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Banjo Friday 9

The late Pete Seeger is one of my heroes. Born in New York City in 1919, Seeger was a Harvard dropout who discovered the banjo and hit the road, travelling with Woody Guthrie and picking up folk tunes where he found them. He was one of the founding members of the Almanac Singers, and later formed the highly influential quartet, The Weavers, with Lee Hays, Ronnie Gilbert, and Fred Hellerman. For Seeger, music was political. He lent his voice to numerous causes, beginning with the labour movement, but over the course of his life also lending support to the Civil Rights Movement, the Vietnam War protests, the anti-nuclear movement, and the struggle to clean up the Hudson River, a place he called home and grew to love. His politics got him into trouble–he was a member of the Communist Party for a short time, though he later renounced it–and found himself blacklisted in the McCarthy era. Unable to perform on stage or on the radio, he began touring college campuses, spreading the folk song gospel and building a huge following. Seeger was never just an entertainer. For him, songs had the power to change the world. On the skin of his banjo was written: “This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender.”

Seeger also is remembered for inventing the long neck banjo. A tenor, Seeger found it hard to sing in the standard banjo tunings, so he took his Vega tubaphone banjo to a luthier and had him add three extra frets to the neck, so he could tune his instrument to a low E tuning. The new banjo was a hit amongst male vocalists, and the Vega banjo company started producing a Pete Seeger model, which was quickly adopted by other folk groups of the era, like the Kingston Trio and the Travellers. Seeger was also a great banjo ambassador. His primer, How to Play the 5-String Banjo, has a permanent home in the bottom of my banjo case.

A highly-readable biography is David King Dunaway’s How Can I Keep from Singing?: The Ballad of Pete Seeger.

There is a nice obituary on the CBC web site here.

Here is Seeger singing one of my favorite songs, "Fare You Well, Polly":


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