Friday, May 3, 2019

They mix it up almost as I do

‘We have a three-hour session at the home of the Artists’ Union, a big old mansion once the home of some French family. We hear a great variety of Vietnamese music, from the Western-influenced modern compositions to ancient traditional music. They mix it up, alternating old and new almost as I do.’ This is none other than Pete Seeger, the great American folk singer who was born a century ago today. Although he rarely kept diaries throughout his long life, the above quote comes from a brief diary he did keep while travelling in Vietnam in the early 1970s.

Seeger was bon on 3 May 1919 in Manhattan, New York City. His father was a Harvard-trained composer and musicologist and his mother a concert violinist and music teacher. When Seeger was a still a toddler, his parents set out with him and his two older brothers in a homemade trailer aiming to bring music to the working people of the American South. Aged four, he was sent to a boarding school for a couple of years, and aged seven his parents divorced. Seeger attended schools in Nyack where his mother lived before being sent to Avon Old Farms School, a private boarding school in Connecticut, until 1936. It was at Avon that he first began playing the ukulele; he first heard the five string banjo when visiting music festivals with his father and stepmother, Ruth Crawford. Also, while still a teenager, he joined the Young Communist League.

Seeger followed in his father’s footsteps by going to Harvard, but, increasingly, he became more involved in music events and politics than in his courses. By 1938, he had dropped out of college, and was on the road, travelling round the country, collecting ballads, singing, and developing a remarkable ability on the banjo. In 1940, he formed the Almanac Singers, a quartet that also featured the folksinger and composer Woody Guthrie, which performed at union halls, farm meetings, and wherever their populist folk messages and songs were welcome. In 1943, he married Toshi Aline Ota, and they would have four children (although one died in infancy). When he was called up to the US Army, he trained as an airplane mechanic and served in the Pacific. However, once there, it wasn’t long before he was reassigned to entertain American troops. After the war, in 1948, Seeger formed another group, the Weavers which went around the country giving concerts, particularly to students, and it began to produce records. However, as the group achieved national fame, so public attention to Seeger’s left-wing politics led to it being blacklisted.

Thereafter, Seeger usually toured and performed on his own, sometimes with half-siblings Mike or Peggy, but he remained the focus of blacklisting by mainstream entertainment organisers. This was even more the case after he refused to answers questions by the House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1955, and a subsequent conviction for contempt of Congress in 1961 (though this was later overturned). Seeger became a fixture at folk festivals across the country, and is credited with popularising the ‘hootenanny’ i.e a gathering of performers playing and singing for each other, often with audience participation. He wrote many songs himself, and collaborated with others also. Where Have All the Flowers Gone and If I Had a Hammer are two of his most famous songs. During the 1970s and 1980s, he was often to be found protesting on environmental - particularly antinuclear - issues, as well as promoting the music of his friend Woody Guthrie who had died in 1967.

By the 1990s, the taint of accusations against him in the McCarthy period had all but died away, and somehow he had become an American institution. In 1994, he was awarded a National Medal of Arts, and in 1996 he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He released more successful albums, winning Grammys for Pete in 1996, At 89 in 2008, and Tomorrow’s Children (with the Rivertown Kids) in 2011. In January, 2009, at the finale of Barack Obama’s inaugural concert in Washington, D.C., Seeger (and his grandson Tao Rodríguez-Seeger) joined Bruce Springsteen, and a vast crowd in singing the Woody Guthrie song This Land Is Your Land - with several political verses having been restored to the popular sanitised version
. Seeger died a few years later, in 2014. Further biographical information is available at Wikipedia, Encyclopaedia Britannica, Folkways at The Smithsonian, or from any number of obituaries (The New York Times, The Guardian, RollingStone, The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times).

It can’t be said that Seeger was much of a diarist, though a couple of brief diaries he did pen have been published - in Pete Seeger in His Own Words as selected and edited by Rob Rosenthal and Sam Rosenthal (Paradigm Publishers, 2012). Seeger’s preface explains how this book came about.

