DrDosido and Mr. Seeger

Like any respectable folkie I sang along with Pete Seeger in concert several times. All that took, of course, was a ticket.  The somber news of his passing, and the many well-deserved tributes that sprang up on Facebook and other media made me pause to reflect on how his singular humanity and distinctive musical commonality influenced my life. (I am not sure that these flowery descriptives come at all close to expressing his impact and my admiration.) A couple of memories did force their way to the front of my meditations. I had a few face-to-face encounters with Mr. Seeger in the halls of the Old Town School of Folk Music, and also back stage at the Orchestra Hall concert he headlined to mark the School’s 35th anniversary in 1992.

The one extended conversation we had was by phone. It was occasioned by the oral history project I was assigned to mark that same anniversary. My interviews had to be recorded so that excerpts could be used on a WFMT radio special celebrating those 35 years.  So I called Pete up. He was sitting in the comfort of his home in Beacon, New York.  I was in the studios of public radio station WBEZ in the Chicago Loop, using their special recording equipment. I viewed the situation as momentous. For Pete, it was much more mundane. I wanted him to remember the legendary night in the late 1950s that he dropped by the Old Town School’s Second Half and led some songs for the assembled students.  The event looms large in Old Town School lore. Pete couldn’t recall it. But he could frame it in the bigger picture – his mission and ours.  The world, he told me, needs an Old Town School of Folk Music in every city to help people learn to play and remember how to sing together.

Pete Seeger helped me learn how to play. Not directly, though I did use his How to Play the 5-String Banjo tutor back in 1976, after I constructed my own banjo from a Stewart-MacDonald kit. Earlier, in the summer of 1969, when I was back home after my freshman year of college, I made regular trips to the Allen County Public Library to check out record albums from their surprisingly (to me) large collection of folk music. By that time, I knew was through with rock and roll, and that folk music was what I wanted to pursue. I didn’t know much back then about folk music, about  the large and growing scene of folkies devoted to traditional music. I didn’t know enough to realize that the music I grew up with locally, mostly wedding and square dance bands, was in fact folk music. My own LP collection at the time contained only a couple of Beach Boys albums and a record of bluegrass instrumentals by an unidentified band, an LP that Dad had won as a door prize somewhere. The albums I borrowed from the library that summer included several of Pete’s.

I don’t remember any particulars about the albums or the songs.  But I remember being impressed that Pete sang songs that came from people all over the world.  I realize now that Dad must have had reservations about Pete’s politics.  But he never expressed them to me out loud.  He did ask why I was borrowing these LPs from the library. I told him I wanted to do with my life what Pete Seeger was doing with his. Dad requested further explanation. My answer was that I wanted to go everywhere and learn the songs that regular people sing. Pete was my model.

Pete Seeger helped turn me into DrDosido. He, at least, helped move me down that path. In fact, Pete’s younger brother Mike became a more influential role model. Like Mike, I mostly narrowed my focus to Anglo-American traditional music. And following Mike’s footsteps, I began to seek out unheralded country fiddlers and other local musicians. I began to visit community events where friends and neighbors made their own music together, often for dancing. I began to realize that I had grown up with folk music and dance all around me. But I followed my own path. I didn’t go out looking for authentic mountain music or old-time southern music. For several decades my gaze was frozen on my home region: the Old Northwest, the Great Lakes states, whatever name you want to give to my Midwestern home. I did what Pete Seeger did. I just didn’t go very far away.

It’s good that I can complete the circle I started inscribing with these memories. On one of those visits to the library while home on a college break, I took the advice of my best friend, Steve Winters. He suggested I check out a Mike Seeger album called “The Second Annual Farewell Reunion.” It consisted of Mike doing duets with different musical friends on a variety of old-time and traditional songs. If my memory is reliable, one of the pieces on that LP was a duet of two Seeger brothers doing a song Pete wrote, adapting a melody and turn of phrase from the Scottish ditty, “Well May the Keel Row.” Pete universalized the sentiment into “Well May the World Go.” Since news of Pete’s death, I find myself whistling that tune every morning as I’m making coffee. I learned it over 40 years ago. I never sang it for anybody until last week.

Well may the skiers turn, the swimmers churn, the lovers burn.
Peace may the generals learn, when I’m far away.

Well may the world go, the world go, the world go.
Well may the world go, when I’m far away.

Sweet may the fiddle sound, the banjo play the old hoedown,
The dancers swing ‘round and ‘round, when I’m far away.

Well may the world go, the world go, the world go.
Well may the world go, when I’m far away.

Strong may the trees grow. Clear may the streams flow,
Blue above and green below, when I’m far away.

Well may the world go, the world go, the world go.
Well may the world go, when I’m far away.

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