another side of pete seeger.
In the coming days, much reflection will rightfully take place about the life and work of Pete Seeger, who died today at the age of 94. What a life!
Like many, my first memories of Pete Seeger’s sound and style come from his children’s records, like this one, which I remember staring at for many an hour:
That album is a reminder of the value of earnestness, of Seeger’s expressions of decency bordering on goofiness yet always undercut by an enormous regality. This was simple music, yet it also came across as serious music too.
But now, working on a history of the US folk music revival, I have grown to love another side of Pete Seeger (to paraphrase the Bob Dylan album title). There was a kind of trickster slyness to Seeger at times, a deft move away from the earnest to other, weirder, funnier registers of emotion. The more you listen, the more you realize that the surface calm and interest in harmony sat musically and performatively atop a far more complex cauldron of emotions. There was a darkness, an earthiness, a kind of bodily urge surging up with Seeger, continually pushed down, dodged, avoided, transmuted, sublimated. Below the patrician New Englander, disguised as a folksy backwoodsman but never hiding his nobility, was also, indeed, something paradoxically far more backwoods and raw. The otherness to which he reached down to access in “the folk” turned out to be within himself too. He made a strange connection.
My favorite moment of this flits by in quite but memorable way on “Kisses Sweeter Than Wine.” To hear it, you have to listen close to this plaintive Irish “ailing” song adopted by Huddie “Leadbelly” Ledbetter, with words rewritten by Seeger and fellow member of the Weavers Lee Hays. I call this little microscopic moment…Pete Seeger’s doink.
It arrives in the first verse of the song, and subliminally sets the tone for the rest of this eerie tune, whose shifting minor and major keys are rather jarring, disconcerting, and give the song a kind of straw bale biblical hay ride vibe as its story unfolds in a tale of love and family and durability with an undercurrent of randy humor. It’s a sweet story, as sweet as wine if you will, but, like any good wine, it is also full of other flavors and notes too.
In verse one, having never kissed a girl before, the male lead singer (Seeger on the 1951 version by the Weavers) finally does so. He kisses her and—doink! goes Seeger’s banjo—he decides to kiss her again. Right there among the cycling minor chords: a banjo boner!
It’s obscene, but it is also cute. It’s a little dirty joke buried in the seemingly innocuous pop-folk (even pap-folk if you are feeling all anti-Kingston Trio today) of the Weavers’s sound. It’s a little bit of Aristophanes bursting in on the campfire kumbaya.
And it’s that little edge popping out for a moment from the smooth sing-along surface—something vulgarly flashed for a split second before dissolving back into the mix, just a little quick bit of nastiness, a brief transgression, a twang of the illicit (did that just happen?)—that is worth remembering about Seeger alongside all the righteous hagiography that will now fittingly ensue.
So added to everything else that made him a towering, legendary, Johnny Appleseed figure of American music and culture, let’s lift a naughty banjo and a sweet glass of wine to Pete Seeger’s doink!
Minor correction: for those of you keeping careful score at home, on a number of versions, the guitar makes the “doink” sound, and on others both banjo and guitar doink together.