From 1995: Pete Seeger and granddaughter give the PBT a sense of family values
January 28, 2014 10:07 AM
Bill Wade / Post-Gazette
Dancer Cassandra Seeger, Pete Seeger's granddaughter, rehearses with the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre in 1999.
By Jane Vranish / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
The pristine and the pugnacious. Ballet and Pete Seeger. Not exactly oil and water, but not Rodgers and Hammerstein, either.
Seeger, as perhaps the most picketed, boycotted performer in American history, has spent 55 years delivering his message of activism everywhere from Carnegie Hall to gritty union halls.
But now his music will ring out from the Benedum stage -- in a multimedia ballet.
And the reason has to do with family and values, but certainly not family values.
In 1992, shortly after Cassandra Seeger, granddaughter of Pete, was hired as a PBT corps member, the idea for a cooperative project was born. The company was producing "The Mighty Casey" and managing director Steven Libman thought it would be great to find some companion pieces of Americana for the company. Artistic director Patricia Wilde agreed, and contacted Seeger during the 1993-94 season.
Seeger was skeptical but open-minded about marrying his blue-collar tunes to this most elegant of dance forms.
He went to see the company perform in Brooklyn in 1994. His reaction: "I thought traditional ballet would have trouble with my music," he recalled.
But eight months later, Seeger went to see a piece by choreographer Lynn Taylor-Corbett at the New York City Ballet. Taylor-Corbett had been chosen by PBT to create the piece from Seeger's music.
"I saw she was expanding the definition of ballet," he said.
So the long-time rebel wrote a solo for his granddaughter to perform in the proposed work. Called "Cassie's Ballet Music," it was a simple little piano tune, classical in style, similar to the accompaniment for a ballet barre. It was not political. It was not subversive. It was tame by Seeger standards.
And Taylor-Corbett had to say, "No, thank you."
Taylor-Corbett said Seeger's "song was lovely," but it avoided just what would make a contribution by him such an interesting event. He has jumped on a lot of bandwagons in his career: unionism, communism, civil rights, the
Vietnam War, the environment. She decided instead to pursue the rich and volatile occurrences that have peppered Seeger's life and music.
The choreographer had done her research, listening to Seeger's recorded catalog -- more than 60 albums -- for inspiration.
What she has come up with is decidedly ambitious, much like the motivations behind Seeger's years of activism. "He (took) in the sweep of union activities, McCarthyism, civil rights and the Vietnam conflict," she explains. By using his actual songs, and not just their music, "the ballet will span 40 years of his life and hook into each period."
It is a multimedia work: a sound score of Seeger performances; choreography that emerges from his vision; and a scenic design that will use four suspended screens stretching across the stage and 12 projectors, to be used to present historical images, ranging from early pictures of the labor movement to Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech to a section on women's rights.
The ballet, titled "Ballad of You and Me," takes its structure from the four major social revolutions of Seeger's life, told through his songs from those times.
"Talkin' Union" will focus on his early days, when Seeger performed for the unions with the Almanac Singers, a quartet with Lee Hays, Millard Lampell and Woody Guthrie. He became a member of the Communist Party and admittedly attended a few meetings. He sang for the Communists (or unions) because they were hard-working people. His politics may have been naive, but they were honest. A few years later, he formed a new group called the Weavers with Ronnie Gilbert, Freddy Hellerman and Hays.
"My Spirit Is Free" recounts Seeger's experience with the House Un- American Activities Committee witch hunts. When Seeger was called to testify in 1955, he could have taken the Fifth Amendment like others before him. But toSeeger's way of thinking, that would still foster public suspicion. So he used the First Amendment -- the right to free speech (or song). Seeger stuck to his principles, and the House of Representatives cited him for contempt.
"We Shall Overcome." During the civil-rights movement, Seeger played for Dr. Martin Luther King, visited Mississippi during voter registration drives and marched on Selma, Ala. But he couldn't get a spot on the TV show ''Hootenanny," despite a boycott by many top folk singers in support of him. Ironically, "hootenanny" was a word he had coined with Guthrie in 1947.
