrades. He was rushed back to his home in Beacon, NY, where his family made an announcement inviting everyone who had ever been influenced by him to Beacon for a final goodbye. The unprecedented number, exceeding the U.S. population, put a strain on the little upstate NY town that had not been seen since President Chelsea Clinton’s wedding in nearby Rhinebeck in 2010. The great weight of the U.S. population (almost a half billion grossly overweight people) concentrated in Rhinebeck had an unexpected effect on world climate by actually adjusting a critical tectonic plate so as to redirect the gulfstream, with beneficial effects both to glaciers and to the rainforest, as well as altering the sea floor of the Gulf of Mexico, finally shutting off a 23 year-old leak caused by U R Us Corp., then known as BP. Seeger’s reaction to the climate change was delight, writing three songs including “I Told You So”, and the rousing duet hit with Barbara Walters, “The View from 122”. His revitalization led to yet another all-star tribute event, “Big Folk King Deal XXVII” in Las Vegas hosted by Taylor Swift. As Ms. Swift and Justin Timberlake led the crowd singing “Which Side Are You On?” Seeger was heard to say, “I’m out of here,” and left this earth. A better place. Bless you Pete, it has been great having you here! current issue subscriptions back copies classifieds site map store advertise about BNL contact BNL © Copyright Banjo NewsLetter 1973-2019, All Rights Reserved _____________________________________________________________ Pete Seeger and the 5-String Revival By Ken Perlman pete seeger at Farm Aid 2013 With Pete Seeger’s passing, the modern banjo world has lost its founding father and guiding light. Just about every person whose life was touched by Pete Seeger saw him as an admirable and unforgettable individual. Certainly, one of the high points of my life was when I got to hang out with Pete for a few hours while conducting an interview for BNL (published in two parts, Sept. and Oct. 2000). Ode To Joy tab banjo tab - $2 We 5-string banjoists owe Pete an incalculable debt, for without his energy, vision, and influence the instrument might very well have virtually disappeared from the scene. By the late 1930s, interest in 5-string was truly at a low ebb. Virtually all banjos manufactured at the time were tenor and plectrum (4-string) instruments, and the population playing 5-string consisted primarily of aging holdovers from the classic-banjo era and relatively isolated homegrown pickers from rural pockets scattered around the landscape. What’s more, there was no standard, or even widespread, method of playing the 5-string in these rural pockets. Instead, a constellation of playing methods arose: 2-finger, 3-finger, stroke-style (i.e., clawhammer), not to mention a host of hybrids. Although players from some rural pockets shared a common playing method, there were probably as many different ways of picking the 5-string banjo in those days as there were banjo pickers. In the mid-1930s when Pete was about 16, his father, the noted musicologist Charles Seeger, took him to a folk festival near Asheville, North Carolina, where he was deeply impressed by the playing of a 5-string picker named Samantha Baumgartner. Soon afterwards, Charles invited banjoist and Asheville festival organizer Bascom Lamar Lunsford to visit the family home in Washington DC, and as Pete describes, “in a few brief minutes I got a nice introduction to what I still call the Lunsford style. It involves plucking up on the 3rd string, then the 1st string next, and then you add the 5th string.” Due to these experiences, Pete was smitten with the instrument and vowed to learn as much about it as he could. Pete inaugurated his quest by seeking out every available 5-string banjo recording then in the Library of Congress. Then in 1940, he set off on a hitch-hiking trip across the country on a quest to seek out 5-string banjo pickers. Pete would say: “Every time I found someone who played a banjo I’d say, ‘Can you play me a tune,’ and I’d watch him closely. By the end of the summer I realized there were several different styles of picking—double thumbing, frailing, and there was up-picking (which I call ‘the basic strum’ in my book), and there was Lunsford-style which was up-up. By the end of 1940, I was about 200% better on the banjo than I had been eight months earlier.” The style that Pete developed on that journey, now known as “Seeger-style,” was essentially a hybrid between 2-finger picking and “frailing” (now known as clawhammer). His “basic strum”—later dubbed “bumm-titty”—consisted of an up-picked quarter note followed by a brush-thumb. He became extraordinarily proficient at this strum and could play it at blinding speed; he also developed great facility in his fretting hand including the ability to play complex chords in various positions around the fingerboard. Blending in some finger-lead 2-finger picking (which he calls “double thumbing”) and Lunsford style 3-finger picking (in which the downward brush motion of the bum-titty strum is replaced by an up-picked brush or single string) offered additional flexibility. In 1940 and ‘41 Pete was part of the small group of enthusiasts in New York City who helped launch the Folk Revival. At first, such future legends as Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly and Aunt Molly Jackson were enlisted to offer small concerts in the living rooms of New York apartments. Then Pete joined together with Lee Hays and Mil Lampell to form the Almanac Singers, who came to public attention by bringing down the house at a convention of