Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Folk Tradition

I have just read a book by Pete Seeger titled, Where Have all the Flowers Gone - A Singer's Stories, Songs, Seeds, Robberies. This is a fantastic book that details all of the history of the songs sung by Seeger as well as the context in which he became known as a prolific performer and writer of folk music.

Typical to the tradition of folk songs he notes his adaptation of existing songs as well as the adaptation of his own. He writes:

I've rarely refused copyright permission for someone to change my songs. After all, I've changed so many other people's songs, what right have I to be picky about my own. [at pg 165]

With respect to the composition of The Long March, he states:

I find it easier to think of a refrain than put together the verses to proceed it. These few lines kept returning to me, though. Maybe some will be able to use them. [at pg 170]

He also talks of the tradition within folk music to reuse other people's work:

...[A]t the age of 20, I met Woody Guthrie, the most prolific song write of them all. He, too, used a standard technique of putting new words to old tunes. (see pg 85) One can make up a new song by changing around an old song. Who care's if its not completely original... So when I heard Woody sing Jimmie Rodger's yodeling blues "T for Texas" just having registered for the draft (October 1940) it inspired me to put together this "new" song.

The new song was called 'C for Conscription'. Indeed the index to the table of contents of this book is broken up into categories - Seeger lists 25 songs in which he has written a new tune to other's words and a further 23 songs where he has written new words to other's tunes.

He states: [T]hrough musical history borrowing has been a two way street. This is simply impossible in the litigious copyright environment of today.

For much of his career copyright was not automatic but had to be applied for. He writes, with respect to the origins of 'We Will Overcome', that he is only one of thousands of people whi have added verses to this now world famous song. [at pg 32] He furthermore states that he is unsure of the origins of the song which could back as far as a 1921 gospel song "We Will Understand it Better Bye and Bye". He introduced the song to the SNCC (Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee in 1960 and its use in the context of the Civil Rights Movement meant that it became "the song".

With respect to the copyright on the song he states:

In the early '60's' our publisher said to us, "If you don't copyright this now, some Hollywood types will have a version out next year like "Come On Baby, We Shall Overcome Tonight" so Guy, Frank and I signed a "song writers contract" At that time we didn't know Lucille Simmon's name. Now we try to credit the African-American people... All royalties and income from the song go to a non-profit fund, which annually gives grants to further African-American music in the South. [at pg 32-34]

He notes that there are many versions of the lyrics and lists 15 of the most popular. [at pg 35]

Similarly with respect to the Woody Guthrie song "This Land is Your Land" he states:

Dozens of other verses have been written to the song within the last 10 years. Some of them simply change a few words to make the chorus apply to Canada or to England or to Australia... There have been anti-pollution verses. I always encourage anyone who loves any song not to be ashamed to try making up new verses for it.
[at pg 144]

Finally, with respect to the role of musicians in society he writes (from 1974):

In most nations, most ages, the local or national establishment tried to warp almost any good ides to its own ends. Music, art, science, humor. Religion too... Our job now is to learn how to speak truth to power - without being thrown in jail too often. Don't say it can't be done. We can do it in a thousand ways. I've tried with banjos and boats... We just have to be aware that it is a struggle, all the way, to keep from being co-opted.
[at pg 170]

He later adds:

Will there be a human race in another 200 years? Yest, it's a possibility. If so, it will be partly because songwriters of many kinds used whatever talents they were born with or developed. And use them to help their fellow humans get together.

This is an excellent book and worth a look for those interested in the use of music in the political context of the 1960s.

Further Reading
Peter Seeger, 'Where Have all the Flowers Gone - A Singer's Stories, Songs, Seeds, Robberies'. (I have the first edition which is undated and published by Sing Out) - the second edition was released in April 1997 and can be purchased from Amazon< > at 28 July 2010

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