03 May 2019

Pat Kelleher: a tribute to Pete Seeger (3 May 1919 – 27 Jan. 2014)

On the centenary of Pete Seeger's birth, the BIB is honoured to be able to carry this article on him by Pat Kelleher. The 2009 photo above of Pete bears his inscription 'To the Kelleher Family!' Pat's participation in this year's 'Banjo 12' event next weekend in England will include a special tribute to Pete Seeger.

Pete Seeger, American folk singer, songwriter, and activist, was born in May 1919. Both of his parents were involved in music, his father a musicologist and his mother a concert violinist. It was no surprise that Pete became interested in music. It was on a trip down south in 1936 with his parents that Pete first heard the 5-string banjo being played at a square dance in North Carolina. It instantly won him over, and on his return he persisted in learning to play the instrument for about four years. He invented the long-neck 5-string banjo around 1944, lengthening the fingerboard by two (later three) frets at the peghead end. By 1948 he had published the first edition of his famous tutorial book How to play the 5-string banjo, with Eric Weissberg taking part in the book's later development. Pete is credited with the 'basic strum', which is a variation on the clawhammer style by using up-picking technique instead of hitting downwards with the melody finger. The brush stroke and thumb use for the fifth string remains similar to clawhammer. He along with bluegrass banjo legend Earl Scruggs are credited with resurrecting the 5-string banjo from this time onwards.

He was an integral part of the Almanac Singers and the Weavers folk groups and later performed mainly as a solo artist till his death in 2014. He sang and wrote a vast variety of songs including children’s songs, sea songs, political songs, union songs, anti-war songs, pro-environment songs, etc. His ability to motivate his audience to participate in singing along, including singing harmonies, is synonymous with Pete. He was a close friend of Woody Guthrie, helped to keep his legacy and songs alive, and often performed with Woody's son Arlo. He was a great admirer of Leadbelly. Seeger played a longer-scaled 12-string baritone guitar that he designed along with Stanley Francis, an amateur luthier from Liverpool. This instrument was tuned two whole steps down with heavy strings and produced the unique Seeger guitar sound similar to the lower-tuned long-neck banjo.

The long-neck banjo became very popular during the '60s 'folk scare' with groups like the Kingston Trio and also contributed to the new sound of the two most famous Irish folk groups ever, namely the Clancy Brothers & Tommy Makem, and the Dubliners. He actually performed as the banjo player with the Clancy Brothers & Tommy Makem until Makem, by now a close friend of Seeger’s, became proficient on the instrument, and of course with Luke Kelly of the Dubliners, a big fan of Seeger. Luke learned to play the banjo in England and used his thumb and three fingers to create his unmistakeable licks on all his slower songs that became a hallmark in the Dubliners' studio recordings in particular and perfectly complimented his virtuoso vocals. Underrated to my mind as a banjo player, he was often overpowered in live situations by the ensemble, forcing Luke to a looser strumming approach. The late Al O’Donnell was also a long-neck banjo connoisseur with his unique style.

Some of Pete’s half siblings, Peggy (second wife of Ewan MacColl) and her brother Mike, who co-founded the New Lost City Ramblers, are separately famous in their own right for their contributions to folk music, with Peggy - now in her 84th year - back living in the UK and still performing and writing. When the renowned Martin Carthy paid tribute in The Guardian to Pete’s passing in 2014, he stated that ‘Without Pete Seeger, the UK folk scene wouldn't exist’. This is a pretty strong claim, but well founded.

Pete Seeger cared greatly about the environment and he along with his wife Toshi founded the Hudson River sloop Clearwater and the Clearwater Festival to help clean up the Hudson River that flowed close to his home in Beacon, New York.

Pete and Pat at Pete's house in Beacon, 2009

From a personal point of view, my link to Pete Seeger, his music, and the long-neck 5-string banjo came about through my immediate attraction to Luke Kelly’s singing, his songs, and his banjo sound. After investigating and finding that Pete had influenced Luke, and that Pete invented the long-neck banjo, it was inevitable that I would learn to play the banjo. I started at about age 11, learning the basics from my older brother Tim and then developing my own folk style including a version of Pete’s 'basic strum' up-picking technique as well as picking rolls. I then progressed to traditional clawhammer style and play some Scruggs style also. I use a combination of the styles these days.

I with my son Ricky was lucky to get to meet Pete at his house in Beacon on 21 July 2009 just after his 90th birthday, through a mutual American friend from New York. He was as gracious as I expected, and we ended up singing some of 'Oró sé do bheatha ‘bhaile' with him that he was learning from Irish folksinger Tommy Sands.

Throughout 2019 I intend to do concerts, workshops, and events throughout Ireland and beyond to celebrate his music and his immeasurable contribution to folk music, and commemorate the 100th anniversary of his birth.

Pat Kelleher ©

BIB editor's note: The Fretboard Journal has published substantial illustrated articles on Pete Seeger's 12-string guitar and long-neck banjo.

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At 7:08 pm, Blogger strings10 said...

What an extraordinary piece, Pat. Many thanks. I love that you weren't tied to chronology, and it flows like a conversation. So very nice. Long live Pete's legacy!


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