Crossing the Wide Missouri

 

banjoIn the late fifties, San Francisco’s North Beach lay at the edge of history, as though the half-millennium of westward migration had halted a few blocks from the Pacific to spawn this subterranean frontier.  From doorways along the teeming sidewalks, the sounds came floating into the night—a cool sax, Dixieland, bawdy comedy, piano-bar opera, old-time banjo bands.  We came up from Stanford, wearing our collegiate world like a space capsule, roaming the gaudy streets and smoky clubs, descending into dank, liquor-scented cellars in search of the edge, the boundaries of the self, the night-journey of the soul.  We imbibed the sarcasm of Mort Sahl, the obscene bravado of Lenny Bruce, Beat poetry at City Lights Books, beer-drenched banjo singalongs at the Red Garter, Turk Murphy’s Dixieland at Earthquake McGoon’s, flamenco dancing at Casa Madrid, female impersonations at Finnochio’s, the nightly New Year’s Eve at Gold Street, and the famous 3 A.M. breakfast at Fack’s. 

But the real focus of our pilgrimage was the urban folk music revival that swept the collegiate scene in the late fifties and early sixties.  On a summer night in ’57, after my freshman year, I had discovered the hungry i, a small underground theater in the heart of North Beach.  On the bare stage before a wall of old brick, a black man sat on a stool in the narrow spotlight, his arms so massive it seemed they might crumple his guitar.  But his fingers raced gently over the strings in a lilting yet driving rhythm, and the soft voice had a raw nonresonance that seemed to float on a wind off the wide-open land:

O Shenandoah! I long to see you
Far away, you rollin’ river
O Shenandoah, I long to see you
Away, we’re bound away
’Cross the wide Missouri.

It was a haunting melody, flowing through minors and sevenths until I too felt bound away—out of the bowels of North Beach, out of the world-weary city and the dreary disquiet of stone-cold streets—bound away to the banks of some wide Missouri, the last great divide between civilization and wilderness, origin and destiny, out of the gray mists of my past to a dream of vistas stretching away like the promise of that vast prairie.

Perhaps I sensed that college was itself the crossing of a great divide—my own wide Missouri.  Perhaps the song appealed to the paradox of youth, the pain of departures and the promise of beginnings.  I envisioned a man in a more innocent time poised at the edge of the great Missouri, gazing west into the limitless potential of the American land yet longing for the yellow fields of childhood on the wooded banks of a river that ran through the Shenandoah Valley, rolling across Virginia and down through the Carolinas. 

The paradox of this rite of passage was implicit in the aura of the folk revival: on one hand, a yearning for the lost innocence of a warm parental world, and on the other, a driving need for independence, for radical self-expression and the romance of the heroic outsider.  The simple melodies and lyric images suggested a time when one’s connections to the world were familiar and direct—the childhood or adolescence of America—while the people in the songs and persona of the singer evoked the image of the footloose outsider. 

The folk revival thrived on college campuses because it captured the conflicts of youth.  Yet its two faces also reflected the paradox of the postmodern condition itself.  The two tempers, nostalgia and alienation, rose with the displacements of urban-industrial life, accelerated during the first half of the twentieth century, and exploded into popular culture in the 1950s—from the nostalgia of westerns, Walt Disney, and MGM musicals to the alienation of Kerouac and the Beats, Lenny Bruce, James Dean, Jackson Pollack, and Charlie Parker.  What made the folk revival unique was that it merged the two on both a personal and collective level. 

Those of us who came of age in the fifties have been called the Silent Generation.  Sandwiched between a generation that questioned little and one that questioned everything, we faced both directions, as befit a time of transition.  Like those a century before who had trekked westward across the wide Missouri, we had a sense that our rites of passage reflected something larger, something epochal.  Sitting in the smoky cellars of the last West in our crew-cuts, thin ties, and Ivy League coats, we were outsiders blending in, dimly aware that America itself was poised for a radical break with the past.  For the fifties were the seedbed of the sixties, the last great watershed in American history, and the folk revival was the harbinger of that transformation.

Like America itself at midcentury, we were suspended between innocence and responsibility.  Freefalling into the future, we found solace in the past, lured less by nostalgia than by the romance of the outsider.  In our dorms, apartments, and party pads, lying on the floor in the late night listening to the Weavers, Odetta, Leadbelly, or Bob Gibson, we were all Woody Guthries wandering the land.  We were the sailors, cowpokes, and prairie farmers who had tamed the continent to the stoic ring of the banjo or the lonesome howl of a lumber camp harmonica.  And we sang into the night—songs of leaving and loss, of new life in new lands, of ineffable longing and rugged self-reliance, of train rhythms out on the open land when life was more than a borrowed script, of simpler times when the country itself was young, poised on the east bank of the great Missouri, looking west across a land that stretched away into futures unimagined.

