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Pete Seeger's banjo playing has been overlooked for far too long.

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Apr 17, 2020 - 2:35:26 PM
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phdm

USA

48 posts since 7/5/2008

It has always struck me that Pete's banjo playing has never been fully appreciated and was overshadowed by his political persona. No updated books have ever done an analysis of his playing, which was far more sophisticated than many banjo players know. Even the categories for these forums reflect the lack of attention paid to Pete's unique style of playing. Except for Pete's original 1948 book, "How to Play the 5 String Banjo", no examination of Pete's many unique techniques has really been undertaken. Today there are many books on various bluegrass and clawhammer artists and techniques - but nothing on Pete's many techniques and styles of playing. Anyone interested and able to take on such a project? Until then, I guess I'll just keep on playing my long neck Vega and the many of the songs Pete spent 75+ years singing, preserving and passing on to us. Thanks Pete.

@phdm

Apr 17, 2020 - 2:54:10 PM
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265 posts since 4/13/2006

Pete's "Goofing Off Suite" is one of my favorite recordings, now combined as a double CD with "Darlin' Corey" Smithsonian Folkways. These albums show his amazing versatility. His version of "Blue Skies" was amazing enough for Tony Trishka to learn note by note. A MUST HAVE album. 

Apr 17, 2020 - 2:57:57 PM

195 posts since 7/2/2012

So I followed you here from the group. Very interested in this subject, as I’d like to get back into Pete’s book.

When I lived in SoCal, our library in Cypress contained all the Orange County musical books collections. It was great. Many copies of the original mimeographed book.

I had never played banjo, so I borrowed the book and gave it a try. I gave up after a while.

But now that I’m back to banjo, twenty plus years later, and finally successfully playing and understanding it, I’ve been thinking about getting a copy of Pete’s book and trying the varied styles.

And I have a long neck Gibson to play it on.

Which style of Pete’s playing do you think is the next best stopping off point for an intermediate claw hammer player? I do sing, too, so I’m interested in learning good ways to play back up.

Thanks for the topic.

Apr 17, 2020 - 3:05:08 PM

phdm

USA

48 posts since 7/5/2008

So, Cathy - would YOU be interested in taking on the first-ever updated analysis of Pete's many banjo techniques?? It would be a true labor of love, but much appreciated by many of us who lament that Pete's vast repertoire of techniques remain ignored and largely unknown to the greater banjo playing community. Just a thought ;-). Thanks. Peter McKee - Seattle

@phdm

Apr 17, 2020 - 3:08:16 PM
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887 posts since 10/31/2007

Pete's book was my first banjo tutorial as with many here at BHO.
The thing that I come away with, 55 years after getting his book, is that "less is more" when you listen to Pete play. Not a lot of notes, just some real soulful playing.
The joy he had with a banjo comes through in his playing.
"Up-picking" seemed very easy to learn and his smooth blending of that style with finger picking is seamless and delightful.

Tom in Maine

Apr 17, 2020 - 3:12:46 PM
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phdm

USA

48 posts since 7/5/2008

While I am not musically skilled enough to attempt a detailed analysis of Pete's many techniques, here is  a link to an article I wrote in Banjo Newsletter for the May, 2019 celebration of Pete's 100th birthday, with several YouTube links showing some of his many banjo techniques.

https://banjonews.com/2019-05/pete_seeger_at_100.html

Edited by - phdm on 04/17/2020 15:15:05

Apr 17, 2020 - 3:15:30 PM
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1316 posts since 11/15/2010

Pete could really play. See the links I've attached below. But he picked his spots. He never featured flashy picking to any great degree. I think there were several reasons for this:

1. Pete started as a tenor banjo player in the '20s. He later wrote that he felt that excessive virtuosity had ruined the tenor banjo. Audiences came away more impressed with the player's dexterity than with the actual music. To Pete, the actual music was paramount.

2. Like a lot of lefties, Pete saw folk music as the music of the common man, and the soundtrack for the revolution (e.g., civil-rights movement, labor movement and the anti-war movement).  How could it be the people's music if you needed to a virtuoso to play it? Therefore, he kept things pretty simple, and let nothing detract from the lyrics of the song he was signing. 

I saw Pete in concert a lot of times.  Ocassionally, he'd do some flashy picking, but he never showed off, and he had the chops to really show off if he had wanted to. Because he picked his spots, the flashy picking he did really had an impact on his audience. 

What I think is underappreciated is Pete's back-up playing.  It was tasteful and always complemented the vocals, but it never got intrusive. There are a lot of tapes of Pete's live playing on Youtube, so you can check them out.  Lots of pull-offs, hammer-ons, simple licks, passing tones etc. 

Cathy is right about the "Goofing Off Suite." Pete was ahead of his time. He wrote out tabs for many of the songs on that record that you could buy separately. Several decades later, the Kicking Mule record company did the same thing. Now, with the Internet, you can find a good tab for almost anything.  

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l2iOqctAtGU

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Dp5Sr8JeUPU

Edited by - Joe Connor on 04/17/2020 15:19:20

Apr 17, 2020 - 3:17:55 PM
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265 posts since 4/13/2006

I actually thin he started on ukulele.

