Even though I'm nominally a member
of Generation X, I grew up listening to Pete Seeger. Credit my
parents, whose LP collection includes Pete Seeger & Arlo Guthrie
- Together in Concert and Pete Seeger Live at the Village Gate
with Memphis Slim & Willie Dixon. These two albums were core
staples of my musical education, and I still listen to them; in fact,
I've recently added them to my iPod.
In high school, when I became interested
in politics, I read about Seeger's own far-left views and learned
how they contributed to intense personal struggles in the '50s and
early '60s - struggles he bore out with rectitude and dignity. The
government hounded him for years, fearful of his socialist principles.
But Seeger never (and still hasn't) stopped being an extremely effective
entertainer - one who manages to communicate volumes about the cultural
and political history of our country through song.
He has recently enjoyed some new media
attention, thanks to Bruce Springsteen's recent tribute albums (We
Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions and Live in Dublin with the
Sessions Band), the documentary film Pete Seeger: The Power of
Song, and his appearance at President Obama's inauguration.
Now Acorn Media has released Pete Seeger Live in Australia, 1963.
His stop at the Melbourne Town Hall came at the beginning of what would
turn out to be a ten-month world tour. He performs solo, with
a banjo and a guitar, and the results are typically stirring.
The 108-minute concert comprises a
generous set of many Seeger standards, plus a few that I had never heard
him perform before. The songs range from the humorous ("Wild Rover")
to the topical (Tom Paxton's "What Did You Learn in School Today"),
and from the popular (Bob Dylan's "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall")
to the classical (Bach's "Jesu, Joy of Man Desiring" and the Allegretto
from Beethoven's Seventh Symphony). It's worth noting that
Seeger was performing Dylan's song just four short months after its
first release on The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan. Seeger was
a key early booster of Dylan's, organizing concerts for the folk-rock
star and performing several of his songs on a regular basis.
As always, Seeger excels at encouraging
audience participation, even getting the Australians to join him for
a yodel as he performs "Way Out There." On other tunes, the audience
heartily accompanies him on choruses. This form of audience participation
may come across as terribly hokey to viewers of my generation and younger,
but to actually take part in it inside a crowded concert hall is another
thing altogether; Seeger knows full well that this is a basic building
block of moving the body politic to action.
Seeger is known primarily as a troubadour,
a singer of songs in the oldest tradition; he traveled the land and
taught new and traditional songs to audiences around the world.
However, his mastery of the banjo and guitar is worth a closer look:
don't miss his rendition of Beethoven's Allegretto on the banjo,
his own instrumental composition "Living in the Country," and his
evocative and energetic 12-string guitar work on "The Bells of Rhymney."
The single disc comes housed inside
a clear plastic keeper case; the cover art is double-sided, with a collage
of snapshots and concert posters on the inside. The insert is uncommonly
informative, with some short but in-depth articles about Seeger and
his stay in Australia. I should also mention the thoughtfully-designed
menus; they are simple, but the design elements and animated transitions
are especially elegant. It's always surprised me that DVDs released
by major studios tend to have such ugly, clunky menus - and here's
little ol' Acorn Media and Reelin' In the Years Productions with
one of the classiest examples I've seen. The set list is included
as a separate menu so you can skip directly to the songs you want to
The source here is black-and-white
film, and it's presented in its original full-screen aspect ratio.
The source footage was, according to notes in the insert, in far from
perfect condition. Damage to the film is visible in several places,
but on balance the visual presentation here is fine. The DVD's
producers have gone to some effort to clean up the image and it winds
up looking better than some DVD versions of US television programs of
the same era. Considerable film grain is present, and artifacts
are few; the flaws we see are from the source material.
The mono soundtrack here is in excellent
shape. In some places, it's so clear that you forget that it's
mono at all. Cheers to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation
for preserving this track (and the entire film) so well.
A fascinating selection of bonus material
is included, all culled from the same visit Seeger made to Australia.
In total, it lasts just under an hour.
First is an appearance Seeger made
on the television show Bandstand, and includes an interview segment
and two songs.
Another television appearance, this
time on Folk Singers Report, consists exclusively of an interview.
There are two interesting snippets
of news footage covering Seeger's Australian travels.
Pete Sings is a short television
or newsreel featurette that profiled Seeger's visit to Australia and
includes three songs.
Two Links of a Chain: The Story
of Leadbelly is a remarkable half-hour television program that features
Seeger telling the legendary blues singer's life story through performances
of his songs. Of special note is the inclusion of rare footage
of Leadbelly in performance.
A short film made by Seeger and his
wife Toshi consists of an interview with Australian poet and folk singer
Duke Tritton. Tritton sings a few song and tells the story
of his career in conversation with Seeger.
Any fan of Pete Seeger or the development
of American music, folk or otherwise, should not pass up this stellar
performance, presented with the best possible image and sound, along
with a very interesting group of supplements, by Acorn Media and Reelin'
in the Years Productions. Highly recommended.
Casey Burchby lives in Northern California: Twitter, Tumblr.