The Vanguard

Carnegie Hall, Christmas Eve, 1955:  The concert has been sold out for months.  Blacklisted for their leftist leanings, the quartet is making their first appearance in three years.  Most of the old fans from the Village are here, rising to their feet as the hall darkens and light washes the stage, bare but for four free-standing mikes.  Four figures walk from the wings to an explosion of applause—a lanky young man with a long-necked banjo, looking like a backwoodsman in a borrowed tuxedo, followed by a gaunt, balding man with a guitar, a plump woman with a Kewpie-doll face, and a stout, middle-aged man who looks like a labor boss.  Suddenly the hall is electric with the raw staccato of Pete Seeger’s banjo, frailing a tune that draws applause of recognition, and the four launch into “Darling Corey,” the harmonies free and soaring, the four voices sounding like fourteen, piling above one another with a feeling of immense force.  The applause following that song would have filled half a side of the classic album recorded that night.  If there was a symbolic moment when the urban folksong revival was born, it was that Christmas Eve in 1955 when the Weavers returned from exile.

Balancing the raw purity of traditional folksong with the polish of professionalism, the Weavers had a down-home warmth, humor, and vitality, weaving their songs into a harmonic tapestry, trading parts midsong, looking all the while like random people at a bus stop.  Under Seeger’s split tenor and Lee Hays’s “avuncular baritone,” wrote historian Robert Cantwell, was the “bookish but mellifluous” voice of Fred Hellerman and the lush, protean alto of Ronnie Gilbert, “by turns gentle as a nursing mother’s, innocent as a child’s, lusty as the Wife of Bath’s, and stern as a suffragette’s.”

The Weavers had survived a dark moment in American history—the McCarthy years, the rampant House Un-American Activities Committee, the boycotts, blacklists, and hate campaigns.  Rising from Village songfests to the peak of musical stardom in 1950 (when their version of “Goodnight Irene” sold over a million records), they were targeted by witch hunters, banned by broadcasters, accused in headlines, struck from Decca’s catalog, and scorned by clubs that had once fought to book them.

Forced to disband in 1952, they reemerged in 1955, recording for Vanguard and building new audiences, performing in concert halls and on college campuses.  The irony of the blacklist is that it allowed the folk revival to develop free of media influence, preserving much of the raw originality along with the countercultural bent that would energize the protests of the sixties.  While Decca had cluttered the Weavers’ songs with large orchestrations, the small Vanguard label allowed them to return to their folk roots.  As a result, they altered the course of mainstream American music.

While rock and roll had opened doors to the vernacular, bringing rhythm and blues across the racial line, by the end of the decade it seemed watered down and overly white.  The idealistic anti-commercialism of folk music not only filled the gap but better served the ambivalence of older youth, whose new collegiate independence was tempered by nostalgia for the warmth and innocence of home.  The Weavers spoke directly to that ambivalence, using the power of folksong to reimagine a lost America that lay behind the great wall of a depression and two world wars.

The folk revival made popular music literate, more substantial than adolescent infatuation and rebellion.  Folksongs were about something, the meat of human life—love and death and whiskey and going far, far away.  Their hardheaded honesty moved beyond the merely sentimental to the truly tragic.  They were songs of unfulfillment and restless dissatisfaction, of departure and distance, of a bittersweet sense of immense emptiness ahead and behind.  The lyrics long for the indefinable, torn between the promise of the open road and pangs of haunting regret. 

I looked down that track, far as I could see
Little bitty hand was wavin’ after me.

But unlike its country-western cousin, branded by resignation, folksong tempers its tragedy with the survivor’s resilience.  Under the raw, earthy realism is an unrelenting affirmation of life, and hardship becomes the ground of a heroic dignity. 

Woven into the fabric of folksong are all the camp fiddlers, coal miners, cotton pickers, rock-drillers, and rivermen, all the wagoners and bull-whackers on the prairie schooner trails, and all the hard-handed, hard-drinking Irishmen who spanned the continent with ribbons of gleaming steel.

In eighteen hundred and forty seven
Sweet Biddy MacGhee, she went to heaven;
If she left one kid, she left eleven
To work upon the railway.

It is the story of America’s coming of age, the American epic.

The Roots

Lead_Belly_publicity_shotOn the last day of 1934, John A. Lomax, the first to record folksongs in the field, arrived in New York City in his Model A Ford, chauffeured by a square-framed, barrel-chested black man with eyes white as porcelain whom he had recorded in a Texas prison.  Now freed, Huddie Ledbetter drove, cooked, and laundered for Lomax, who in turn brought him before New York audiences, probably the first genuine folk artist to reach urban Americans.  He played a battered old Stella twelve-string guitar, painted green and partly held together with string.  His booming metallic voice could be raw and raspy or clear and sweet like a jazz trumpet.  Audiences dropped coins into his crumpled hat.

