Thursday, April 9, 2009

Get Folked

By David Luhrssen
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Many people from generations young or yet unborn at the time of the documentary Pete Seeger: Live inAustralia 1963 might find his music a bit drowsy. Dressed in a quasi-proletarian gnarly cable sweater and dockside shoes, Seeger comes across as an earnest high school teacher giving lessons in music appreciation. Fans of ‘'60s rock will of course recognize some of the tunes, especially “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” (“by a young fellow by the name of Bob Dylan”) and the solemn “Bells of Rhymney,” majestically covered two years later by the Byrds.

A glance at the informative jacket notes tells the larger story. At the time this concert was filmed in black and white for Australian television, Seeger had only recently been released from something close to house arrest, forbidden to travel far from his New Jersey home without a judge’s leave as he defended himself against charges of sedition. During World War II Seeger entertained the troops and the First Lady. But during the ‘'50s his ties to trade unions, civil rights activists and leftists generally put the man who taught the world to sing “Kum Ba Ya” under suspicion. In the looser Kennedy years the dark clouds lifted and Seeger was free to roam the world on a campaign for social justice and public sing-alongs.

Overshadowed in the public memory by the rebel stance of Woody Guthrie, Seeger was a figure of quiet humility important for stirring the folk revival that nurtured Dylan and as a pioneer proponent of what today is called world music. Pete Seeger Live in Australia 1963 is a valuable document of a man who tried to lead the world to a better future through the songs of the past.

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