To follow up on the Pete Seeger video I posted below, my friend Joe Kille wrote an e-mail to a couple mutual friends and me about Seeger and his particular approach to folk music. Joe basically argued that Seeger was advocating for the homogenization of folk music by trying to standardize the folk repertoire a la Rise Up Singing. To Joe’s credit though, he was also moved by the whole “This Land Is Your Land” singalong, so he’s no party-pooper. I wanted to quote the whole e-mail, but the formatting was just insane, so here’s a taste (in order print this here, Joe wanted me to note that he did not edit this at all – hence overuse of parentheses, typos, etc):

I know it was the 60’s reformed communist dream that we could all understand each other through some uni-culture but that does a lot to whitewash peoples/music/cultures. Kind of kills the whole Lomax / Lost Sounds idea (of which some people say seeger was involved…what?)

Seeger travelled the country singing other people’s songs. His contributions to the folk cannon are notable (turn, turn, turn; where have all the flowers gone?; if I had a hammer) but lack any real teeth. Pete Seeger (more than dylan) made a career aping Guthrie’s legacy. Where Guthrie was singing specifics, Seeger is singing generalities.

Maybe I’m a prematurely crusty old man, but I think that the idea that any song can be song by a huge group of people can only go so far (despite the fact that This Land Is Your Land should be our national anthem). As irritating as it is when they do it, the Carolina Chocolate Drops do it best when they sing other people’s songs, which is to give an exhaustive measure of where you can hear the original (or earliest recorded) version of the song and from what musical tradition it came. Even then, they wind up putting their own spin on the songs they sing (even if just instrumentation wise) and recognize it. If you’ve ever read Pete Seegers Folk Singer guide you get the impressions that he’s laying out the way that people should perform by themselves and with a group and that’s it. As a country, we don’t need directions for how to perform music. It will just happen by itself. As Big Bill Broonzy said (when asked if what he was singing was considered a folk song) “It must be, I’ve never heard a horse sing it.”

First off, I’m obviously with him on the awesomeness of the inclusion of the “lost” verse of “This Land Is Your Land” at the inaugural concert. His major point, besides dissing Seeger’s lame voice and playing (and I’m with him on that) is that he is basically advocating for a standardization/homogenization of folk music, something that is almost inherently heterogeneous. I agree that folk music is in many ways a spontaneous, improvised experience rooted in distinct cultural traditions. In a country like the United States where many different traditions and folk musics eventually became intertwined to the point where we can legitimately talk of American folk music that includes blues, old time, zydeco, corridos, etc. This is especially true since many of these divisions were created by record executives who were maybe not directly of the cultures from where these folk traditions came.

Seeger was similar to these executives in terms of his relative outsider status, but engaged in similar manipulation of what “folk” really meant. I do think that almost anybody talking about this engages in some kind of manipulation of what is basically a not-entirely-definable term, so to say that Seeger manipulated its meaning is not necessarily a bad or evil thing. So even if Seeger is maybe aesthetically lame, the fact that he popularized much of this music was an important contribution, especially since he did not actually succeed in his drive to standardize what he saw as a folk canon of sorts.

Also, it’s worth considering the alternative. Many different parties are constantly trying to define what America means. Both of us might agree that a search for a clean and tidy national definition is a stupid, pointless quest to begin with. That in and of itself might explain your problem with Seeger. He’s trying to define the indefinable. But if there are going to be others defining it by “I’m Proud To Be An American” and all other kinds of vaguely objectionable drivel that is often part of the conversation when it comes to American music, it’s nice to know that someone fought for a definition of this country that could include not only “This Land Is Your Land,” but a host of other blues and old-time standards. These are songs that were presented in a particularly lame, and perhaps harmful (with regards to Seeger’s overeager attempts to standardize a folk canon), but can at least provide an opening for many Americans to explore the real folk traditions of this country. I know that growing up in the house of South African immigrants, Seeger was a way for my parents to introduce me to the music of a country who folkways they only kind of understood themselves.

And anyway, without Seeger, that singalong at the Lincoln Memorial could’ve been “God Bless America” instead of Guthrie’s response.

If you heard the performance by Bruce Springsteen and Pete Seeger of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land” at the Obama inaugural concert that just finished, they sang the verse about private property that at another time would have gotten everybody involved right onto the top of the blacklist!

Was a high wall there that tried to stop me

A sign was painted said: Private Property,

But on the back side it didn’t say nothing

This land was made for you and me

It’s been a long time coming!

—- Update —-

I’ve now found the video:

— Update #2 —-

The link I posted to a video was taken down, but thanks to commenter Alline Anderson for posting a new link.