Huddie knew more than five hundred songs with roots deep in the southern past—slave dance tunes, spirituals, play songs, cotton-picking chants, reels, railroad and prison songs, field hollers, ballads, and early blues.  He showed citified society that America had living folk music, said Lomax—“swamp primitive, angry, freighted with great sorrow and great joy.”  The image was intensified by his massive frame, fearsome countenance, and snow-white hair.  There was a natural bravado about his introductory stories, delivered in his thick, soft-spoken Louisiana dialect, sometimes in rhythmic rhyme.  He could make up songs on the spot, playing with his eyes shut, rocking to and fro, his huge hands galloping over his big guitar in a chuffing or rushing locomotive rhythm.  Sometimes he danced.  Years of hard labor in cotton fields and road gangs had built muscles of steel.  He could pick more cotton than any two men, wear out two teams of mules in a day, work fourteen hours in the broiling Texas sun, and sing and dance in the barrel-houses all night, a repute that had earned him the nickname Leadbelly.   

Born in 1888 to a son of slaves and a half-Cherokee mother, he grew up in a log cabin on a vast, brooding lake in a far corner of Louisiana.  He spent his youth in the muddy streets and rough saloons of Shreveport’s red-light district, eventually trekking through bars and bordellos from New Orleans to north-central Texas, in and out of jails, boozing, gambling, and whoring.  He met Blind Lemon Jefferson, who taught him the blues, and the two sang together in the streets, shanties, and honky-tonks of East Dallas.  Sent to prison after a vicious brawl, Leadbelly escaped and was recaptured.  But Texas governor Pat Neff, who had sworn never to pardon a prisoner, was moved to free him after hearing him sing “Goodnight Irene,” one of his many original songs.  Arrested again after killing a man in self-defense in a scuffle with two men who tried to steal his whiskey, he was sent to the notorious Angola State Penitentiary, where he was shackled day and night and often lashed. 

In 1934, after nearly twenty years in prisons, he was freed for good behavior.  He went to work for Lomax in New York, married Martha Promise, a childhood sweetheart, and became the core figure in the nascent folk movement.  Leadbelly’s little apartment became a gathering place for singers like Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Burl Ives, and Josh White, many of whom met there for the first time.  The entrance fee was a bottle of whiskey, and the singing went on all night.  While in prison, Leadbelly had missed the Jazz Age and retained his own music from a time before the blues.  Many of his songs, like “Rock Island Line,” “Midnight Special,” and “Cotton Fields,” became folk standards.  With his positive spirit and galvanizing stage presence he began finding larger audiences, and he especially loved playing for children.  But he could be silent and brooding between sessions, sometimes disappearing in search of whiskey and women.  Other folksingers had their leftist agendas and folk facades, but Leadbelly, who cared little for politics and always appeared in his tight-fitting double-breasted suit, starched collar, and polished shoes, was ironically a genuine folk.

He died penniless in Bellevue Hospital in 1949 at age sixty-one, never knowing what fame would follow.  Though the Weavers’ version of “Goodnight Irene” topped the charts a year later, he had never made any money from the song, nor had he made much from his singing.  Under contract to Lomax, Leadbelly seldom saw more than a third of his earnings, and Martha worked as a maid in a New York hotel.  He seemed happy, wrote his biographer, only when holding his Stella guitar, the “music and stories flowing like good liquor.”  Though robbed of his youth by the brutal southern caste system and deprived of the recognition he craved by the callous northern music industry, he never gave up.  It took the slow paralysis of Lou Gehrig’s disease to bring him down.  The day he found he could no longer play his Stella, he cried.

The Legend

220px-Woody_Guthrie_NYWTSPythian Hall, March 17, 1956:  The entire cast, all the folk notables of New York, had gathered to celebrate the songs of a dusty man from Oklahoma.  They closed with “This Land Is Your Land,” and the spotlight swung to the first box, stage right, settling on a gaunt, tabescent little man with bristly graying hair, his face furrowed by sun, wind, and misfortune.  Clenching a pack of cigarettes, Woody Guthrie struggled to his feet and managed a slow wave, his body wracked with a degenerative disease.  Onstage, Pete Seeger began “This Land” again, his eyes tearing, while the whole audience rose up, cheering the man in the box and singing his song.  It was the night that Woody Guthrie passed into legend.

Born into a middle-class family in Okemah, Oklahoma, in 1912, he had seen his father lose everything, had watched his mother sink into insanity, and had witnessed the sister he idolized burn to death.  Leaving home at fifteen with nothing but his harmonica, he wandered through Texas, hitching rides, hopping freights, and taking odd jobs—sign painting, soda jerking, sometimes passing himself off as a seer and faith healer.  He taught himself guitar and sang for change in bars.  At twenty-one he married a sixteen-year-old girl and settled in a shotgun shack in the oil boomtown of Pampa on the Texas panhandle.  But he felt restless and trapped and would take off suddenly and roam for months, sleeping in alleys, boxcars, and skid-row flophouses.

