Pete and Jeff tell a story

The power of Pete Seeger’s spoken words, set to music curated by Jeff Haynes

Author: Mark Roland
Posted: Tuesday, November 23, 2010

When Jeff Haynes offered his home studio in Beacon, NY to some kids making a record with Pete Seeger in early 2009, he figured it would take three or four days, tops. But the collaboration between Seeger and the Rivertown Kids, a group of students from a local elementary school, ended up taking forty-five sessions to complete. Haynes and I are sitting behind his sound board in leather desk chairs, and he punctuates this last bit of information with a theatrical taken aback look. It’s part of the story he's telling about the genesis of what may prove to be the project of a lifetime, a collaboration with Seeger of a different sort. (Hudson Valley Life profiled Haynes, a talented percussionist, in April 2008.)

Telling tales is the heart of the matter. “Pete would often show up early,” says Haynes of the Rivertown Kids sessions, which eventually became the CD Tomorrow’s Children. “He’d begin to tell me stories as we sat in the studio. One day I realized I should be turning on the mic.”

Seeger’s visibility on the cultural radar screen has been high recently: The release of Bruce Springsteen’s album, We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions in 2006; the documentary the following year, The Power of Song; in 2009, The Protest Singer: An Intimate Portrait of Pete Seeger, a book by Alec Wilkinson, based on a 2006 article he wrote for the New Yorker). It came to a head in 2009, when Seeger and grandson Tao Rodriguez-Seeger performed with Springsteen at the finale of the Obama inauguration in January, and then in the spring there was the Clearwater Concert at Madison Square Garden, a gala featuring a host of musicians celebrating Seeger’s 90th birthday. Interspersed with these mega happenings were innumerable smaller festivals, events, and projects that are near and dear to Seeger. Haynes is aware of Seeger’s higher profile these days. “I’ve been up at his house and the mailman shows up and dumps two bushels of mail on the kitchen table.”

No singing required

 

So when Haynes, as he says, “went up the mountain to ask him if he would like to do a cd,” Seeger was reluctant to get involved with another project, especially one that would involve singing and banjo playing, both of which now require considerable effort on his part most days. Haynes says he told Seeger “No, Pete. I don’t want you to sing. I just want you to keep telling your stories.” In fact, there is only one track where Seeger plays the banjo, and very few where he is not simply orating the stories of his life.

Haynes, who is acting as producer on the project, with Grammy-award-winning engineer Corin Nelson as executive producer (“The man is a genius. He’s like a microsurgeon when it comes to editing and mixing”), says the spoken word sessions often appeared to energize Seeger.

“I’d set him up with a table of fruit. When I had music for him, he’d put on the headphones, listen for a while, then take them off and say ‘Okay, let’s go.” Seeger’s daughter Tinya Seeger told Haynes that her father enjoyed hanging out at the studio. Haynes says Seeger would often start off by saying he could only stay an hour, and not leave until four hours later.

Well burnished anecdotes

It’s true that, like old folk songs, a good number of these tales have been told and retold by Seeger. Like
all great storytellers, he has a vast repertoire that he can call upon—the stories of Paul Robeson and the Peekskill riots; his part in bringing “We Shall Overcome” to the civil rights movement; the early years building his cabin on land just outside Beacon; the story of the banjo in the United States, and many others. Some were told orally in various radio interviews, some can be found in the movie The Power of Song, or interspersed in his autobiographical songbook Where Have All The Flowers Gone?

 

A wide musical range reflects broad influences

What makes this project different from anything done before is not just the vast catalog of stories all brought together, but Haynes’s idea to set them to music. And not necessarily the music that has often accompanied Seeger, but a range of sounds that, Haynes believes, will bring Seeger to a greater audience yet, and reflect both his worldwide influence and influences.

“It’s a buffet of music, it’s the world. He’s about the world,” says Haynes. “I want to reach people who don’t know him.” Included are sounds from Africa, India, Latin America, and Ireland, as well as European classical music and American folk and jazz.

Later in the day that I sat down with him, Haynes was expecting the celebrated jazz bassist John Patitucci to stop by and lay down some bass for one of Seeger’s stories. He reached deep into his musician’s network for this project. Musicians that have participated include the Swiss harmonica player Gregoire Maret; Samite Mulondo, who plays several African instruments; harmonic singer Timothy Hill; guitarist Brandon Ross; jazz singer Dean Bowman; acoustical guitarist and composer Will Ackerman; a group of classical musicians from Julliard; and many others, including Haynes himself, who provides percussion on a number of tracks. All were eager to express their admiration of Pete Seeger, the man and the musician, by contributing to the project.

Throughout the 18 months that he and Seeger met, often once or twice a week, Haynes worked from both directions. Sometimes Seeger would put on a pair of headphones and listen to a piece of music, then start speaking. Other times, musicians would work around his words. Haynes’s instructions were simple: “Listen to the story. Listen to the man's voice. What can you do that will work with it but not get in the way.” Then Haynes and Nelson would go to work, blending the dulcet tones of the split tenor with these musical accompaniments to create a harmony that made the whole. “When you hear the stories set to this music, it creates a dynamic. It evokes emotion,” says Haynes.

 

In the tracks that I heard, Seeger’s spoken words are indeed enhanced by the music, in a way that gives the words and his voice the space they need. Many of the selections have a hypnotic quality. Seeger’s crisp pronunciations and rhythms and pauses draw you along with every word, and the music sets the stage, provides the footlights, then draws the curtains on each scene.

With over forty songs already set to music, and video of Pete at the mic, the project’s scope has grown much bigger than the single CD Haynes originally envisioned. He is now trying to puzzle out what forms the final product might take, with everything from a multi media documentary to an audio book in the picture.

 

According to Haynes, several record companies have expressed an interest. Although he considers himself an “old school dude” and will eventually want something tangible like a cd set, he’s open to the possibilities. “This thing is bigger than me. It’s taken on its own life. I’m just guiding the boat.”

Hear Jeff tell his story in in his own words:

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