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Friday, January 31, 2014

Remembering Pete Seeger (1919-2014): A Banjoist’s Archival Connections

Pete Seeger performs at the 1966 Newport Folk Festival. Photograph by Diana Davies.

Pete Seeger’s January 27th passing sparked a groundswell of stories and shared memories about the man, his music, and the many causes he supported and pioneered. Of the millions of people impacted by his works, I am one of the countless banjoists who identify Pete Seeger as the reason I became a banjo player. And like everyone else, I too have a Seeger story that I want to share. It moves beyond having had the chance to meet Pete, share a photo, ask for his autograph, and have a conversation. It is a personal story illustrated through archival connections found in the Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives and Collections (RRFAC) at the Smithsonian’s Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage.

While I now self identify as an archivist, ethnomusicologist, and a musician, I was in a very different place in the early months of 1994. I was at a personal crossroads. As a high-energy 19-year old who lacked any inspired direction, I had few places to meaningfully focus my artistic and service-oriented disposition. One day, I serendipitously tuned into my local PBS station and began watching the 1981 documentary The Weavers: Wasn’t That a Time!, which featured Ronnie Gilbert, Lee Hays, Fred Hellerman, and Pete Seeger.

The Weavers - Pete Seeger, Ronnie Gilbert, Lee Hays, and Fred Hellerman - perform at the Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago, Illinois, January 13, 1958. Photograph by Robert C. Malone.
For me, the most moving parts of the documentary were those segments of The Weavers’ Carnegie Hall performance where the entire audience, not just the ensemble, participated actively in the music making. The projected sense of community I saw on my television screen—one that appeared to be inclusive and nurturing—moved me deeply. For whatever reason, the entire experience was embodied in Pete Seeger’s banjo and I knew I needed to get one. Perhaps it had something to do with the message written around the edge of his banjo head.
Pete Seeger plays his banjo at his home in Beacon, N.Y., November 3, 2005. Photograph by Bruce Mondschain, used by permission.

 After saving up a little money, in the fall of 1994 I bought my first banjo. Since that time, I have been working regularly to find ways of recreating that sense of community in as many contexts as I can muster. As I prepare to turn 40 this summer, I am beginning to see the last 20 years of my life as a chapter. It starts with the work of The Weavers and ends with having achieved one of my dreams of working at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. Now, after two-and-a-half years in the Rinzler Archives, I consider it a privilege to work with a dedicated group of people who are charged with caring for materials whose content continue to shape my identity.

For example, I am part of a younger generation working to better understand the American experience. As I gain a longer view of my own history, my view of the past continues to evolve as well. I remain astonished by the lengths to which people have gone to selectively oppress individuals or entire groups because of who they are. Learning about Pete’s experiences confronting the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), I admire his personal resolve to stand up for his beliefs and the rights of others, which is something he did for his entire life.

Telegram from Pete Seeger to Sing Out! Magazine, 12 March 1962. From the Moses and Frances Asch Collection

Pete was also one of the many notable voices to sing out during the Civil Rights Movement. Pete and his banjo were part of a larger effort to confront the national traumas that began with slavery, whose violence continued through the institutional racism and segregation of the Jim Crow era, and whose legacy in many ways persists. In the 21st century, efforts that proclaim we are moving on to victory are still relevant to people working to overcome many forms of injustice here in the United States and around the world.

Ultimately, Pete Seeger will always be a cherished, essential figure in my life as I continue working as an archivist and an active member of the banjo community. It is reassuring to know that materials found in places such as the Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives and Collections provide valued reminders of where we’ve been, where we’re going, and the things we should never forget. That consolation helps me to see how these archival connections can serve as living links to those loved ones who are no longer with us. Thinking about archival materials in this way makes it much easier to welcome the comfort, wit, and sincerity of Arlo Guthrie’s recent Facebook statement about Pete Seeger’s death, “Well, of course he passed away…but that doesn’t mean he’s gone.”

Greg Adams, Processing Archivist
Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives and Collections

People march in an anti-war rally in New York City, April 27, 1968. Pete Seeger can be seen center right, Seeger's daughter Tinya is at center, and Arlo Guthrie is center left. Photograph by Diana Davies.