Thursday, 5 November 2015

Seeger anything but "An Incompleat Folksinger"

From the footlights :  Incompleat. For starters, no search engine recognizes it as a bona fide English word. Only its antonym, "compleat", meaning "skilled". So in coining the word "incompleat" to describe his talents as a folksinger -- "not skilled" -- Pete Seeger had his tongue buried deeply in his left cheek. Why the left, specifically? Because Seeger who died not quite two years ago at 94 was a life-long lefty. This show is 100 minutes of Victoria songster Mark Hellman performing some 20 of Seeger's signature songs of struggle, protest and hope. All of which are interspersed with snippets of Seeger views on his socially committed life from pre-WWII days through the Vietnam horrenda. His beliefs in non-violent protest; in support for the poor & disenfranchised; in trade unionism; in eco-politics : through social communion and song, he felt, folks can achieve peace, if only momentarily. This is a feel-good show about people living life from the heart, first, the head second, but always striving to keep the two in sync to never let The Powers That Be have the last say. 

The show's genesis : Performer Mark Hellman of Victoria's the Other Guys Theatre company got to chatting with another OGT principal, Ross Desprez, shortly after Seeger's death. Each agreed a tribute to Seeger whose music they both loved would be a great project. They started with Seeger's book of the same name first published in 1972 when Seeger was in his early 50's. Over six enervating months, his 600 pages of memoir got distilled and adapted by the two of them down to 60 pages of script, and then chopped further to a bit over 30. In conjunction with Musical Director Tobin Stokes, Desprez directed Hellman in the one-man show that features 60% of the songs on banjo, the rest on 12-string guitar.

How it's structured : Seeger believed "We can get drunk on music ", and thus his shows always involved crowds joining him on the choruses at least, if not all the verses. To raise the song in lyrics simple and direct was his passion. His words from the book say it best : "Once upon a time, wasn't singing a part of everyday life as much as talking, physical exercise, and religion? Our distant ancestors, wherever they were in this world, sang while pounding grain, paddling canoes, or walking long journeys. Can we begin to make our lives once more all of a piece...[for when] a crowd joins in on a chorus as though to raise the ceiling a few feet higher, they they also know there is hope for the world." Seeger believed that "the basic purpose of all art is to enlarge our opinion of other people." Not exactly what devotees of the Western canon might subscribe to, or their detractors, but Seeger lived and breathed and sang his heart out over such a belief. Thus from the get-go the Hellman/Desprez script finds Hellman entreating the crowd to sing along with him. And I did. With more gusto than timbre.

I know Bob Seger, but who's Pete...?  Long before Bob's 1980's anthem "Against The Wind", Pete rolled out three of the most iconic folk/pop/protest songs ever recorded : "If I Had A Hammer", which was popularized by Peter, Paul and Mary. For the Kingston Trio "Where Have All The Flowers Gone" was a signature piece. And then my personal favourite -- adapted from The Bible's book of Ecclesiastes, 3:6  -- "Turn, Turn, Turn" made heroic in the early 70's by The Byrds. He also had a small-ish role in "Kisses Sweeter Than Wine" (covered by Jimmie Rodgers) : in that one Seeger focus'd his musical talents on the chorus. And then there's "We Shall Overcome", a hand-me-down Negro spiritual. It was Seeger who changed the original verb "will" to "shall" because he felt it was more "singable" and compelling. (Personal insight : Listening to all the storytelling in Seeger's songs tonight convinced me that my favourite 70's U.S. troubadour, Harry Chapin, not only mimic'd Seeger's style, he almost copied it directly for such ballads as "Midnight Watchman" and "Taxi".) No question, like Woody Guthrie and Lead Belly, Seeger was a player, majorly so, in mid-century U.S. folk music.

Why the show is timely & topical :  Seeger became, Hellman tells us, a "cultural guerilla" in the States in the 60's and 70's. Due to his strong trade union ties; his previous membership in the Communist Party; his calling the McCarthy era Congress and its infamous HUAC committee a "witchhunt" and an "inquisition"; later his describing President Johnson's VietNam adventure a crime against humanity -- for all of these reasons Seeger was, except for two brief appearances on The Smothers Brothers Show, blacklisted from nationwide network television. (And for its part TSBS was canceled unilaterally after two seasons by CBS because it was too "controversial" despite having millions of weekly viewers.) Thereafter, Seeger's preferred audiences became college campuses where hundreds and thousands of eager Boomer kids lapped up his protest songs.

Today? On a typical North American college campus? Acerbic commentator Rex Murphy has called out contemporary colleges as "cocoons of self-indulgence and actual anti-intellectualism" in thrall to what he calls the "anti-thought brigades". These, he says, are people who demand "safe spaces" free of contrary or challenging ideas.  Lectures and speeches must be hi-lited with "trigger warnings" if students might be exposed to a view that could disagree with their own. Places such as these feature countless grievances against alleged "micro-aggressions" by professors or classmates if a viewpoint is put forward with any degree of assertion whatever.* 

Given Seeger's universal embrace of hope and love and faith that he believed would "raise the conscience of the country", on such campuses to-day his songs just might not play all that well. Which is reason enough to go see this show. To remind ourselves that in today's world of ISIL and mass refugee migrations and an Arctic that may have no ice in a decade or two, the "embrace of hope and love and faith" is ever-worthy, ever-necessary, ever a beacon on the horizon that calls out to our better selves to respond, to act.

Who gonna like :  Other than CBC Radio's Deep Roots show with Tom Power, folk music is not particularly au courant any more. It's been eclipsed by the sugary enticements of "country pop rock"
in today's quick-fix hyperactive manic race against boredom. Why? We dwell in a social media-besotted culture. Attention spans are spasmodic, fleeting. It's a culture we're apparently stuck with ad infinitum, ad nauseam. But if the songs I've mentioned and others of similar tone and sentiment that speak about what Seeger refers to as "acts of reaffirmation, like a sunrise or a kiss" -- if a night of such rousing but relatively slo-mo unplugged music appeals to you -- this show, an old-style hootenanny, will get you humming and singing and clapping and tearing-up at just the right times : you'll thank yourself for taking it in.

Particulars : Script Adaptation by Ross Despres and Mark Hellman of the Pete Seeger memoir of the same name. Production by the Other Guys Theatre (Victoria) in collaboration with the Firehall Arts Centre (Vancouver). 120 minutes' duration with a 15-minute intermission. On through November 14th at the Centre on the corner of East Cordova & Gore. Tickets and schedules via or by phoning 604.689.0926.

Production : Director Ross Desprez.  Musical Director Tobin Stokes.  Lighting Designer Rebekah Johnson.  Rehearsal Coordinator & Dramaturge Sandy Cumberland.  Production Coordinator / Stage Manager Leigh Robinson.  Audio Technician Roger T. Kemble.

Performer :  Mark Hellman.

*Addendum :  Upon reading the original TIF review published early this morning, a faithful reader responded to Rex Murphy's observations about today's universities. He noted that Pete Seeger's cover of the Malvina Reynolds original "Little Boxes" -- that Pete performed as a B-side on his 1963 Columbia 45 r.p.m. of "Where Have All The Flowers Gone?" -- might aptly apply, to wit :

And the children go to school,
And the children go to summer camp
And then to the university,
Where they are put in boxes

And they come out all the same


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