Apr 17, 2020 - 3:20:30 PM

1316 posts since 11/15/2010

You may be right, Cathy, but I'm pretty sure he played the tenor banjo before the five-string.  Wasn't the story that his dad took him to a music festival down south where he heard the five-string for the first time?

Edited by - Joe Connor on 04/17/2020 15:21:52

Apr 17, 2020 - 3:29:24 PM
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6652 posts since 8/30/2004

Many of us over 60 etc. probably started on Uke. I first started playing banjo when I heard Earl Scruggs play at a drive in Movie in the 50s in Richmond Va. I was a young boy and Earl's banjo playing stunned me--have never recovered ....Jack laugh  I didn't know who Pete Seeger was until I started College...He was one of a kind in every way...He came to the Folklore Center in NYC which was run by Izzy Young. Pete was a very novel man and very smart and talented...

He fascinated me with his ideas about everything...I remember Pete as being very direct and honest when He spoke of people and their ideas...

Edited by - Jack Baker on 04/17/2020 15:36:52

Apr 17, 2020 - 3:38:06 PM

phdm

USA

48 posts since 7/5/2008

Yes, his father took him down to Bascom Lamar Lunsford’s Asheville North Carolina Mountain Dance and Music Festival in 1937 where he first saw the five string banjo played by Lunsford and Samantha Bumgarner, each of whom played in a distinctive and very local style of up-picking. Pete apparently assumed that was the general way to play a banjo and came up with his “basic strum” modeled after Lunsford and Bumgarner.

Apr 17, 2020 - 3:39:05 PM

399 posts since 7/20/2013

Pete's book "How to play the 5-string banjo" (Red Cover) was the first instruction book I ever bought, way back in 1960; as I was expanding past copying Dave Guard's banjo playing off of Kingston Trio albums. I sat at the phonograph with my banjo and Pete's book next to me and listened to his records, sometimes slowing them down to "16" as I had done with KT albums. Eventually I taught myself how to play my Ode long neck in all those styles, (or approximations). It was Pete's suggestion that led me to use 3 finger picks and a thumb pick to play all the versatile styles demanded by the folk music of the times. I still often wear a 3rd pick upside down for frailing and for duplicating Pete's and others' styles. It was a longer grind to learn Earl Scruggs, but eventually I did to some extent, although I first attempted bluegrass with my index and ring finger, with my middle finger useless as long as that pick was on upside down.

In short, there's a lot of right hand 'technique' (and a little hardware) that goes along with Pete's styles of playing - which would merit longer discussions. Overlooked also are the keys for vocalizations that Pete's long neck gave us better access to. (Try playing his "Hobo" on an open-string - capoless - long neck for a real rewarding sound.)

Yeah Pete's rich banjo playing styles have been long overlooked ... just not by us "folkies" who grew up knowing he was the source of, well, ... everything.

Apr 17, 2020 - 3:40:31 PM

5598 posts since 10/13/2007

quote:
Originally posted by Joe Connor

Pete could really play. See the links I've attached below. But he picked his spots. He never featured flashy picking to any great degree. I think there were several reasons for this:

1. Pete started as a tenor banjo player in the '20s. He later wrote that he felt that excessive virtuosity had ruined the tenor banjo. Audiences came away more impressed with the player's dexterity than with the actual music. To Pete, the actual music was paramount.

2. Like a lot of lefties, Pete saw folk music as the music of the common man, and the soundtrack for the revolution (e.g., civil-rights movement, labor movement and the anti-war movement).  How could it be the people's music if you needed to a virtuoso to play it? Therefore, he kept things pretty simple, and let nothing detract from the lyrics of the song he was signing. 

I saw Pete in concert a lot of times.  Ocassionally, he'd do some flashy picking, but he never showed off, and he had the chops to really show off if he had wanted to. Because he picked his spots, the flashy picking he did really had an impact on his audience. 

What I think is underappreciated is Pete's back-up playing.  It was tasteful and always complemented the vocals, but it never got intrusive. There are a lot of tapes of Pete's live playing on Youtube, so you can check them out.  Lots of pull-offs, hammer-ons, simple licks, passing tones etc. 

Cathy is right about the "Goofing Off Suite." Pete was ahead of his time. He wrote out tabs for many of the songs on that record that you could buy separately. Several decades later, the Kicking Mule record company did the same thing. Now, with the Internet, you can find a good tab for almost anything.  

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l2iOqctAtGU

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Dp5Sr8JeUPU


I wonder if any of the girl sq. dancers @ 12:30 was Toshi, Pete's future wife. the girl in the white blouse looked like maybe. anyone know? (That is in your first post. )

ken

Edited by - From Greylock to Bean Blossom on 04/17/2020 15:41:16

Apr 17, 2020 - 3:41:10 PM

rcc56

USA

2910 posts since 2/20/2016

Pete's playing and book were my introduction to the banjo.

The book covered up-picking, frailing, 3 finger Scruggs style, and a whole bunch of other stuff.
I still have the original 10" Folkway release of "The Goofing Off Suite."

