I was 21 years old when I saw Pete Seeger at the Royal Festival Hall on the South Bank of the Thames in London. Saturday 29 February 1964. It was the most inspirational concert I had ever attended. The core of his programme was the same as that preserved on the album ‘We Shall Overcome’, recorded live at Carnegie Hall, just over eight months earlier – old songs, traditional songs, Woody Guthrie songs, a selection of the best new contemporary songs by Bob Dylan and Tom Paxton and other Greenwich Village folkies, and a whole section of Civil Rights songs. An amazing repertoire.
I went with my friend Mac (who had been at school with me and who now toiled, as I did, at the head office of The Prudential Assurance Co in Holborn) and we came out of there with our hearts bursting. We were both deeply affected; Mac more radically than I. He went to work on Monday and handed in his notice . . . dropped out and began an odyssey which took him around the world. Being more cautious, I remained at my desk for another five years – until I could stand it no longer, and I dumped my day job too. Although I had no experience whatsoever, I was going to be a writer, I had decided. The magazines that Seeger and his friends had created – Sing Out! and Broadside – and the underground press which followed in their footsteps, had much to do with my decision. I wanted to be part of their world, the world that Pete Seeger inhabited.
Fast forward to 1994. I was doing a lot of work with Kevin Howlett, an inspired maverick producer at BBC Radio, who was always thinking up interesting projects for us to dive into. His latest was a series of four one-hour documentary programmes to be called ‘Signs Of The Times’, exploring the voice of protest in popular music – and, as usual, he rolled me in to do research and interviews, and to help construct the programmes. What a plum gig! I got to meet and talk to Bernice Johnson Reagon, Billy Bragg, Judy Collins, Michael Franti, Joan Baez, Graham Nash, David Crosby, Gary Byrd, Labi Siffre, Jackson Browne, Gil Scott Heron, Country Joe MacDonald, Mary Travers, Tom Robinson, Linton Kwesi Johnson, Bruce Cockburn, Steve Van Zant and various others – in such exotic locations as New York, San Francisco and Charleston – but, the icing on the cake, I got to meet my hero, Pete Seeger!
On Monday 14 February, from my room at the Paramount Hotel, just off Times Square, I phoned for instructions on how to get to his place – and Kev and I duly caught the train from Grand Central Station to Cold Spring, where Pete met us and drove through the snow, along open roads and winding tracks, to his ‘cabin’, as it was usually described, overlooking the Hudson. Just as I had pictured it. Rustic, warm, unique and instantly comfortable. His wife Toshi had prepared an exquisite meal for us, a rice-beans-okra-courgette delicacy that Gordon Ramsay could only dream of, accompanied by home-made bread. I was delighted to find that no piece of crockery or cutlery matched any other piece. To complete the repast, Pete produced several tubs of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream: the partners in that firm sent him a selection every month, just for being Pete Seeger. How cool is that?
We met his daughter and two grandchildren, who were visiting, and then sat down beside a crackling log fire to conduct the interview – during the course of which, I told him that I had been in the audience at his seminal 1964 Royal Festival Hall concert and I showed him the programme I had saved. Of course, although it was a life-changing event for me, he didn’t remember it as being any more important than the many hundreds of other concerts he had played, at all of which members of the audience had no doubt experienced the same sort of road-to-Damascus conversions as I had.
After the interview, he drove us back to the station, stopping en route to visit his friend Seth, who had an old machine shop, which he proudly showed us. He also gave me a jar of honey. Pete had given me a songbook and a CD, and memories to last forever.
I got to my hotel bed about 1.30 am and when I awoke the next morning, the whole episode seemed like a dream sequence. But I had the cassette tapes to prove it had really happened.
The Barbican music library is paying Pete the honour of an exhibition of his work. In fact a double honour: two exhibitions. The first one runs from August 8 to September 28th. Don’t miss it. It will be over before you know it and then you’ll kick yourself. Details here.
Gallery Different, at 14 Percy Street, London W1T IDR, in the centre of the West End, is celebrating the Olympics with an exhibition of art related to London music. And what better than Rock Family Trees? Downstairs in the exhibition you’ll find some of the signed framed limited edition prints, so you can see what they look like in real life. And if they appeal, you can order one from the gallery, to be signed by Pete who will add a personal message if that’s what floats your boat.
The exhibition, has a wealth of really exciting art, including the shocking work of Keith Haynes, former art director on Rock Family Trees TV programme. Shocking not because of the subject matter but he makes his art out of real records made of real vinyl, as in the example above. We are assured that he chooses only unplayable scrap vinyl, but still it is a challenging concept. Go and take a close look for yourself. The exhibition runs to the end of August.
Found on the Facebook page for the London Bluesfest.
