When Old Pete Ruled The House-With Banjo Man Pete Seeger In Mind
By Zack James
Pete Seeger: headlines, footnotes and-a collection of topical songs, Pete Seeger, Smithsonian/Folkways, 1999
“You know you are wrong Seth about that first time we heard folk music, Woody Guthrie folk music in Mr. Lawrence’s music class back in seventh grade at old Jeramiah Holton Junior High,” Phil Larkin told one Seth Garth former old time music critic for the now long gone The Eye. Paid music critic a not unimportant point back in the day when alternative newspapers like The Eye survived and flopped on the sweat of unpaid unrequited volunteer labor and today too when the social media are flooded with citizen critics by the barrelful and everybody claims some expertise. Paid or not though Seth had called up Phil to verify what his fellow folk aficionado Jack Callahan and more recently drinking partner at the Erie Grille had told him when he had called upon Jack to refresh his memory about the first time he/they had heard a Woody Guthrie song. Jack had told Seth about the time that Mr. Lawrence had tried to unsuccessfully ween the class away from their undying devotion to the jail-break rock and roll music that was sweeping up youth nation just then. Then being the late 1950s. Seth had accepted what Jack said because he was after all a fellow aficionado, even if Seth had had to shoehorn him into the genre at the beginning and because he knew that Jack would not spread word around that Seth was not totally on top of every bit of arcane folk music lore around.
So it was a reputation thing Seth was worried about even these many years later. He had mentioned Jack and his conversation at the Eire to Phil in passing one afternoon and Phil had said he would think about any possible earlier listening. This was important since Seth had become very cautious about using any information not fully verified ever since early on in his journalistic career he had made the cardinal error of not checking out hearsay and rumor fully. He was berated by his tough editor for that mishap. Never again. So he was using his double check method on this question since he had been asked to write an unpaid article about the old folk days for the prestigious American Folk Song Review.
Phil continued the conversation by telling Seth, “Tell that jackass Jack Callahan didn’t he remember that in fourth grade Miss (now Ms.) Winot had played This Land Is Your Land on that old cranky record player of hers in order to teach us some kind of civics lesson, taught us that we were part of a great continental experiment. Remember that she had played the Weavers’ cover of that song with Pete Seeger doing that big bass voice thing and some other guy whose name I don’t remember was booming out the baritone and Ronnie Gilbert who just passed away was doing a big time soprano thing.” Jesus, Seth thought to himself Phil was right, right as rain. The two spoke of a few other non-music issues and then they both hung up.
That was not the end of it for Seth though, not for his article anyway. See Phil’s mentioning of the name Pete Seeger had sent a chill down his spine. Pete Seeger, and only Pete Seeger had been the reason that he had been ever cautious about sources. Back in 1965 he (and Jack and Jack’s then girlfriend now wife, Kathy, and he thought Mary Shea was his date) had attended the Newport Folk Festival that summer. That was the summer that Bob Dylan exploded the traditional folk universe by introducing the electric guitar into some of his songs. Did so on the stage the final night of the festival to boos and applause. Seth had been working his very first job as a free-lancer for the East Coast Other, another of the million small publications starting up and falling trying to find a niche in the print universe (free-lancer by the way since the usually cash-stripped publication had nobody else going to the concert so Seth got the assignment).
Here is where Seth had gotten into trouble though. He had a friend, a sound man friend who worked at the Club 47 in Cambridge who was doing duty at that job for the festival. A couple of days later he had run into the guy in Harvard Square and had asked Seth if he knew what had happened on the stage the night Dylan went electric. The guy swore that Pete Seeger had at some point pulled the plug on Dylan in disgust at taking folk music out into the common trough of rock and roll. Seth could hardly believe his ears-this was the hook that he would run his story on. In the event he put this hearsay into his article. No big deal, right. Just something to spice up the piece. The article was published with that information in it. No problem for a while. About a month later he was called into Larry Jeffers office, the editor of the East Coast Other then and shown a personal letter to the publication from Pete Seeger disclaiming the whole story about pulling the plug on Dylan and was looking for a retraction. Seth immediately went to the Club 47 to check with the sound man. It turned out that the sound man had not actually seen Pete pull the plug but had heard about the story from one of Dylan’s sidemen. The newspaper issued a retraction and Seth had egg all over his face.
The whole story of whether Pete Seeger pulled the plug or not on Dylan became part of the urban legend of the folk scene and still has devotees on both sides of the dispute long after Pete is dead and Dylan in out on another leg of his never-ending tour. But you can bet six two and even that one Seth Garth will be checking sources to see if Miss (now Ms.) Winot was the original proponent of Woody Guthrie’s music. Enough said.