"Big Muddy." A scathing indictment of the Vietnam War, the song became an anthem for a generation. "There's nothing like a crisis to bring out the urge to write poetry," he says wryly. In 1967, after being blacklisted for 17 years,Seeger received news that he would appear on TV -- "The Smothers Brothers Show." But CBS censors would clip "Big Muddy" from the tape. The Smothers would protest the move, and Seeger would return later in the season to sing the song.
Pete's activism came from a wellspring of social consciousness. His father was Charles Seeger, a Harvard graduate and at one point a professor of music at the University of California. His mother, Constance, was a concert violinist. Charles had a penchant for synthesizing society and music, now known as musicology. He was also a conscientious objector during World War I, a position that would ultimately cost him his job.
By the time Pete was born (the third of three boys), the Seegers had taken to the road, trying to bring culture to small towns from New York to North Carolina. They were little more than a curiosity -- Mozart in the meadows -- but little Pete would get his first real taste of folk music. He also developed a lifelong admiration for his father. His influence was such that the son's conversation is sprinkled with paternal Seegerisms. "True classical music neither smiles nor frowns, like a Greek statue," son Pete gently quotes. "That's a beautiful simile. It has a certain sustained serenity."
His mother hoped that one of her children would play the violin. She preferred Bach, Beethoven and Brahms. Pete would ultimately choose ballads, blues and breakdowns. As a boy, he would tinker with instruments like the autoharp, pennywhistle, accordion and ukelele.
He later accompanied his father to the Composers Collective, a group of intellectuals that included Aaron Copland. They unsuccessfully tried to compose songs for picket and unemployment lines according to classical music theory. That didn't appeal to the young Seeger, but it struck a chord, so to speak, when he finally heard the banjo.
At the age of 17, banjo in hand, Seeger met folk-song collector Alan Lomax and Huddie Ledbetter (also known as Leadbelly), who opened his eyes to their music. But he didn't take it seriously. Instead, he made a passing effort to study sociology at Harvard (in the same class as John F. Kennedy), but dropped out in disgust after two years.
Seeger then landed in New York City. When he couldn't get hired as a journalist (although he would go on to found two magazines and write volumes of notes), he joined an artists' group that happened to be a branch of the Young Communist League. With union activity on the rise, Seeger became a part of a traveling puppet show to entertain and support striking dairy farmers in upstate New York.
Then, at age 20, Pete met Woody Guthrie. The die was cast. They toured the country during 1940-1942, sopping up all the music "This Land" had to offer and giving back social commentary in union halls.
Seeger would go on to define an emerging American folk style. If, as he says, "I was merely singing old songs and adding to them," he borrowed only
from the best. Cole Porter, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Malvina Reynolds and, yes, Bach, Brahms and Beethoven. And he fathered a whole new generation: Joan Baez; Peter, Paul and Mary; and Bob Dylan among them.
He kept the songs coming: "66 Highway Blues," "Guantanamera," ''Wimoweh" ("The Lion Sleeps Tonight").
Family and values
Speaking by telephone from his home in New York's Hudson Valley, Seeger is philosophical about Taylor-Corbett's rejection of his piano piece. "I understand it just didn't fit the scheme of things," he says, his voice raspy
from a concert the night before. He apologizes immediately, "My voice is about 95 percent gone. I can holler, and I can sing a short note high or low, but I can't ho-ho-ho-hold it worth a damn. It just quivers like an old man."
As he talks about Cassie, it's obvious the old radical is a proud grandparent.
Although Cassie was born in Plymouth, Mass., her parents moved to California when she was 3. For a while, she was a child of that culture, a veteran of more than 20 commercials pitching items like Barbie dolls and Kellogg's Corn Flakes.
An only child, by age 8 she decided to become a ballet dancer. "She's carrying on my father's sense of discipline," says her grandfather.