On April 14, 1935, a wall of black dust a thousand feet high rolled over Pampa, turning day into night.  Coming from as far away as the Dakotas on sixty-mile-an-hour winds, curling and seething, it covered crops, trees, and machinery under thousands of tons of dust, and it banked in great dunes against houses and buildings.  People covered their faces with wet towels in the pitch dark, hoping to survive.  A journalist visiting the Oklahoma and Texas panhandles after the storm called it the Dust Bowl.  By 1940, dust and drought had driven 2.5 million people out of the Plains states, most heading west.  It was the largest migration in American history.

Woody, too, headed for California, his guitar slung over his back, leaving his wife and child behind.  He sang in saloons and haunted the hobo camps, overflowing with unwanted migrants, listening to their stories, feeling their pain and anger, sensing that they were his people, that they were “the people,” a phrase that became his political religion.  “I met swarms of migratory workers,” he wrote, “squatted with their little piles of belongings in the shade of the big sign boards, out across the flat, hard-crust, gravelly desert.  Kids chasing around in the blistering sun.  Ladies cooking scrappy meals in sooty buckets, scouring the plates clean with sand.  All waiting for some kind of chance to get across the California line.”

At a time when hokey cowboy singers were a novelty, he got a daily fifteen-minute radio show on a local station in Los Angeles, refashioning traditional songs into vehicles for social protest, and interjecting his romanticized philosophy of “the people” in a feigned Oklahoma drawl.  By 1939 he was writing a column, “Woody Sez,” for the Communist Daily Worker and singing in tent camps, picket lines, and union halls, faulting wealthy capitalists for destroying America, just as his father’s land schemes and political ambitions had destroyed his family.

By 1940 he was doing radio shows in New York and singing at union meetings and strike demonstrations with Pete Seeger and the Almanac Singers, the precursors of the Weavers.  But when sponsors told him to depoliticize his songs and clean up both his language and himself, he took off again for California, turning down a number of lucrative offers, seeing artistic refinement as a mark of bourgeois elitism.  Every time he began to make good money he would send for his wife and three children, only to disappoint them by walking out on opportunities and hitting the road again.  Tiring of his disappearances, womanizing, and drunken scenes, his wife finally left him.  After a stint in the Merchant Marine he married again and had four more children.  The oldest, Cathy Ann, to whom he was uncharacteristically attached, died in a fire at age four. 

His roaming began to alternate with obsessive flurries of writing, while his behavior grew increasingly violent and alcoholic, due largely to the onset of Huntington’s chorea, the degenerative disease of the central nervous system that had killed his mother.  It seems possible that his political agitation may have reflected the paranoia associated with that disorder, and that his restlessness, promiscuity, and even his compulsive writing—thousands of pages of undisciplined, unpublished prose and poems—may have been intensified if not activated by the latent disease.  Though he wrote some fourteen hundred songs—on napkins, on paper bags, traditional melodies reworded to his proletarian message—only a handful are memorable.    

In the summer of 1954, his deterioration accelerating, Woody took his last trip across America.  Riding freights, lurching along highways, sleeping on sidewalks, he was picked up nearly every night, drunk and disorderly.  By fall he had checked himself into Brooklyn State Hospital.  Hospitalized for twelve years, in constant pain, his mind trapped inside his flailing body, he died in 1967 at fifty-five.

With his songs of hardship, resilience, and hope, and his drawling defense of the downtrodden, the tense, wiry little man with a mop of curly hair and perpetually dangling cigarette had become, said one journalist, “the embodiment of gritty American authenticity, the plainspoken voice of a romanticized heartland.”  Rising out of the Dust Bowl and roaming across America on highways, byways, and boxcars, he came to represent the determination of a people, uprooted by drought and disaster, to endure.  If his image was largely self-invented, his guitar work ragged, rudimentary, and often out of tune, his dry, nasal voice harsh and indifferent to pitch, it only enhanced the myth of the romantic agrarian survivor, the blunt, ingenuous outsider.    

Disillusioned by his father, scarred by the loss of his mother and sister, Woody Guthrie wandered into the world with a childlike perspective on love and life, reaching out to a romantic abstraction, feeling the victim of forces he never understood.  A paradoxic, contrapuntal figure, he was a regressive progressive, an irresponsible moralist, and sincere pretender.  A well-read political naïf who loved “the people” in general but no one in particular, he was a hack artist on a vast canvas, censuring and celebrating America, drawing hope from despair. 

“There was an innocence to Woody Guthrie,” wrote Bob Dylan, “a kind of lost innocence.  And after him it was over.”  In the chronicles of America, Woody Guthrie is more an idea than a reality.  His life spanned a time of transformation from rural and local to urban and national.  Revolutions in communication, transportation, and manufacturing redefined work and reordered everyday experience.  A flood of incompatible immigrants and waves of migration from the South remade the fabric of American society.  Depression and war weakened the faith in progress, while many felt somehow removed from reality, sealed safely in urban bubbles like terrestrial astronauts, never directly touching the world on which they walked.  There arose a nostalgic sense that the “true” American heritage was preserved by those isolated from modern culture.  Exemplified in the films of Frank Capra and the novels of John Steinbeck, it held that the less sophisticated the expression the stronger were its roots, the greater its moral truth, and the more authentic its reality.  

