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Pete Seeger importance to the world of banjos

Posted by phdm on Sunday, January 29, 2012


I am a great admirer of Pete Seeger and the more playing of my Vegas and research on his life and the banjo I do, the more I have come to realize that the long neck banjo ,which Seeger created in 1944, is truly a different instrument from the standard length banjo.  He designed this banjo for his particular use - as an accompaniment to his particular style of singing, his particular vocal range and for his particular style of playing.  It is perfectly suited for that function.

In other posts.  I have seen discussions wondering what the deal is about long necks and Seeger as a banjo player.  But when you realize that he has always lived by his father's view that the question is not "Is it a good song", but rather "What is the song good for?", then you appreciate the deeper meaning behind the motto he has always had on his banjos - "This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender".  His banjo is, in a broader sense, his "machine" - his tool, used to achieve certain goals - mostly political - though the vehicle of his music and his particularly adapted instrument.  For Seeger, music is primarily a tool, not purely an end in itself.  So I have come to see long neck banjos as an importantly different type of "machine" than, say, my Gibson RB 250. 

Carpenters have different planes for different types of wood projects, different moldings they may cut.  Long neck Seeger banjos are like a different plane, to be used most effectively in "projects" for which it was designed.  There are some songs that really cannot be done effectively on a long neck - try Foggy Mountain Breakdown on a long neck - you can play the notes, but it is not the same.  Similarly, try playing "This Little Light of Mine" or "We Shall Overcome" on a bluegrass resonator banjo - it is just not the right playing style or tone required for those songs.

The effort to compare Seeger to modern players, or to bluegrass players of then or now is just like comparing apples and oranges.  Each stands tall in their genre.  But most would have to agree, regardless of politics - that for those of us who did not grow up in a rural, Southern environment where the five string banjo did have its own life - without Seeger and those first exposed to the banjo via Seeger in the 1940's and 1950's, we ourselves, would likely never have been exposed to the instrument we love.

Vastly oversimplified - No Seeger = no Dave Guard.  No Dave Guard = no Kingston Trio.   No Kingston Trio - no folk revival as we know it.  And then I wouldn't be playing the banjo for the last 40 years.

Thanks Pete.


2 comments on “Pete Seeger importance to the world of banjos”

mainejohn Says:
Friday, May 23, 2014 @6:57:55 PM

Well stated. You articulated my owns thoughts much better than I could have done. I would have loved to attend your forthcoming "Pete" event, but Maine is a long way from Seattle. Have fun.

phdm Says:
Friday, May 23, 2014 @11:40:37 PM

Thanks for your note, John. I greatly appreciated it. - Peter

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