THE BLOG
06/19/2012 06:36 pm ET Updated Aug 19, 2012

Sing-along: On Listening to Pete Seeger Perform "The Sinking of the Good Reuben James"

Sing-along: On Listening to Pete Seeger
Perform "The Sinking of the Good Reuben James"

Bob Cowser, Jr. is a participant in an NEH seminar commemorating Woody Guthrie's Centennial, led by James Kimball. Pete Seeger's summer music festival, the Hudson River Revival in Croton-on-Hudson, NY, has hosted upwards of 15,000 people for more than 30 years. This year's festival will be held June 16-17 and will feature Seeger and Woody Guthrie's son, Arlo Guthrie, as performers.

The cluck of his five-string banjo announces this right away as a Pete Seeger recording. I think it's important that the five-string, long-necked banjo (long like the man himself) became Seeger's hallmark. It democratizes the Harvard dropout son of a musicologist/composer and a Juilliard violinist, a pedigree which wouldn't serve him as a dedicated populist and folk singer. He lacks Woody Guthrie's authentic Okie twang, but the banjo, trademark hick instrument, lends him street cred, or its rural, folksy equivalent.

The tune of Guthrie's "The Sinking of the Good Reuben James" is familiar, recycled like so many folk tunes. I recognize its roots in the traditional "Wildwood Flower," but these "Reuben James" lyrics are the ones that resonate with me, the rousing chorus asking for the names of the 100 men who died when a German U-Boat sunk an American destroyer off the coast of Iceland on Halloween, 1941. "She flew the stars and stripes of the land of the free/ But tonight she's in her grave at the bottom of the sea."

Surely that was part of Guthrie's lyric-writing genius, the way he could reduce a story's essential tension to a single verse. (Neither a reader of sheet music nor a sophisticated guitar picker, lyrics were really all Guthrie wrote, and one could argue that he was more poet than musician anyway, click-clacking away on a typewriter). Even outside of its historical context (Both Guthrie and Seeger would hasten to point out America is still at war, always has been), this song has always raised the hair on my arms, and the writer in me always wonders, "What makes it hair-raising? How'd he do that?" One afternoon last week, I played the song on repeat on my iPod throughout a six-mile run on the wooded trails behind St. Lawrence University where I teach, determined to distill the answer. The thing about genius is, I still couldn't tell you.

Mine is a live recording. Seeger recorded several versions with The Weavers, but this is just Pete and his five-string. He's famously one for sing-alongs, but you find none of his usual exhortations here, just Pete's slightly churchy voice finding the highest reaches of that auditorium. I imagine an appreciative if conservative 1950's audience, men in their suits and skinny ties tapping toes, women beaming beside them, cigarette smoke hovering above their heads like in black and white pictures I've seen of early Bob Dylan performances. They're white church-quiet, but I can almost hear them smiling.

This was my own parents' era, and they represent one of the many contrasts in the mid-20th Century American character: Dad is LBJ to Mom's JFK. My small town Texas father and I share a love of Americana and roots music, but my Catholic Clevelander mother, a pianist who turned down a scholarship to the Eastman School, poo-poos it when she overhears us harmonizing on a Carter family tune (she owned Peter, Paul and Mary LPs, which I scratched). "Imagine," she says, "two Ph.D.s between you and this is the music you listen to."

For me, Seeger's "Reuben James" marries these high and low American cultural traditions. He's not as hip or gen-yoo-wine as Guthrie or Dylan, and perhaps for that he's a lesser pop icon. I'll admit I get self-conscious about my passion for a performer who so resembles Will Ferrell's SNL parody of the high school music teacher. Yet, except for crossover gods Guthrie and Dylan, no other folk revival figure has had the staying power of Pete Seeger, whom my young sons and I saw perform in his mid-'90s at his Clearwater Festival just last Father's Day.

Much to account for Seeger's enduring popularity. His banjo competence at least approaches his mother's conservatory virtuosity and musicianship, and he's inherited his father's musicologist's reverence for American song. But my hunch is that it's his performances that really set him apart from Phil Ochs and Tom Paxton and the like, specifically, his populist sing-alongs. "There's something magical about the way Pete Seeger gets people to sing," my music professor friend tells me. As a writing teacher, I know what a task that is, yet also how crucial. Seeger is not content unless we come along, like James Baldwin's bandleader Creole in "Sonny's Blues," coaxing us into the deep water.

In the penultimate chorus on this recording, you hear a few in the audience beginning to join Seeger, getting their feet wet. Women, maybe music teachers and other trained voices. Seeger strums the banjo hard as he segues into the last verse, as if gearing up. "Now there are lights in our country so bright," that last verse begins, and by the end of it and into the last chorus, they're all singing, all in the water.

Or are we flying? Usually, Seeger interrupts a song like "That Lonesome Valley" to ask for tenors in the audience to sing in higher registers, but here he takes it upon himself and what I hear is that roomful of rank and file Americans singing -- like the hundred who perished on that destroyer -- as Seeger's voice soars above in the building's rafters. "What were their names?" And it becomes clear now, on the 15th consecutive play, why he entreats us to join him: it is the voice of the people that bears the man aloft as he freestyles and makes the song his very own, so distinct from any Guthrie version I've ever heard, and so surpassingly beautiful.

He ends it quickly, with a single strum. Thwank. Then my feet are back on the ground, the woodchips of that wooded trail. Hell of a way to get your history, folk music. How's he do that?

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