[sixties-l] American Storyteller

From: radman (resist@best.com)
Date: Wed Apr 25 2001 - 18:48:24 EDT

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    American Storyteller


     From riding the rails with Woody Guthrie to campaigning for a cleaner
    Hudson River,
    reluctant folk hero Pete Seeger tells it like it was, is, and could be

    by Warren Berger
    March/April 2001

    PETE SEEGER HAS STORIES TO TELL, amazing ones. And he doesn't have to make them
    up. Sitting in front of a crackling fire at his home in upstate New York,
    the legendary folk singer
    can regale you with tales of being on the road with Woody Guthrie, as the
    two played
    impromptu tunes for striking oil workers in Oklahoma. He can talk about
    leading a crowd of civil rights marchers, with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
    right up front, in a rendition of "We Shall Overcome," a song that, thanks
    in large part to Seeger, became the anthem of a movement that changed the
    world. He has stories of war, with men "Waist Deep in the Big Muddy,"
    preparing to die. Or about life at the top of the pop charts (a place
    Seeger never wanted to be), or about the wonder of seeing little ditties he
    created with modest expectations"If I Had a Hammer" and "Where Have All the
    Flowers Gone"begin to spread, inexorably, to villages around the world,
    becoming part of musical history. He can also tell you the flip side of
    that story: What it's like when the broadcast networks ban and censor you;
    or what it feels like to be surrounded and pelted with stones, and then to
    stand trial and face prison, just for singing songs.
    But the eighty-one year old's agile mind is also filled with other types of
    stories, ones that have nothing to do with his remarkable life as a
    musician and social activist. These are stories about foolish frogs, a
    magic comb, talking light bulbs and a giant named Abiyoyo. Some are stories
    his father told him in the dark when he was a small child and which he, in
    turn, has shared with his own children and grandchildren through the years.
    To Seeger, sharing stories is a near-sacred tradition. And he believes it
    is an endangered art, which is partly why he co-wrote Pete Seeger's
    Storytelling Book with Paul DuBois Jacobs, a young carpenter and first-time
    author (and a grandson of Walter Lowenfels, who co-wrote songs with Seeger
    years ago). The book encompasses everything from classic bedtime tales to
    stories derived from the Bible and American history. But it is more than
    just a collection of stories. It's a plea to preserve the practice of
    everyday storytelling and a challenge to all of us to participate in this
    "I wanted to write a how-to book on storytelling," Seeger explains. But
    aren't there lots of people who already know how to tell stories? What
    about all the writers, the singers, the creators of movies and TV
    shows? That's part of the problem, he insists. "Today, we sit back and let
    the professionals do all the storytelling, and we don't participate in
    that. Parents rely on television to put the kids to sleep instead of
    telling stories themselves," Seeger says. He maintains that anyone can be a
    good storyteller, and that rich source material is "all around us, in a
    movie you've seen, or something you've read in the Bible." But to really
    bring these stories to life, he says, we must make them our own, changing
    and adapting them along the way. "You make the story fit your life, your
    times, your own kids."
    In effect, Seeger is advising his readers to do what he and some other folk
    singers have always done, taking old songs or tales and giving them a fresh
    spin and a new life. Through the years, Seeger has found material for his
    songs all around: For example, the inspiration for "Where Have All the
    Flowers Gone" came from an old Russian song about Cossacks going off to
    war; Seeger latched on to a couple of phrases in the original, then rewrote
    it with new lyrics and music. He found the words to "Turn, Turn, Turn" in
    the Book of Ecclesiastes in the Bible, adding only the music and one
    powerful closing line ("A time for peace...I swear it's not too late").
    Roger McGuinn, who turned that song into a hit record with his rock group
    the Byrds, says Seeger's storytelling approach to music influenced a whole
    generation of musicians who, like Seeger, began to share tales with their
    audiences, both within and between the songs they sang. "When he sang, Pete
    always shared with people the folklore and the history behind the song,"
    McGuinn says, "and that inspired a lot of other folk musicians to do the
    Seeger's book has an overarching message that goes beyond storytelling:
    It's about participation. From his earliest performances, he has always
    believed that the audience should join in the process of music-making
    rather than sit back and let the professionals have all the fun. In fact,
    according to Arlo Guthrie, Seeger's longtime friend and sometime
    collaborator, Seeger is uncomfortable with the very notion of a
    "professional" musician who stands apart from the audience. "If you think
    about it," Guthrie says, "Pete's life spans the distance from when songs
    and storytelling were part of people's everyday lives, on through to the
    technological revolution, at which point people began to get their stories
    and songs from records and CDs. But Pete has always tried to get everyone
    to sing along and tell their own stories, and he reminds us that you don't
    have to be a professional to do it. These traditions of story and song
    belong to everyone."
    Read all about song-writer Pete Seeger's life, from his birth in New York
    City in
    1919 to his involvement in left-wing politics, in "American Storyteller,"
    in the
    March/April 2001 issue of BOOK.

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