By Michael Hofer
© 2001

Folk Music And Banjos

Another direction banjo took was in the hands of folk musicians.
What is Folk Music? As defined by Pete Seeger.

The term "folk music" was invented by nineteenth-century scholars to describe the music of peasantry, age-old and anonymous. Nowadays it covers such a multitude of sins as to be almost meaningless. To me it means homemade-type music played mainly by ear, arising out of older traditions but with a meaning for today. I use it only for lack of a better word. Similarly, I have had to accept the label "folksinger," although "a professional singer of amateur music" would be more accurate in my own case. (Seeger, 1972, p. 5).

Folk music original tales of the common man, took a new meaning in America begining with Folk composers such as Woodie Guthrie who attempted to make social changes by making music a tool for awareness. In the late 40s and early 50s this idea caught on. Many folk artists believed that armed only with music they could advocate social changes. One such group, and one of this authors personal favorites was The Weavers. Banjoist Pete Seeger is this pages featured artist. A man who has accomplished much with a banjo as his tool.

Pete Seeger
Pete Seeger
This Land Was Made For You And Me
(The Weavers)
Pete Seeger was born in Patterson, New York, son of Charles and Constance Seeger. In 1936 he heard the five string banjo for the first time at the Folk Song and Dance Festival in Asheville, North Carolina, and his life was changed forever.
In the 1940s he traveled the land with Woody Guthrie, performing at union meetings and striker's demonstrations. He privately published "How to Play the Five String Banjo" and then refused to copyright it because he felt the banjo belongs to everyone.
In the late '40s, he and Lee Hays co wrote "If I Had A Hammer," a song about the need for reform and justice a call of conscience to a nation healing from the bitterness of war. This song has been one of the most recorded songs ever written. Its message is still current today, as the need for justice is a timeless element.
By 1950 Hays and Seeger, along with Fred Hellerman and Ronnie Gilbert, formed The Weavers and enjoyed success with "Goodnight Irene" and other folk tunes. Many times in their presentations, they would take a moment to teach the audience about the history and backround of the songs using music to educate as well as entertain. They used music as a history lesson, in the feelings and convictions and experiences and many times dreams, of the common man. Their reportoire was broad from Cowboys laments to Sailors Chanties. A remarkable group, they set the standard for Peter Paul and Mary, the Kingston Trio, and many other folk bands that would follow. The Weavers
The Weavers
During the political witch hunts of the 1950s, Pete Seeger's social conscience made him a popular target. As quickly as The Weavers were succesfull they were soon blacklisted and had many performances cancelled at the last minute.
In 1955 Seeger was subpoenaed by the House Un-American Activities Committee and became one of the few witnesses called that year who didn't invoke the Fifth Amendment. In a dramatic appearance before the committee, Seeger claimed that to discuss his political views and associates violated his First Amendment rights. He was found guilty of contempt of Congress and sentenced to 10 years in prison but but was set free on a technical error.
Petes social activism continued in the songs he wrote such as "Where Have All The Flowers Gone". He was involved in the civil rights movement in the South and is most notably known for his contribution to Dr Martin Luther King, the song that became an anthem for the black movement, an adaptation of an old hymn, into "We Shall Overcome".
Pete plays in a unique style, an up picking method which sounds like a mixture of clawhammer some 3 finger and some plectrum. Early on he played a Standard Orpheum #2, and a standard length old Vega Tubaphone. He had the Orpheum neck "converted" to a long neck, by Marty Cohen in the 50's. It was Marty's idea to add 3 frets instead of just 2 extra. The neck was not very stable. Pete handcarved a neck out of solid lignum vitae and after screwing up the fret scale had John D'Angelico refret it correctly. On the Tubaphone rim, the one Pete usually plays, it has "This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender" written on the head. A quote taken from Woody Guthrie's guitar which had "fascists" instead of "hate".
(see footnote)
*The Vega Company presented him with a custom longneck Tubaphone in the late 50's using a 20's vintage Tubaphone Deluxe rim and block inlays on the neck. Pete gave that banjo to his sister Peggy she still uses it.*
He had Vega make another with simpler dot inlay and it is the one that became the "icon" for 60's folksingers. In typical Seeger fashion, he gave away that banjo as a "prize" to benefit a charity in the 70's.
One of the things he has done which is not often talked about is he endorsed bluegrass music as a kind of folk music. Both bluegrass and folk music share the roots of the common man, Pete recognized this and often endorsed bluegrass bands as kindred souls. He openly did this at the colleges holding folk festivals. He also included a chapter on bluegrass banjo in his book. This greatly helped bluegrass bands in the late 50s and early 60s who were competing against rock and roll, in both creating and finding new audiences to play to, and new Bluegrass festivals.
Petes involvement in social changes continued in the sixties with anti war songs. Today his activism is directed at enviromental issues. For more than fifty years, Pete Seeger has been using his banjo and music to try to build a better America. A legacy of worth built upon idealism and optimism.
He has recorded many albums on Folklore Records.

Pete Seegers work with The Weavers paved the doors for other folk groups. Banjoist David Guard working with The Kingston Trio had success with the song "Tom Dooley" in 58, others also began. The Limeliters, Brothers Four, Smothers Brothers, and eventualy Peter, Paul and Mary all contributed to the rise of Folk Music. This resurgance helped bluegrass cope against the rise of Rock and Roll in the late 50s and early 60s. However the greatest force for affecting banjo music must be credited to one man in the 20th century.

Update May 3 2009 Pete Turns 90

See him on You Tube

* This passage of information was incorrect, it was challenged by a reader to this website named Pete Curry. To be honest I cant recall my source on it as I lost most of my research files due to a virus attack. So in the interest of keeping this record as truthful as possible, here's the letter he sent me.
Following receiving this letter a 2nd source confirmed this is the truth of the matter. Thanks Pete for the correction.

Dear Michael: I e-mailed the question about Peggy Seeger's to her Webmaster. Following is my message, then the reply I got from Peggy herself. Hope this sets the record straight to your satisfaction.
Kindest regards, Pete Curry

My message to her Webmaster:

I read at a Web site recently that Peggy got her trademark long-neck Vega Tubaphone with the "block and dot" fingerboard inlays as a gift from her half-brother Pete. Yet the late banjo collector Walter Scott told me that Peggy told him she ordered that banjo from the Vega Company. Would you be kind enough to ask her which version is correct?
Thank you very much, Peter J Curry

Here's Peggy reply:

Ain't folklore wonderful! I ordered and designed it myself, from Vega, in 1955, in the spring. Pete gave and taught so many many things - but no gift of a banjo.
Kindest regards, peggy