OK, so you should be in with the spirit of things now. If not, click here for a spot of revision.
So, where to next? How about Rolling Fork and Vicksburg, 45 miles apart, mostly on Route 61, skirting the Delta National Forest. And here we find two giants of the blues, Muddy Waters, born in 1915, and then Willie Dixon born the same year. But then it gets a bit murky. Robert Gordon, in his biography of Muddy Waters, called I Can’t Be Satisfied, says the correct birth date is 1913, at Jug’s Corner, Issaquena County, a few miles away. That’s the blues for you.
Here is Pete’s take:
We’ve discussed Willie Dixon before in detail, so here we’ll focus on Muddy Waters. Pete generously credits a book called Deep Blues by Robert Palmer (no, not ‘Addicted to Love’ Robert Palmer, but the superb music critic). Published in 1981, and now in its 39th impression, it is a must-read for anyone who has got this far in this post. The Library of Congress recordings that Pete mentions are available as The Complete Plantation Recordings, and include a few interviews as well as the first Muddy Waters recordings. Here is one of the first two numbers he cut: I Be’s Troubled.
Think you recognise it? This is the version you probably know better:
One of our favourite Rock Family Trees is not so much a tree but a visual and historical map: Mississippi, Cradle of the Blues. A remarkable account of the blues artists originating in the state of Mississippi. Here are the four short columns at the start the tree, top left:
In the coming weeks we will bring you some of the highlights of the tree. Here is one to start with, the blues artists associated with the town of Clarksdale:
We all know this born-in-Clarksdale bluesman:
But what about Brother John Sellers?
And this beautiful number from Maxwell Street Willie Davis?
Need your own copy of Mississippi Roots of the Blues? We have a special offer on the limited edition, signed Fine Art Print: £200 (including UK postage) until the end of June.
Special deals are also available on posters: A2 (420 x 594) £17.50 including UK postage
A1 (594 x 841) £22.50 including UK postage
All enquiries and orders to Jo at familyofrock.com
And of course, if you need a copy of More Rock Family Trees you know what to do:
Sad to hear of the passing of darts legend Jockie Wilson at the early age of 62.
But what does this have to do with music, you may ask? Those familiar with the British pop show Top of the Pops know the answer.
In 1982 Dexy’s Midnight Runners were in the charts with their big hit ‘Jackie Wilson Says’. Darts was huge on TV at the time, and Jocky Wilson a household name. And who was Jackie Wilson? Not known at the BBC. The stage was set, literally, for some accidental comedy. Look out for the big black and white picture of an angelic, smiling, darts genius.
We were very pleased to receive a Google Alert pointing us to a new review of Pete’s fabulous Even More Rock Family Trees. Here it is:
My neighbor bought Even More Rock Family Trees from the Internet. After they have used. It has made them love it so much. Because Even More Rock Family Trees can make them very easy to use, not difficult and is equipped with a durable, I’ve seen it,Even More Rock Family Trees would be to try to see what it is affordable. Compared with the property itself. Even More Rock Family Trees is durable in use. And proper manner. If you are looking for a product like this I would highly recommend Even More Rock Family Trees .
Machine-written reviewing still needs some work, it seems. But funnily enough, my neighbour did buy one as well, and he also found it very durable too. Get yours here:
With the temperature beginning to stir it is about time to end this blogging hibernation. And what better way than to trace some wonderful classics as they appear in Trees through the ages. Lets start with that gritty classic, Midnight Special. I’m always a sucker for a song where a new line starts just when you think the singer should be taking a breath, and this is one of the best.
Leadbelly got there early on:
And Odetta sings it how it should be:
So, who in the Trees has done justice to the song?
Not, in my humble opinion, the otherwise fab Spencer Davis Group:
And here is a short take from Journey, who happen to get a whole Tree just to themselves:
Then there’s Ken Colyer’s skiffle version with Alexis Korner:
Luckily we have Van Morrison, to bring it all back home. There’s hope after all:
And if you haven’t had enough yet, here’s Van, with Lonnie and Chris Barber, in a skiffle revival version of 2007.
but the reviews of Even More Rock Family Trees show why it is this year’s Xmas gift for the discerning rock maniac.
Five stars at Record Collector.
And in the best books of the year at Shindig Magazine.
Pete Frame started drawing his Rock Family Trees in Zigzag, Britain’s first rock magazine, which he founded in 1969.
They subsequently appeared in Sounds, NME, Melody Maker and Rolling Stone, on album sleeves and CD inserts. BBC Television broadcast two series of Rock Family Trees – plus further programmes based on his Monty Python genealogy and his Manchester United family trees.
Several volumes of his collected works have been published by Omnibus Press.