The banjo and the axe
Pete Seeger’s joyful revolution
“How Can I Keep from Singing: The Work of Pete Seeger” exhibit at the Woody Guthrie Center
When I peeked past the entry placard and into the exhibit “How Can I Keep from Singing: The Work of Pete Seeger” at the Woody Guthrie Center, the first thing that caught my eye—stuck in a tree stump, flanked by a calabash and a handwritten version of an old Spanish tune—was an axe.
“I don’t believe I’ve ever packed up an axe to be shipped before,” laughed Deana McCloud, executive director of the Woody Guthrie Center, which curated this first-ever exhibit entirely devoted to Seeger and his work. “But here it is. It’s part of who he was, just as much as his hand-carved long-necked banjo over there.”
Remembered in American cultural mythology mainly as the gentle man in a sweater and dungarees (both on display in the exhibit) whose ringing voice invited folks around the world to hold hands and sing together, Seeger turns out to be far more than that. The exhibit, on display until August 20 before it moves to the Grammy Museum in Los Angeles, extensively covers his long life (he died in 2014, at age 94). It’s a stunning collection of original documents, photographs, artifacts, videos, and interactives—created in collaboration with the Grammy Museum’s assistance—that powerfully balances education with inspiration. It also raises questions about what impact music can have in a polarized, proto-authoritarian moment like our own.
Seeger was, throughout his life, both utterly harmless and profoundly radical, as we see in the very first items in the exhibit. What could be problematic, for instance, about a group of casually dressed musicians traveling under the name The Almanac Singers, performing “Modern Songs in the American Tradition”? Everything, according to the FBI, which began investigating them almost as soon as they formed in 1941. The group’s members included the 22-year-old Seeger and Woody Guthrie, for whom Seeger had dropped out of Harvard to follow on the road. (Seeger’s father, Charles, was a communist-sympathizing ethnomusicologist. Pete would inherit his leanings, sometimes under the friendlier name Guthrie gave them: “commonists.”)
Seeger and Guthrie became fast friends after meeting at a benefit for workers.
“[This] is the perfect place for a Pete exhibit to start: right beside Woody, for whom he had such a deep admiration,” McCloud said. “We always say you’re stronger together, and they of course realized this from the beginning.
“The Almanac Singers were the only musical group that was standing up for workers’ rights and civil rights. It’s one of those things that a very conservative government was suspicious about.”
Seeger subsequently joined The Weavers and became even more outspoken, and in 1953 they were the only musical group targeted in the Red Scare blacklist.
It was just the start of Seeger’s trouble, but already in these early years the bright thread is there: a fearless confidence in the people’s music to support and defend the people, as well as some basic human principles like environmental stewardship, hard work, racial and economic equality, camaraderie, compassion—and fun.
The Center’s exhibit focuses on seven periods in Seeger’s life, swinging easily as he did between good humor (notably in long letters full of sharp jokes) and searing social outrage. The marvelous interactives include a lesson on a real banjo and a singalong complete with a mic that folks can gather around and, via video, raise their voices together right along with Seeger.
“The thread that runs through this exhibit is that Pete was a joiner of people … a community builder, ” McCloud said.
“How Can I Keep From Singing” is both a vital history lesson and a joyful uplift. But it takes more than sweet sounds to make an exhibit like this. Seeger’s sharp, strong edge is as much a part of the story as is his community building. Documents from when Seeger refused to name names to the House Un-American Activities Committee are particularly chilling.
“This is historically significant for young people who want to learn more about who we are as a nation and the impact their talents can have on people,” McCloud said. “We want to inspire them to go out and do that and be proud of that and share it with us, because we want to hear you.
“The hard part of the curatorial experience was figuring out what to include from such a long life without overwhelming people. And much like Woody, it needed to be bigger than music. I shouldn’t say ‘just music,’ because that was the medium for connecting with people. Their stories are bigger than that because of what they did for civil rights, for our environment, for the common people, in making sure that everybody was listened to. If you hold hands and sing ‘We shall overcome’ together, you can make changes in the world.
“That’s what Pete was,” she said. “He literally gave people a voice.”
“How Can I Keep From Singing: The Work of Pete Seeger” is on display through August 20.
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New songwriter series pays homage to Woody Guthrie
When their musician friend Max Gomez was in town from New Mexico last month, singer-songwriters Lauren Barth and Jesse Aycock approached Jerry Wofford, education and public programs manager of the Woody Guthrie Center about doing a concert with him there.
“We asked what they’d need for sound,” Wofford said, “and Lauren said, ‘I just thought we’d do it unplugged.’”
Thus was born the Songwriter Series: unamplified shows in the Center’s 60-seat auditorium on the third Saturday of every month. Musicians bring whoever they want to play with, then mix it up with solo sets, a songwriter-in-the-round song swap, and maybe a riff or two on each other’s songs.
“At the first one, Lauren and Jesse and Max and Dylan Aycock were all having so much fun,” Wofford said. “Everyone in the crowd was like, ‘We’re here till y’all are done. We’ll stay all night.’”
It’s a unique experience for musicians to play without a mic—“almost like a house concert,” Wofford said. “It feels like we’re in Woody’s living room, the way he would play with his friends. When Jesse and Lauren were singing in harmony, the room was just so crystal clear, it’s like you were right there next to them when they were writing the song.”
“They designed the room after a boxcar Woody himself might have been traveling on except for being twice as large and with AC, chairs, and acoustic treatment,” Aycock said. “It’s a space where the listener can really engage in the music. You could hear a pin drop all the way at the back.”
For Wofford, the series is a way to show off how the folk tradition Guthrie harnessed still flourishes here.
“Sitting in a circle listening to people tell stories is one of the oldest human pastimes,” he said. “These musicians are still telling great stories … To be able to showcase that here in the center dedicated to Woody’s work—there’s something very full circle about that.”
Kalyn Fay heads up the August 19 show with Jared Tyler, followed by Chris Blevins in September and Dan Martin in October.
Tickets are $18 in advance, $20 at the door, and $15 for WGC members. Wofford suggests buying in advance at woodyguthriecenter.org.
“After the July concert people were saying, ‘We’ll see you next month,’ so I’d say don’t hesitate. When the house hits 60, it’s full.”
For more from Alicia, read her article on Brian Brooks Moving Company.