Letter to the Editor: Pete Seeger's "dissonant counterpoint"

Dear Editor,

On Sunday, July 15 John Stobaeus e-mailed me, "Do you know about the mini-folk fest in Phoenicia today at the Parish House? They'll be celebrating the Roots of Folk," so I walked over to see. It was a reunion of Camp Woodland, a summer camp founded in this area in 1939, which continued until 1962. Camp Woodland was one of the places where the concept of "folk music" was created.

I got there around 2 PM, as nine people sat on the stage, taking turns singing traditional songs. After 45 minutes, my friend Bob sidled up to me: "Have you ever hear of a fellow named Pete Seeger?" I nodded. "He's standing behind you," Bob informed me. I turned around discreetly, to see a tall man in a green shirt bent over a guitar case. Though elderly, Pete is still sturdy and lean.

During the break, Pete sat with his wife Toshi, who was in a wheelchair. Pete chatted and offered her the "camp food": watermelon, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. When the music resumed, Pete watched with absolute unstinting attention -- like a Zen Buddhist. After a half-hour, he was called to the stage, to join the half-circle of musicians.

Pete introduced his first song: "One time, I was at Camp Woodland and played some music for an hour with the campers. I was about to leave, when someone told me, 'Now you should learn a song from us.' And they brought out a very shy young Cuban, who was studying music in Manhattan and needed a summer job, so he was working at Camp Woodland. And that young man sang me 'Guantánamera.'"

As the musicians around him prepared to begin the song, Pete leaned into the microphone. "I need your help to sing, because at age 93, I can't remember the words!" he explained gaily. I had tears in my eyes as the whole room sang:

Con los pobres de la tierra
Quiero yo mi suerte echar.

["With the poor people of the earth/I wish to share my fate."] Pete joined in on the choruses, but didn't sing into the microphone. He played guitar, producing a powerful bass line that would not be out of place on a Metallica record. (The sound man had turned up Pete's guitar mic, so you could hear him distinctly.)

Afterwards, Pete said: "There's something else I want to tell you about the song. It was written in Haines Falls, about 12 miles from here. José Martí was in New York City in 1891, and he was making himself sick worrying about the future of Cuba. He wanted independence from Spain, but Spain was also the mother country, and he feared that if they were independent, they might be 'prey to the evil from the north.' His doctor told him, 'You're making yourself sick from indecision. Go out to the country, and walk in the woods.' So Martí booked a room in a small hotel in Haines Falls, went walking in the woods, and wrote 121 verses.

"It was a music student who had come back from Spain, where he was studying classical music, who put the verses to the melody of an old... melody -- a song people sang when they got drunk: 'Where did you go?' 'I went to Guantánamera' -- which means 'the women of Guantánamo!'" Everyone laughed at the ribald origins of our heroic anthem.

Next we sang "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?," Pete again accompanying on guitar, with experimental bass notes -- at 93, he's still curious about music. But Pete did not sing. Because this was a gathering of Camp Woodland, the group added an extra verse one of the campers had composed decades ago:

Where have all the children gone?
Long time passing.
Where have all the children gone?
Long time ago.
Where have all the children gone?
Gone to Camp Woodland, every one.
When will they ever learn?
When will they ever learn?

Pete smiled approvingly, at the transformation of his solemn antiwar song into an inside joke about camp. That's part of what folk music is -- high art and low humor tangled together.

Another song Pete taught Camp Woodland -- which was a "big hit" there, especially in the 1940s, was "Putting on the Style." Pete started on guitar, but quickly switched to banjo, playing emphatic accents -- though he never took a solo. Again, Pete didn't sing. But everyone else did:
Preacher in the pulpit shouting with all his might,
"Glory Hallelujah!," puts the people in a fright.
You might think that Satan`s coming up the aisle,
But it`s only the preacher, putting on the style.

The more I listen to Pete, who came from an extremely musical family -- his stepmother was an avant-garde composer, his father a Harvard-trained folklorist -- the more I see that his apparent simplicity masks complex musical ideas. Pete is a populist both by character and conviction; he's compelled to present his songs in the most natural, modest fashion. But the musical concepts themselves are not slapdash.*

*I see on Wikipedia that Pete's father, Charles Louis Seeger, Jr., was the first person to theorize "dissonant counterpoint":
... consisting of species counterpoint but with all the traditional rules reversed. First species counterpoint is required to be all dissonances, establishing "dissonance, rather than consonance, as the rule," and consonances are "resolved" through a skip, not step. He wrote that "the effect of this discipline" was "one of purification."

Maybe that's what Pete was plunking out on the banjo, behind "Putting on the Style" -- dissonant counterpoint!