Cassie began her studies at Yvonne Mounsey's West Side Academy of Dance and trained for 2 years at the prestigious San Francisco Ballet School. PBT is her first professional job.
People see similarities in them: in character, in attitude and in the way they respond to things, particularly to each other.
Pete says, "My main dancing is ax-chopping. We eat mostly by wood at our house, so it keeps me in good health. And we wouldn't see the river if I didn't trim the trees regularly."
Cassie, on the other hand, grew up singing here and there. She couldn't help it -- it's part of that Seeger heritage. At age 12, she was backstage at one of her grandfather's concerts with a friend. Arlo Guthrie and his band motioned to her. She was dragged out to take part in one of Pete's famous sing-alongs.
The 23-year-old Cassie admits that her grandfather once told her that part of "This Land Is Your Land" was written for her. Because she lived across the country, her line was "from California to the New York Island."
"I believed it for years," she recalls. "Peterpop," as she called him, was wonderfully affectionate to her. "I loved to hear him tell bedtime stories -- 'Abiyoyo' was my favorite. Then there was the time we just sat by the brook and he taught me how to whittle -- that was really special. I like to just listen when I'm around him" -- like last January, when she drove up to visit during a company break, and he extolled the virtues and techniques of chopping wood.
The man with the folk aesthetic and political bent doesn't mind that Cassie is bourreeing along the straight and narrow path of fine arts. "The old classifications are breaking down," he says. "Classical musicians borrow
from folk and pop and vice versa. What is called folk music has now become a middle-class phenomenon. The important thing is she's had a very exciting life, seeing different places and meeting interesting people and doing what she loves to do." He pauses. "She's got a lot up in her brain. It shows in her dancing and in that twinkle in her eye."
Pumpkins and politics
As "Ballad of You and Me" notes, Seeger's life did not end with the close of the Vietnam War. But he began to realize a few things. "For 18 years I'd treated my hometown like a hotel. I'd gone down to pick up my mail and groceries and gone back to our mountainside cabin. Most people in town didn't really know who the heck I was."
Today he sticks close to the Hudson Valley, not too far from where he was born, in the house that he and his wife built. He still complains that he doesn't have a secretary and makes his own way through bushels of mail.
He still has many ambitious projects to tend. For the past six months, he's been working on a "portable non-polluting composting toilet, wheelchair- accessible."
But his main job these days is singing up and down the Hudson, most recently for the local pumpkin festival. Seeger takes time to explain how everyone loads pumpkins on the Clearwater, the famous sailing vessel that he built when the river was loaded with chemicals and garbage. They sail down the river and have parties along the water. Children learn about the environment when they board the boat. "It's a great way to end the season," he says.
Seeger claims he is an activist by default. "I don't think of myself as having a career so to speak with a capital 'C.' I really hate the word. It implies a search after fortune and fame -- two of the silliest things to want. I've made the mistake, and I'm still making the mistake of starting work on jobs that I should leave to others. But nobody else is working on the composting toilet."
You know this man would still like to stir things up a little. "I see one of the next steps where people who are concerned with the inequalities of the economy realize they have to be concerned with the instability of nature and people concerned with the instability of nature have to be concerned with the instability of society. This is, I think, the big job of the next few decades."
But Seeger's most immediate job is to watch the Pittsburgh Ballet, and Cassie, bring his songs to life. He'll be there to watch as his granddaughter sweeps away the "Garbage" and brings a whole truckload of memories to her solo, "Livin' in the Country."
Then he'll watch the PBT dancers revel as they move through "If I Had a Hammer." He'll notice that the song lives on in their bodies' singing. And he'll notice that the dancer on the left has a twinkle in her eye.
Then he'll probably hope that everyone joins in the song -- or the dance -- in rockin' and reelin' solidarity.
Former Post-Gazette critic Jane Vranish can be reached at email@example.com. She also blogs on www.pittsburghcrosscurrents.com.
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