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Smithsonian Folklife Festival Honors Pete Seeger

  • Katherine Cole

FILE - Folk singer Pete Seeger plays his banjo in Beacon, New York, May 5, 2006.

FILE - Folk singer Pete Seeger plays his banjo in Beacon, New York, May 5, 2006.

Each year during the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, there’s a concert to honor the legacy of Ralph Rinzler, one of the event’s founders. This year, it was also a tribute to Pete Seeger, the legendary folk singer and activist who died in January, just a few months before his 95th birthday.

Pete Seeger and Ralph Rinzler both played major roles in the revival of folk music in America, not just by playing it, but also by producing festivals and discovering performers. They also understood that music could be used as a tool for social change.

“There was a lot of conversation about do we get the biggest stars on the planet or do we get the most fiery activists,” said Sabrina Lynn Motley, director of the Smithsonian Folklife Festival. “We finally settled on, again going back to this idea of legacy and values, and who were people who really spoke to both of their legacies about engaging community, about honoring traditional arts, about this idea of a ‘citizen' artist. And names started to emerge. Some local, some who are international, from our artists who are here from China and Kenya.”

Performers included Pete’s nephew, Tony Seeger, who took time to remember Ralph Rinzler and his contributions to the Smithsonian Folklife Festival.

“Ralph’s job was to go around the back country, the small cities and towns and find great performers of vernacular [regional] music,” he said.

The Smithsonian Folklife Festival strives to combine different musical traditions from around the world. As part of the concert honoring Pete Seeger, American banjo player Abigail Washburn was joined by the Dimen Dong Folk Chorus, a group of Chinese folk singers in traditional dress.

“We’re going to go to Guizhou, China, to the mountains, for this next song that Pete Seeger often sang," she said. "I was sitting, watching these guys do their show the other day and they had a song called ‘The Cuckoo.’ So I went and sang my song ‘The Cuckoo’ for them while they were weaving, the Appalachian song ‘The Cuckoo.' And they said ‘oh, that’s cool…’ And then we started singing it together and came up with this arrangement.”

Also performing was Tony Trischka who stopped by VOA before the concert to talk about Pete Seeger and play a few songs, including Seeger’s arrangement of Irving Berlin’s “Blue Skies.”

Trischka said the word that comes to mind when he thinks of his friend is “optimism.”

“He just always felt like we can stop war, we can clean up the environment, he just had this energy about him that I’ve never seen in another person," he said. "He just always had this positive energy coming out. He would stand out on the street corner in Beacon, New York on Saturday mornings for an hour, holding a peace sign. Just Pete. Just standing there with a peace sign. And he would always say: do the smallest, little thing.”