“The Banjo” 

Remembering the remarkable Pete Seeger and his legacy.

On November 9, 2012, Pete Seeger and the Clearwater Foundation (Pete's "clean up the Hudson River" organization) honored David Amram with the Power of Song Award at New York's Symphony Space Theatre. I was invited by Doug Yeager, a longtime New York-based, folk-artist booking agent.

Yeager has helped me produce various folk concerts over the years in Memphis, including an April 2000 fund-raiser for the Solomon Schechter Day School called "Woody & Me." It featured Richie Havens, Odetta, Tom Paxton, Ramblin' Jack Elliott, Josh White Jr., and Oscar Brand and was held at Theatre Memphis and filmed by WKNO.

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I was delighted to watch the Clearwater Awards ceremony and the concert that followed from a backstage perch. At these events, you just never know what may happen.

I was wearing my WEVL cap, and, yes, people really did want to know about our community radio station. Most well-versed folk musicians understand that the fairly recent history of Stax, Sun, Hi, and all related popular labels and artists put Memphis on the popular music map in a very public way. I say "recent" because it is also well-known by folk-music lovers that what long preceded the above was African-American music and Delta blues, and much of this (Leadbelly, for example) eventually travelled up to New York City and became part of the Greenwich Village folk scene. The true essence of this is when I did a concert in Memphis in September 2000 with Dave Van Ronk, and all he wanted to do was go to Clarksdale, Mississippi, and the surrounding areas to get some vibe from his idol, Mississippi John Hurt.

At the Clearwater Awards, I was standing in a small circle chatting with Guy Davis, John Sebastian, Peter Yarrow, Josh White, Jr., Tom Paxton, Henry Butler, and some others. Sebastian pulled me into a very small men's room so that I could get a quick MP3 WEVL radio station ID.

So, when I came back to the group, my mind wandered as I glanced over the heads of these famous folkies. Then I saw "the banjo" through the open door of a small backroom, resting on a stand. In 1948, Pete Seeger wrote the first version of his now-classic How to Play the Five-String Banjo. He went on to invent the long neck or "Seeger" banjo. The one I was looking at appeared to be the banjo that says "This Machine Surrounds Hate & Forces It To Surrender." This is the banjo that is as equally famous as Woody Guthrie's guitar that says "This Machine Kills Fascists".

Bruce Ginsberg, a neighbor of Seeger's in Beacon, New York, was also in the group, and he offered to take me back to the room. There was Pete Seeger, tuning his famous instrument, the one that played on all the pro-union, civil rights, and classic songs as recorded by The Almanac Singers, The Weavers, and with Guthrie. He let me hold it, and it was a moment I will never forget, mostly because he was such a gentle soul.

Several years earlier, I had invited Pete to Memphis to be part of a Work o' the Weavers program, and he wrote a personal, longhand, and very polite decline with his signature banjo, proving that some things (not all) were better in the old days. If I wrote to Daft Punk or Bruno Mars, what would the reply be?

It is now well known that Arlo Guthrie spoke to Seeger an hour before he died last Monday evening. Arlo made a comment the next morning: "Well, of course he passed away! I'm telling everyone this morning. But that doesn't mean he's gone."

Memphis attorney Bruce Newman is the host of "Bruce's Folksong Fiesta" on WEVL. He was lucky enough to meet Pete Seeger, who passed away last week.

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