Pete Seeger, who died this week at 94, was a titan of American music who, at first glance, would seem to have had nothing to do with musical theatre. But through my personal prism, considering the huge and profound influence he had on me, it seems like he did. Folk music was the first music I knew, and I can recall with surprising clarity a time in my life when I connected song and storytelling. Seems to me like Pete Seeger showed the way, in a way.
My father, when I was very young, liked to play a guitar and sing folk songs. The music you hear a parent singing, at an early age, sticks with you: It seems the genre that’s most in your bones. Dad’s enormous record collection was 99% classical music, but there were Pete Seeger albums, and other folksingers, that held a place in his heart and just about the entire non-classical shelf.
When I was a toddler, there was a rather small room adjoining my bedroom, and in it was one of those record players with an automatic changer, the arm that came out like something off a robot, dropping one LP after another. That’s what would play me to sleep: the folk albums of Seeger, Woody Guthrie, The Limelighters and Tom Glazer. Guthrie came first, bringing folk music to the nation’s attention, and his activism and persona inspired the lead character in the musical Finian’s Rainbow. Seeger was a far more energetic supporter of a wide range of causes that shared the goal of making people’s lives better, and, of course, he lived a lot longer. Some of these albums were live recordings of concerts for children, so young me got a sense of what goes on in a concert hall. (And I actually got to see Glazer.)
When I was old enough to walk to school without adult supervision – at 8 or 9, I often accompanied the Ulansee brothers, who lived on the next block. Now, I know you’re shocked: What were our parents thinking? You don’t let a child that young go, alone, to school. One of those Ulansee brothers was even younger. But we moved a few blocks away when I was nine, which is how I’m certain I was going to Third Grade. To pass the travel time, I told them a story, a folk tale that included a folk song called Abiyoyo. It’s the sort of tale one might find in kid lit, but I knew it because I’d memorized that Pete Seeger album.
My fellow musical theatre writers: What are we all doing if not telling tales that include songs? Six years before I wrote my first musical, I was entertaining some boys with a song-filled narrative. So there doesn’t seem, to me, to be that much of a chasm between folk-singing and creating shows.
My toddler daughter listens to a lot of Katy Perry and I’m always cringing at the false accents I overhear.“We got matching tattoos,” for instance, emphasizes “ching,” of all syllables. My wife has no idea that the song that keeps repeating the word “unconditionally” is reiterating that word, because it keeps hitting the fifth syllable and extending it. In the theatre, where songs must convey meaning, usually, the first time they’re heard, an unnatural emphasis is ruinous. To a large extent, songs need to sound like speech.
Which brings me back to Pete Seeger. There’s a clarity to his voice that was a key component of his success. Band there’s clarity in the way the lyrics sit on the music. In a Seeger performance, he places great importance in getting the message of the words across. In his songwriting, he always displayed the craft you so often hear me yammering about.
The day before Pete Seeger died, a good friend of mine, whom I’ve never thought of as very political, published a polemic in The Daily Beast. And it got me thinking how much I admire the act of assembling words that are meant to persuade people, in a political sense. Seeger was a master at this, but his medium was song. When a popular entertainment figure died, we tend to think of our own reactions to their art, and sometimes consider how many others had their lives brightened by experiencing it. With Seeger, one thinks of all the minds that were changed. A great many of those opposed to armed conflict over the past half-century may have been awakened to the cause by the sounds of Where Have All the Flowers Gone?
Standing up and singing what you think can have unintended consequences. As I learned when researching Such Good Friends, my musical depicting the government’s persecution of entertainers for their political beliefs, I read of Seeger getting censured by Congress after refusing to answer questions posed by the House Un-American Activities Committee. The very name of that official band of witch-hunters seems ironic now, for what could be more un-American then making trouble for those you disagree with? And who, in the end, was ever more American than Seeger, who spent a long lifetime seeking social change through song?