 In the wake of modernization, the “natural” man became the emblematic outsider, while cowboy heroes overran popular culture.  Rapid change and mobility destroy the sense of place, the familiar territory that becomes a vital part of one’s personal connection to the world and the past—knowing where the old road went before the new one was built, or passing the tree where one had carved initials as a child.  In the same way that place devolves to mere space for the uprooted, accelerating change enervates the collective identity of a whole people, who romanticize the primitive and ennoble the antihero, reaching out to a dusty little man from Oklahoma who sang of hope in a dark decade and rode the boxcars into history.

The Bridge

pete seegerForrest Theater, New York, March 3, 1940:  It was the first folk music recital before a mainstream audience, bringing together noted performers like Burl Ives, Leadbelly, and Guthrie in a concert to benefit California migrant workers.  Late in the show, a twenty-year-old unknown named Pete Seeger walked onto the stage, blinking at the lights.  New to the five-string banjo, his fingers froze and he fumbled, forgot words, and finished to polite applause.  But it was the night he met Woody Guthrie.

Guthrie took him on a boxcar tour of the South, sang with him at union rallies, and became the exemplar of Seeger’s proletarian idealism.  But it was the dynamism and synthesis of the more sophisticated Seeger that bridged the gap between the urban audience and people like Guthrie and Leadbelly.  From his songfests, concerts, and “People’s” projects, to the Almanacs, the Weavers, and over one hundred record albums, it was Pete Seeger who fathered the folk revival.      

He was born into a musical family in 1919, his mother a concert violinist, his father a musicologist who believed that music’s primary purpose was communal.  He describes his childhood as “very cold”; he was sent to boarding schools from age four, and his parents divorced when he was eight.  At sixteen he went with his father and stepmother to a square-dance festival in Asheville, North Carolina, where he first encountered the five-string banjo and glimpsed another side of America.  He left Harvard at the end of his second year without taking exams and rode a bicycle across New York state, painting barns and houses and joining other musicians for concerts and rallies in support of a dairy farmers’ union.  But it was while he was assisting his father’s friend, Alan Lomax, who was organizing a Library of Congress Archive of American Folk Songs, that he met Guthrie and his life took a decisive turn. 

After hitchhiking with Woody, bumming meals, and “doing everything Americans are supposed to do while searching for the national soul,” notes biographer David Dunaway, he developed a “bad case of proletarian chic,” renting a town house in Greenwich Village and turning it into a “frat house of musical revolutionaries.”  They formed the Almanac Singers and held parties to pay the rent.  Drafted into the army, he served in the Pacific and returned home to resume his dream of a singing labor movement, using music to foster a sense of community and class solidarity.  He married Toshi Ohta, a half-Japanese woman whose tolerant devotion enabled him to pursue his lifelong commitment to singing for social causes. 

The commitment had its price.  When the Ku Klux Klan attacked his car with rocks at a left-wing concert in 1949, his family was showered with glass, leaving countless slivers in his children’s hair.  In 1955 he was interrogated by the House Un-American Activities Committee.  Rightly implying that his patriotism went deeper than that of his interrogators, he refused to answer personal questions and was sentenced to a year in jail but got off on a technicality.  Banned from mainstream media, he went underground, pioneering the college circuit, playing twenty-five-dollar dates at schoolhouses, auditoriums, and campuses.  When he surfaced a decade later, he had become an American icon.

If the Kingston Trio’s “Tom Dooley” took the folk revival to a mass audience, it was because founding member Dave Guard had bought Seeger’s book How to Play the Five-String Banjo and launched yet another group imitating the Weavers and their songs.  But when the dust settled and all the collegiate, matching-shirt groups had disbanded, it was Seeger who abided, an exemplar of something larger than his music.   

Seeger ambles onto the stage with his banjo, wearing, perhaps, a brown flannel shirt with rolled-up sleeves and a sunshine-yellow tie, looking like a lumberjack on Saturday night.  Facing the mike without a word, he leisurely straps on his banjo, as though dressing in the privacy of his room, and begins picking, his work shoes clumping out the rhythm.  Tall and sinewy, he seems awkward and self-conscious at first, looking, said one writer, “like a gaudy scarecrow.”  But as he begins to play, he transforms.  “Sing it with me!” he calls, as if to his congregation, and the whole audience is soon in tune with him, picking up his enthusiasm, and for the moment all the world seems in tune.  With his sense of commitment, his boundless vitality, sincerity, and good spirits, he conveys a fundamental decency and integrity.  He believes passionately in the causes he has sung about—unions, integration, nonviolence, the environment.  In the American tradition of Mark Twain and William Jennings Bryan, he is perhaps the last of the great platform personalities.

