Friday, January 9, 2009

Pete Seeger for Nobel Prize?

There's a movement on to nominate the legendary American folk singer Pete Seeger for the Nobel Prize...

I'm posting this here, as Seeger was incredibly influential in sparking the rich country and bluegrass scene that developed in what was then communist Czechoslovakia in the mid-1960s.

To the hundreds of young musicians who play bluegrass in the Czech Republic today it may seem like ancient history. But a series of concerts Pete gave in CZ in March 1964 were almost legendary as a catalyst.

Seeger, an avowed leftist who was blacklisted for a time in America, was on a world tour, and he was booked by the official Czechoslovak concert agency in part because of his politics. He was allowed to perform, his friend Gene Deitch recalled to me in 2007, "an example of a 'progressive' American performer, singing for the rights of the 'oppressed American masses,'" and "all those living in the darkness of [the] 'imperialist' American society."

At his Prague concert -- which Deitch recorded and released on CD (issued in 2001 as Pete Seeger in Prague 1964, Flyright FLY CD 68) -- Seeger played a mix of traditional American folk songs, songs from other cultures and even a few folk revival protest songs. His performances electrified his audiences of fans of tramp music, the acoustic music that was part and parcel of the "tramp" outdoors movement that grew up in CZ after World War I, and changed the face of the Czech acoustic music scene.

My friend Lilly Pavlak saw him in Brno. Seeger, she told me, "sang a lot of songs we knew from tramp music, and so I realized that they must be American originals, not just tramp songs. That was the defining moment not just for me, but for the entire bluegrass movement that followed."

Seeger described one of the concerts in a letter: "Last night I had my first concert [in Czechoslovakia], with a shaky weak voice. Plunged bravely on, with help of a very nice woman interpreter. Audience exceedingly friendly, but very shy. Like blues especially. Listened politely through my singing of strange and unfamiliar things. Stood clapping for ten minutes at end. O, maybe seven. But I was mightily flattered. Maybe partly it was because I was the first American
performer in 18 years to have sung in Brno. But I could not get them to open up and really sing." (Quoted in Todd Harvey and Steven Winnick, "The Incompleat Filmmakers: The Little-Known Career of Pete and Toshi Seeger," Folklife Center News, Winter/Spring 2006, pg. 7. )

Click HERE to see an article I wrote about the Czech bluegrass scene.

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