the Transport Workers Union at Madison Square Garden with a spirited rendition of Guthrie’s Union Maid. Later, in 1948, Seeger and Hays teamed up with Ronnie Gilbert and Fred Hellerman to form the Weavers, a group that electrified audiences across the US and had several major hits, most notably Leadbelly’s Goodnight Irene, which was No. 1 on the Charts for 13 weeks in 1950. Pete’s banjo was front and center at performances of both the Almanac Singers and the Weavers. And the Weavers were so popular, and Pete’s stage persona so appealing, that a host of urban-bred youngsters suddenly developed the urge to take up the 5-string banjo. Pete’s activities engendered a host of 5-string imitators, disciples and innovators. Eric Weissberg (Dueling Banjos) was an early student. An emulator of Pete named Stu Jamieson sought out Kentucky downpicker Rufus Crisp, learned a true clawhammer style from him and became the conduit by which clawhammer entered the folk revival. In the late 1940s, Tom Paley was motivated by Pete’s example to take up the banjo; Paley became interested in trying to exactly re-create older styles and sought out recordings by such roots artists as Wade Ward, Pete Steele, Clarence “Tom” Ashley and Uncle Dave Macon. About a decade later, he would join up with John Cohen and Seeger’s half-brother Mike to form the New Lost City Ramblers. In 1948, Pete put together the first modern fretted instrument instruction book, known as “How to Play the 5-string Banjo.” First replicated in an edition of 100 copies on a mimeograph machine at a Manhattan print shop, and published more formally in 1962 by Music Sales, the book has sold perhaps 100,000 copies to date and in effect introduced two generations of players to the instrument. In fact, when I interviewed Pete in 2000 it could still be said that just about every prominent 5-string player of that era had used his book to get started. In order to make the book universally accessible, Pete adapted and modernized the ancient art of tablature-writing for fretted instruments (he was encouraged to use tab by his father Charles, who knew that it had been used for fretted-instrument notation during the Renaissance and Baroque periods). Pete invented or popularized many of the terms we now use in fretted instrument pedagogy, such as bum-titty strum, brush, hammer-on, pull-off, slide, double-thumbing, mountain-minor tuning, etc. He not only described in detail numerous 5-string picking techniques and showed how to adapt them to several time signatures and a wide variety of musical genres, but he inspired novices with colorful anecdotes about the music and the people who played it. In addition, copious photographs, diagrams and sketches added significantly to the book’s appeal. Although Pete rarely played a true clawhammer style (which he always referred to as “frailing”), his performances and instruction book prominently featured both brush-thumbing and double-thumbing. For those so inclined, it was a relatively simple stretch to move from Seeger’s hybrid or up-picked style to true downpicking. Tom Paley recalled being told that you could achieve a “frailing” attack merely by substituting a downstroke where Seeger called for an upstroke. He tried it and his highly nuanced style was born. Similarly, when I learned from the Seeger book, I simply pictured the folks around me who frailed, and barely noticed the indications where Pete called for up-picking. Pete more or less invented and popularized the long-neck banjo as a means of lowering the banjo’s range to make it more effective for song accompaniment. Although some might declare that Earl Scruggs had a more profound effect on banjo history than Seeger, I think this view is simplistic. Earl’s approach may have proved to be far more open-ended and adaptable, but I sincerely doubt that bluegrass music in general—or bluegrass banjo picking in particular—would have found a second home in cities and college campuses across the nation if Seeger hadn’t paved the way, or if his book and recordings hadn’t created a substantial coterie of young people with banjo-playing skills. Ken Perlman It is important to understand that music for Pete was as much a means for promoting social justice, as it was an end in itself. In the 1950s during the McCarthy Era, the Weavers—who had been on their way to pop-culture prominence—were black-listed because of their social views and as a result were banned from appearances at many larger venues and on television. Seeger himself was declared in contempt of Congress when he was called before the infamous House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), and refused on constitutional grounds “to answer any questions as to [his] associations, [his] political and religious beliefs or [his] political beliefs...” In the late 1950s and through the 60s Seeger was active in both the Civil Rights and Anti-[Viet Nam] War movements. In the 1970s, he turned his attention to ecological issues and helped establish the Clearwater Foundation to promote the purification of his beloved Hudson River Valley. To those who would like learn more details on Seeger’s life, I highly recommend his two autobiographies: “The Incompleat Folksinger” and “Where Have All the Flowers Gone.” And don’t forget to check his music out on YouTube and other internet sources! This month’s tune is my clawhammer version of one of Pete’s best known pieces: his version of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy. Editor’s Note: Ken’s two part interview of Pete Seeger can now be accessed on-line at

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