‘I was asked to write a short last chapter to this book. But Rob and Sam said it would be better as a preface. So here ’tis. Dear Reader: For 30 years or more, I had put copies of letters, unfinished diaries, and miscellaneous essays in a filing cabinet and forgot about ’em. Then four years ago, a professor asked if he could look through them, perhaps reprint some. I said “sure” in my usual unthinking way.

Behold. The professor and his son have made a book. I’m now age 93. Whatever insights I’ve had and whatever mistakes I’ve made in my long life are now displayed. The inconsistencies, the contradictions are all here. All! Well, at least a lot of ’em, thanks to Rob and Sam. Yes, thanks also to Dean Birkenkamp and the folks at Paradigm Publishers, you can now read them.

Now, I’ll waste a little time to say that I found myself wanting to rewrite almost all of the pieces in this book. But Rob and Sam thought it best not to go down that road. What was, is.
To all of you I say, stay well. Keep on, Old Pete Seeger’

In the book, there are references to two diaries. The first is Diary of a Soldier, begun in March 1943, and picked up again in April 1944, added to through 1944 and 1945, and finished in 1947. However, it barely reads like a diary, more a record or memoir. Seeger, who is in Keesler Field, Mississippi in March 1943, starts the diary as follows: ‘During this lull, while I am sitting here waiting for shipment, I thought I would take advantage of my free time to write the story of my time in the army. . .’ And he proceeds to set out what has happened to him over the last few years, and then describe in a little more detail his time since having joined the army. Later entries (very few of them) also have a substantial retrospective tone.

The second diary dates from nearly 30 years later, when Seeger was visiting Vietnam. It’s source is cited as Eastern Horizon magazine (1972), so it seems likely that Seeger was commissioned by the magazine to write it. Here are several extracts.

10 March 1972
‘We arrive in Hanoi amid palm trees and rice paddies to our right and left. Is this the land of “the Enemy”? We are greeted by 30 members of the Committee for Solidarity with the People of the U.S. Huge bouquets of flowers are put in our arms, and we are kissed and hugged, with tears of emotion in our eyes and theirs.

First impressions of Hanoi: It is a city (1,000,000) on bicycles, mostly manufactured locally with imported steel. An amiable, courteous people, small in size. They show a love of color in spite of little money - it takes two or three months wages to buy a bicycle. Trees everywhere, and so are bomb shelters. The city has not been bombed since 1968, but they think an all-out attack may yet come.

We visit a little temple-pagoda 1,000 years old. It was destroyed by the retreating French, and later rebuilt. We also visit a lovely park created by thousands of volunteers, who made a lake from a swamp! put in flowers, pavilions, goldfish tanks - wow! It shows what can be done with very little money only if you have love and perseverance. Someone has “sculptured” bushes to look like ostriches, lions and deer on the lawn. And then we see “elephants” sculpted by growing four small pines and weaving their long branches around to form legs torso, head, and trunk!

Another thing I have never seen: bicycles each carrying loads up to 800 pounds! The device was invented during the war against the French. A man walks pushing the bicycle with one hand on a diagonal stick behind the seat, and another steering by a horizontal stick tied to the handlebars. The load is on two platforms hung low one on each side of the bicycle.’

11 March 1972
‘In the morning we visit the museum, which combines archaeology with crafts and modern painting and sculpture. It is a small museum, but one of the best we’ve ever seen. There we find a 4,000 (!) year-old bronze drum. It is four feet high and was used for signaling in naval battles. But it is still in perfect condition. Decorations covering it depict the life and times of that period.

In the afternoon we visit an exhibition of war crimes. Latest ingenious bombs and devices to carry on computerized electronic warfare from the air are on display, enough to give anyone nightmares.

Evening - we go to the circus. Performers are young, but of high quality. We see trained monkeys peddling tiny bicycles. This country is at war, but the people are not grim about it.’

12 March 1972
‘We have a three-hour session at the home of the Artists’ Union, a big old mansion once the home of some French family. We hear a great variety of Vietnamese music, from the Western-influenced modern compositions to ancient traditional music. They mix it up, alternating old and new almost as I do. Later at 8 pm we have a similar session at the radio station.

