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Tony Trischka on Pete Seeger

 

tony trischka pete seeger interview

Click the picture to watch an 8-Part interview Tony recorded with Pete Seeger in 2009

Tony Trischka on Pete Seeger:

I grew up with Pete’s banjo ringing in my ears. My parents were on the left side of things in the fifties and we listened to Weavers albums, Pete’s children’s records on Folkways, and Talking Union by the Almanac Singers.

When I first got serious about playing the banjo around the age of 14, I picked up Pete’s banjo book, which came out in the late 40s.  It was the first banjo instruction book of the modern era, and provided me, and countless others, with lots of early inspiration.  Around that time, I wrote a letter to Pete Seeger, Beacon, NY (I didn’t have the address….kind of like writing to Santa Claus, North Pole).  It went something like this, “You’re the greatest banjo player in the entire universe”.  Two weeks later, I received a post card back from Pete saying, “Dear Tony, Music’s not like a horse race.  There’s no such thing as best, but I’m glad you like my music.” And he signed his name and drew a little banjo.  The fact that he would take the time to respond to a kid like me, was a huge inspiration.

Though he would work to change things on a local level, Pete’s towering moral authority had a profound national and international effect.  He stood up to the McCarthyites, was a key player in the Civil Rights movement, gave voice to the opposition during the Vietnam War, composed or co-wrote such songs such as "If I Had A Hammer" and "Where Have all the Flowers Gone", and helped to clean up the Hudson River.

“Guard against getting too discouraged because winning the big battles seems so far off and so difficult.  Pick some little struggles.  Here, on the waterfront of my hometown, we’ve been teaching sailing and pulling up weeds and cooking food and singing songs. These are very trivial things, but little victories give us the courage to keep on struggling to win some bigger victories later on.”  - Pete Seeger, from the book In His Own Words

About twenty years ago, I was with Pete in Garrison New York, just south of his home in Beacon and was saying goodbye to him after a recording session.  He was getting a ride back up to Beacon and was in the passenger seat.  As he was about to be driven away, he spied something in the tall grass about 30 feet from the car.  He got out of the vehicle, walked into the grass and pulled out a broken automobile headlight.  He got back in the car, with the headlight sitting in his lap.  I asked him if I could take care of it for him.  He said, “As long as you dispose of it properly.”

When people think of Pete’s banjo playing, they think of him simply strumming the five-string as a back-up for his singing.  Though that style of playing may seem simple, there’s an art to it.  In addition he played in a wide variety of styles, influenced by jazz, old time, bluegrass, flamenco, you name it.  It was all in there.  Listen to his version of Irving Berlin’s “Blue Skies” from his Goofing Off Suite album on Folkways.  His technical mastery is astounding.  He was years ahead of his time.

Music poured out of Pete at the drop of a hat.  About twenty years ago, Pete and I were appearing separately at the Winnipeg Folk Festival in Canada. As I got on the bus at the hotel to head out to the airport, I saw Pete sitting across from the bus driver, with no one else on board. I sat down just behind Pete as he turned to me to say, "You know, Tony, audiences these days don't know how to sing bass parts to songs. I'll show you what I mean. Do you know the words to "Study War No More?" I said that I did, and began to sing. Almost immediately, Pete demonstrated by chiming in on the low harmony part as we duetted our way to the airport.

Once we arrived, we found ourselves in unmoving, excruciatingly long lines waiting to go through customs. Most folks were in business attire. Pete and I were clad in jeaned folk garb....with banjos. At some point I looked over at Pete in the adjacent line. He was hunched over his banjo case, unlatching it and, indeed, taking out his banjo. As he stood up and started to play, his uncomprehending neighbors began to look ill at ease. Not wishing to let an opportunity like this pass me by I took out my own banjo and joined in. We picked our way to the front of the line.

I saw Pete last week at his home in Beacon.  He was frail, but did play and sing one song:

Some say that humankind won’t long endure
But what makes them so doggone sure?
I know that you who hear my singing
Could make those freedom bells go ringing
I know that you who hear my singing
Could make those freedom bells go ringing
 
And so keep on while we live
Until we have no, no more to give
And when these fingers can strum no longer
Hand the old banjo to young ones stronger
And when these fingers can strum no longer
Hand the old banjo to young ones stronger

- From “Quite Early Morning,” words and music by Pete Seeger

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