Seeger lives what he believes.  The man, his beliefs, and his art are so amalgamated that one is but an extension of the others.  He turned over the copyrights on many of his songs to integrationist organizations, and he is probably the only artist who has ever asked to have his fees reduced because he felt he was being paid too much.  Uncomfortable with his renown, he reminds us that “there are people in every community more extraordinary than any celebrity; their neighbors know who they are—heroic people who never get publicized.”

 His aversion to fame reflects his need for solitude and his reverence for nature.  Shopping for a house after getting married, he found they were all too expensive.  “What can you afford?” asked the agent.  “How about just some land?” asked Seeger.   He bought a patch of woods on the side of a mountain set back from the Hudson River, chopped down trees, and built a log house.  He and his wife lived for the first years without electricity or running water, collecting water from a stream for cooking and washing.  In 1968 he built a sloop big enough for songfests and spent much of the next twenty years campaigning against the pollution of the Hudson River.  By the late 1980s, it was again fit for swimming and fishing.

Like his father, Seeger always regarded music as more means than end, seeing it as a way of binding people to a cause.  Ascetic as a monk, a preacher with a banjo, he was more comfortable with ideas than with intimacy, reflecting a Calvinist line of New England thinking and abstemiousness that descended through Emerson and Thoreau, an attitude that fellow Weaver Lee Hays called “arrogant modesty.”  Now in his nineties, Seeger’s modesty has long displaced any condescension.  “Songs won’t save the planet,” he grants, “but, then, neither will books or speeches.  Participation is what’s going to save the human race.  We’ve all got to be involved.  It won’t be done by big organizations but by millions of little organizations, often local.  You can think globally, but act locally.  I still prefer to sing in the schools than in almost any other place.  You can’t feel completely like giving up if you see all those little faces.  You can’t say there’s no hope.  You’ve gotta keep trying.”

Though losing his voice, he continues to sing.  It’s enough for us just to see him up there, giving us the song to sing with him.  “When Pete walks onto the stage,” says Guthrie’s son Arlo, “the whole audience rises—not just because he showed up, but because he means something.”  A voice of the collective conscience, he is one of those uncommon souls who make our species seem just a little more than it may be.  Seeger once said of television that “life is meant to be lived, not watched.”  The song of most lives is fixed, as on a phonograph record; the needle is placed in the groove and the record does the rest.  But Seeger made his own music and spent his life trying to get others to do the same—to step outside, to dwell in spirit in a patch of woods on the side of a mountain set back from the river while staying passionately connected, caring about “those little faces,” abiding in hope.

The journalist Alec Wilkinson tells of driving on Route 9 near Seeger’s home on a freezing winter day during the war in Iraq and seeing him standing on the side of the road in a hood and coat holding up a big piece of cardboard:

Cars and trucks are going by him.  He’s getting wet.  He’s holding the homemade sign above his head—he’s very tall and his chin is raised the way he does when he sings—and he’s turning the sign in a semicircle so that the drivers can see it as they pass, and some people are honking and waving at him, and some people are giving him the finger.  He’s eighty-four years old.  He doesn’t call the newspapers and say, “Here’s what I’m going to do, I’m Pete Seeger.”  He doesn’t cultivate publicity.  That isn’t what he does.  He’s just standing out there in the cold and the sleet like a scarecrow getting drenched.  I go a little bit down the road, so that I can turn around and come back, and when I get him in view again, this solitary and elderly figure, I see that what he’s written on the sign is “Peace.”1

The Crossing

The young protest singers of the sixties, sometimes called Pete’s Children, were less modest and more arrogant.  While it’s true that songs spread more easily than journalism and have a larger audience if successful, the new protest songs were ponderous and pretentious with their hack lyrics and grating music; few singers seemed aware that message and style are inseparable.  The preoccupation with politics had always discounted the true appeal of the music, which lay less in social communion than in self-definition.  The golden era of the folk revival was the introspective fifties, not the self-dramatizing sixties. 

Yet it would be easy to view the folk fandom of the fifties as no less symptomatic of youthful naïveté than the narcissistic sixties.  A pervasive theme in the lyrics is the outsider’s rejection of personal limits.  On the open road, riding the rails, sailing the seas, he wanders a mythic past, a sunnier time when all options were open.  Identifying with the lyric, one becomes the exotic outsider.  Performing it, one becomes charismatic.  Leaving the haven of home and groping for identity, the youth in passage sees his new freedom, his romantic outsiderness, as the base of a higher awareness.  He undergoes a personal renaissance, becoming everything in potential, transcending all conventional bounds.  Carried into adulthood, this becomes what Jung called the puer aeternus, the eternal child, narcissistic and self-aggrandizing.