Here are some of the instruments we see: A beautiful bird-like flute (the player tells us of performing this instrument for soldiers in sections where U.S. chemical sprays had killed all birds, and the bird calls he made on the instruments were the only ones to have been heard there in years).

Banjo-like instruments have two strings over very high frets, so the player can slur the notes. There is also an instrument like a cigar-box ukulele; a bowed instrument held between the knees of the player while seated; various wood-blocks, claves, drums, from huge to small; and harps like kotos.

All the Western instruments are there. I wouldn’t be surprised if Hanoi, like Tokyo, doesn’t have a first-rate symphony orchestra some day. (Hey, it does have a symphony, which I find out later.)

But what really gets me is an instrument completely new to me, a monochord - one stringed. The Vietnamese name for it is dan ban (pronounced “don bow” - as in bow and arrow - with falling pitch. The same words, if inflected differently, could mean “bullet pinches.”) Like a dulcimer, it is a horizontal box. Perhaps it was once set on the floor, or on the lap. The one we see stood on legs, and is amplified, so as to be heard by any audience bigger than five or ten.

The one steel string is tuned by a peg at the player’s right. His left hand holds a thin curved rod. By forcing this toward the string, he can gradually lower the pitch as much as four or even seven notes. Thus the dan ban is similar to a broomstick-wash-tub bass. When moved to the left, the rod raises the pitch, but no more than three or four notes.

While plucking, the player’s right hand momentarily dampens the string in order to sound the high harmonics, a bell-like tone. Thus if the string’s basic pitch is low C, the first usable note is middle C, and the few notes below that. So most melodies will be played in the 2 1/2 octaves above C. Without the left hand bending the curved rod, one could only play bugle calls. With the rod in action, one hears a warm sensuous melody. An old folk song saying has it: “Let the player of the dan ban be enraptured, by his own music. You, being a girl, should not listen to it.” But the dan ban was never puritanically outlawed, as the fiddle was in America.

A week later we are given a two-hour lesson in the dan ban or don bow, as I shall anglicize it. No one knows exactly how old it is - perhaps several hundred years, perhaps much more.

Our instructor, Doan Auh Tuan, a young man in his twenties, is a member of the Vietnam Traditional Music Ensemble, playing on radio and TV, concert tours, as well as performances for soldiers and for children in parks. He plays often as accompaniment, or with accompaniment. He says that in the old days a good player might be invited to perform at a feudal court. But it was usually in the peasants home or in the courtyard, where a few neighbors could gather to listen. 

14 March 1972
‘We are taken on a 5-hour drive to one of the beauty spots of the world: Hon Gay Bay. which is filled with several thousand steep rocky islands, averaging 400-600 feet high with fishing junks sailing between them.’

15 March 1972
‘I am invited for a 3-hour session at the home of the Delegation to DRVN (North Vietnam) from the PRG (Provisional Revolutionary Government of South Vietnam). You see, the NLF [National Liberation Front, also known as the Vietcong] is not a bunch of guerillas in the forest, but a full-fledged government, with considerable light industry, including color printing, textile, etc. It includes communists in its leadership, but also a lot of non-communists, all united under one slogan: Drive out the Yankees and their puppets.

Their leader, a wiry, intense man a little younger than me, is a prominent writer, a man who knows literature of Europe and America well.’

18 March 1972
‘In the afternoon Toshi and I have a long interview with another writer our age, the head of the journalists’ association, Luu Quy Ky. Luu says that after the U.S. and puppets are defeated trouble is predicted in the south. And then he goes on, “There has been much corruption by the dollar. But we know that the job is to rebuild, not recriminate. Six hundred years ago, after we defeated the Mongol army of Kublai Khan, the king’s minister brought a large box into the court of the king. “This box,” he said, “contains names of all those who collaborated with the invader.” The King ordered the box to be burned, in full view of the court. So today, the NLF proposes that there be no reprisals against the puppet mercenaries.’

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