I generally resist being politically charged. I use my music to convey different pieces of the American Experience as I interpret them. You can talk to me about my politics in person if you might find it necessary. But… since I’m writing about Black History Month, I feel the use of the words “Black,” “History” and “Month” all together are pretty politically charged anyway – I figure the kid gloves are off. So here goes.
I remember the first time I learned that the 5-string banjo was an instrument rooted in the black community. It was on a VHS tape of To Hear Your Banjo Play, which is a 1947 film produced by Alan Lomax starring Pete Seeger. It also features music by Woody Guthrie, Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry, Texas Gladden, and Margot Mayer’s Square Dance Troupe. Anyone not familiar with these people’s work please go and watch this film and buy their music and books, you won’t be disappointed. When Pete Seeger passed away last week I was in the studio recording my new album. I placed a bunch of LPs around the studio to draw inspiration; I had two of Pete’s records as well as many others. I believe it was one of Pete’s songbooks that mentioned that the banjo was from Africa as well; he’s been saying that all along. I dedicate this Black History Month to him.
I first became interested in playing the banjo from listening to Pete’s demo recording of “If I Had A Hammer,” from one of his Folkways Records. I was playing guitar already and one day I got a banjo and never looked back.
Pete was also a political hero! He was a person who fought for the Civil Rights I enjoy today. He stood with Paul Robeson, Martin Luther King Jr., Harry Belafonte, Odetta, Leadbelly, Josh White, Big Bill Broonzy, Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry, Lord Invador, Guy Davis, Len Chandler, Barack Obama and countless other black entertainers and black spokespeople fighting for the things I can almost… almost… take for granted, with politics AND the arts. Pete was there with the banjo, the quintessential instrument of the American African diaspora, leading the charge.
Some people might find it odd that I would celebrate a white man on Black History Month but I feel that I would not be celebrating my heritage as a black songster without Pete Seeger. He worked with many of the black and white musicians, folklorists and advocates that have shaped my musical development. He also helped to develop the business that I am in now.
So I dedicate this particular Black History Month to Pete Seeger. Anyone interested in my music might find something of their own in Pete’s work. He left quite a musical legacy. A great American Legacy.
The American Songster
PS. One of the Pete records in the studio was “How to Play The 5-string Banjo,” signed by both Pete and Toshi when I went to see the Seeger Family (Pete, Mike and Peggy) play in Silver Spring, MD several years ago. The other was Pete Seeger and Arlo Guthrie’s Concert album “Together.” Arlo and Pete did their last performance at Carnegie Hall several weeks ago. Arlo was also a huge influence on me! Both albums are fantastic!