But the deeper themes in folk lyrics suggest that there is more to the appeal than personal exceptionalism.  The outsider’s self-romanticizing is often inseparable from a sincere quest for meaning.  If the insider lives in the cultural mainstream, accepting its authority, revering its conventions, and striving to perfect some conforming role, the outsider feels alienated from the consensus, seeking always some larger meaning.  It is this dimension of the lyrics and their plaintive melodies—the mysteries of life, death, love, and loss—that appeal at the deepest level.  It can be mournful

Eyes like the morning star, cheeks like a rose,
Laura was a pretty girl, God almighty knows.
Weep all ye little rains, wail winds wail,
All along, along, along, the Colorado trail.

longing,

Alberta, let your hair hang low.
Give you more gold than your apron can hold
If you’ll just let your hair hang low.
Alberta, what’s on your mind?
You keep me worried most all of the time.
Alberta, what’s on your mind?

abiding,

I’ve wandered all over your green-growin’ land.
Wherever your crops are I’ll lend you my hand.
On the edge of your cities you’ll see us and then
We come with the dust and we go with the wind.

disquieting,

What will you give me?
Say the sad bells of Rhymney.
Is there hope for the future?
Say the brown bells of Merthyr.
Even God is uneasy
Say the moist bells of Swansea.
And what will you give me?
Say the sad bells of Rhymney.

despairing as the “Kentucky Moonshiner,”

I’ll eat when I’m hungry,
And I’ll drink when I’m dry,
Greenbacks when I’m hard up,
And religion when I die.
The whole world’s a bottle,
And life’s but a dram.
When the bottle gets empty,
Well it ain’t worth damn.

 or celebrating childhood wonder:

Once I found a little glass
Color it was green.
In it were all the wonders
Man had ever seen.
Put it in my pocket
Tied up in a cloth,
Cried and cried the day I found
That it had been lost.2

 

These lyrics, however, cannot stand alone.  Without their melodies they remain cerebral, sentimental, even trite.  Only the music can communicate the depth of feeling behind them.  The belief that words alone can carry a song is manifest not only in protest songs but in much contemporary music.  This is especially true of country music, while rap dispenses with music altogether.   The misfortune is that bad music and mere rhythm mislead the musically challenged to believe that bad poems are good lyrics.  

Often as important as melody is the instrumentation, or even the nature of the instrument itself. Listen, for example to Bob Gibson’s wistful banjo beneath the lyrics to “Alberta.”   What better instrument to express the contrapuntal themes of folk lyrics than the long-neck five-string banjo, the icon of the folk revival?  Hard and shrill yet soft and melodic, it evokes both the stark realism of its Appalachian origins and the romantic myth of the old South—the anti-modern yearning for an authentic self in a purified past.  Harsh and simple as the lives and people in the songs, the intense staccato of the finger-picking pattern is punctuated by the unchanging pitch of the relentless fifth string—the rhythm of the boxcar, the mettle of the survivor.  In slower, minor keys, the hard metallic ring seems eerie and alien, yet ethereal as the haunting strains of a music box, as though coming through light years out of some cosmic heart.  Like the wildflower that breaks through asphalt, the banjo wrings beauty from harshness. 

A similar paradox colored the settings of folk performances—underfunded high school auditoriums, dank cellars, makeshift stages, converted-Laundromat coffeehouses in deteriorated inner cities.  The harsh interiors, chairs stacked at the side of a bare stage, implied borrowed time in borrowed space, reinforcing a sense of outsiderness.  Yet the straightforward performance, the singer’s marginality, and the profound simplicity of the music conveyed an authenticity that deprecated the pretentions of more conventional events. 

The outsider-insider spectrum that divided folk fans from the mainstream is comparable in many ways to introversion and extraversion.  At its extreme, the extravert’s reality is simply equivalent to the path of his encounters as he moves through the world, whereas the more reflective introvert’s reality is an evolving inner construct in light of which raw experience is selectively interpreted and incorporated.  On the simplest level, the extravert is interested in who, what, where, and when, while the introvert cares more about the why.  The extravert is more in tune with the left hemisphere of the brain, with detail and process, while the introvert is affiliated more with the right hemisphere, synthesizing global patterns, seeking the larger meaning.  The extravert hungers for new experience and wants to be entertained; the introvert hungers for meaning and wants to be moved.

If the impetus for the folk revival came primarily from the more introverted youth in transition, the attraction went beyond politics and rebellion to the outsider’s quest for some larger context of meaning that might both assuage and ennoble his separation and isolation.  To reconcile an irretrievable past with an uncertain future the youth in passage must replace the lost illusions of childhood with a new context of meaning to confront a world grown suddenly more real.  Folksong served this need in a number of ways.  It invited identification with the authenticity of the “natural man” in a mythic past, one whose direct contact with the world was free of postmodern restrictions and utter dependence within a technological bubble.  The sweeping lyrical images of trains, deserts, mountains, rivers, and ocean, which leave the conventional life of the insider seeming narrow, trivial, and impure, reduce life to its simplest terms—returning to some point of creation when all meaning was inchoate.  Running the film backward, out of history’s cul-de-sacs—to poise once more before the great Missouri—becomes a metaphor for the need to get behind, under, and prior to the confusion of the present, to be open to whatever true meaning may lie beyond that shadow world.