He was a very adept guitarist as well.

When my father saw me trying to figure out how to chord a guitar, he handed me "The Folksinger's Guitar Guide" instructional record and book, and told me "There's 2 years of lessons on this record." Actually, more like 4 years . . .

Apr 17, 2020 - 3:42:42 PM

629 posts since 6/6/2007

Not only was Pete a great banjo player, but he was arguably the most famous player, Scruggs’s historical importance and influence not withstanding.

Steve

Apr 17, 2020 - 3:50:05 PM

6652 posts since 8/30/2004

 Hi Joe,
I don't think Pete ever played Tenor, at least not that h ever told me when he often visitedt NYC. I could be wrong I guess...He never mentioned it, He mostly talked about the old 5 string players from the South and South West...Jack

Originally posted by Joe Connor

You may be right, Cathy, but I'm pretty sure he played the tenor banjo before the five-string.  Wasn't the story that his dad took him to a music festival down south where he heard the five-string for the first time?


Apr 17, 2020 - 4:01:48 PM

1316 posts since 11/15/2010

Jack, I remember reading that in The Incompleat Folksinger, the book made up largely of Pete's Sing Out! columns. Unfortunately, my dog-eared copy is buried in a box somewhere in my attic and our libraries are closed, so I can't verify it. You've got me curious as to whether I misremembered what I read. 

Edited by - Joe Connor on 04/17/2020 16:08:21

Apr 17, 2020 - 4:09:50 PM
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LzChase

Sweden

97 posts since 10/30/2019

When I listed to Pete Seeger (or others like The Dubliners and the Clancy Brothers) I want the banjo to be loud and clear in the recordings. I dislike when it drowns in other instruments. Personally I highly prefer Seeger Style over any other playstyle, often alternating between up-picking and double thumbing. I'm 21 and know no other people in my generation who share the interest of playing banjo Seeger style. It's becoming a forgotten art and that just ain't right!

By the way, the video where you play Well May the World Go and Hymn for Nations was a major inspiration when I was learning Seeger Style.

Edited by - LzChase on 04/17/2020 16:14:45

Apr 17, 2020 - 4:13:44 PM
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6652 posts since 8/30/2004

Joe,
Are you maybe thinking of Bill Keith? He started with Tenor...J   you could be right but I've never heard Pete mention that....

Originally posted by Joe Connor

Jack, I remember reading that in The Incompleat Folksinger, the book made up largely of Pete's Sing Out! columns. Unfortunately, my dog-eared copy is buried in a box somewhere in my attic and our libraries are closed, so I can't verify it. You've got me curious as to whether I misremembered what I read. 


Apr 17, 2020 - 4:18:28 PM
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phdm

USA

48 posts since 7/5/2008

From page 43 of the hardback addition of David Dunaway’s book How Can I Keep From Singing, he reports that when Pete was sent off to boarding school in 1932, at age 13, his mother sent him a four string tenor banjo and he started playing with the school’s five piece jazz club, learning such tunes as “Night and Day” and “Blue Skies”.This was his first musical group.

Edited by - phdm on 04/17/2020 16:19:01

Apr 17, 2020 - 4:21:52 PM

1316 posts since 11/15/2010

(I removed this post. Peter answered the question in his prior post) 

Edited by - Joe Connor on 04/17/2020 16:24:02

Apr 17, 2020 - 4:23:13 PM
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phdm

USA

48 posts since 7/5/2008

quote:
Originally posted by LzChase

...

By the way, the video where you play Well May the World Go and Hymn for Nations was a major inspiration when I was learning Seeger Style.


I am amazed and honored that someone saw that little video I posted 3 or 4 years ago!  Thanks.  Peter

Apr 17, 2020 - 11:33:36 PM

phdm

USA

48 posts since 7/5/2008

(This post deleted - some how I duplicated my earlier post. Sorry about that.)

Edited by - phdm on 04/17/2020 23:39:56

Apr 18, 2020 - 7:47:09 AM

1316 posts since 11/15/2010

Here's a real good example of Pete's back-up playing from a medley of war songs he performed on the Smothers Brothers show.  There was a lot going on there.  (Geez, where did the time go? Dick Smothers looks like's he's 12 years old) .

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qHETC5qAnqo

Apr 18, 2020 - 8:23:49 AM
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1219 posts since 2/9/2007

quote:
Originally posted by Cathy Fink

Pete's "Goofing Off Suite" is one of my favorite recordings, now combined as a double CD with "Darlin' Corey" Smithsonian Folkways. These albums show his amazing versatility. His version of "Blue Skies" was amazing enough for Tony Trishka to learn note by note. A MUST HAVE album. 


Yes indeed.  That record is 65 years old, and it still sounds fresh and innovative.

Speaking of peerless works of unfathomable wisdom, don't forget his book "How To Play The 5-String Banjo".  

Apr 18, 2020 - 8:38:56 AM

195 posts since 7/2/2012

I just need to sit down and watch his videos. Hard to decipher right hand banjo, but I also have the book on the way.

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