Since the image of the outsider in a storied past is emblematic of the listener’s lost innocence and imagined independence (communion and isolation), it functions on different levels, the simplest being much like that of the western or superhero—the good outsider who defeats his bad counterpart and saves the insider community.  He shares their values while remaining free of their limits.  He is the powerful innocent, what Leslie Fiedler called the “good bad boy.”  Or like the heroes of folksong, or Seeger and Guthrie themselves, he is the American Adam, rejecting the Old Order to build a New World in the wilderness.

The problem, of course, is that one can’t really find communion in isolation, power in innocence, or the ideal in the real.  Imagine sentient chess pieces feeling constricted by the rules and the monotony of the board and walking off into the great outdoors.  What they find is not meaning or identity but that neither exists outside the game.  In the end, the meaning sought by the outsider lies not in isolation but in communion.  The singer is lamenting, not lauding, his separation.  There is more drift and distress than comfort and joy in the rough crossing from the communion of childhood to the community of adults.  The mood and imagery of folksong thus serve in a way like the “transitional objects” of object-relations psychology, the teddy bears and puppy loves that function as substitute bonds while aiding the break, first from mother, and later from home. 

The real need of the Seegers and Guthries is to restore the good and defeat the bad memories of childhood—Seeger’s early immersion in nature, his connection to his radical father, the “cold” years of boarding schools and a split home, or Guthrie’s halcyon time before his father’s bust, his mother’s insanity, and his sister’s fiery death.  What they need most is for the world, “the people,” to sing with them—to love them.

The folksong revival of the fifties was largely responsible for the creative explosion that redefined American popular music in the sixties.  Together with rock and roll, the folk genre rejected the orthodox training and conventional standards of Tin Pan Alley, instilling the notion that songs are something anyone can sing and everyone can write, that performers, in fact, should write their own material.  While sometimes making popular music more literate, the legacy has had conflicting results, elevating rhythm and words (easier to write than good melody) over music, and bringing a plebian insensitivity to style—the belief that depth of feeling is proportional to volume and that emotion is best feigned in a whining, grunting delivery, or in one littered with gospel-like warbling (now extended even to the national anthem).  In truth, the quieter the song, the simpler the instrumentation, and the more melodious the music, the more profound the emotion.  Compared to most contemporary music, folksongs survive as default classics.

But they are seldom played.  And today’s music venues have moved from intimate settings like the hungry i to vast arenas where performers are essentially watched on television.  By the 1970s North Beach had become a jungle of fast-food and strip joints, a cultural rendition of the precipitous edge feared by fifteenth-century sailors.  A chain-link fence enclosed a deep pit where the hungry i once stood, the litter clinging to dry weeds in the wind.

Now and then I dig out the old LPs—the bare simplicity of Mississippi John Hurt, the deep soulfulness of Odetta, the wistful banjo of Bob Gibson, the robust warmth of the Weavers in their prime, before Lee Hays lost his voice, his legs, and his life.  The raw voices and ring of metal picks on steel resound across the half-century, rushing down corridors of memory like a flash flood.  And I’m nineteen again, rapt in the songs of sunny days long gone, of brisk spring mornings when all things seemed possible.  Perhaps “Shenandoah” remains my favorite.  Teddy Roosevelt said, “We don’t remember days, we remember moments.”  Some abide like freeze frames, defining our past—part of the marrow of what our lives have meant.  On that summer night a lifetime ago, the burly black man still sits on the stool in the narrow spotlight before the wall of old brick, his fingers racing softly over the strings, the pathfinder poised forever on the bank of the wide Missouri, the new land stretching away into futures yet untold.

For seven years I courted Sally,
Far away, you rollin’ river.
For seven more I longed to see her.
Away, we’re bound away,
’Cross the wide Missouri.

 

Notes:

1.   Alec Wilkinson, The Protest Singer: An Intimate Portrait of Pete Seeger (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2009), pp. 119─20. 

2. All the songs cited are available on the internet: “Kentucky Moonshiner” (Rolf Cahn); “Alberta” (Bob Gibson); “The Bells of Rhymney” (Seeger); “Little Brown Dog” (Judy Collins); “Fi-li-mi-oo-re-ay” (Weavers); “It Takes a Worried Man”; “Pastures of Plenty”; “Colorado Trail”; “Shenandoah” (the man at the hungry i was Stan Wilson).

 [This appeared in the Yale Review 100 (July 2012), 131-51.]

 


 

Comments

  1. DUANE KALAR says:

    Very interesting , well expressed chronicle of a time experienced by myself in California.

  2. lee enright says:

    Wachhorst is an extremely talented writer who is able to capture the magic of this time period. It makes those who lived it, as I did, wish we could return. That time should be a current goal for the U.S.

  3. Reid Isaksen says:

    Great writing!

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