Some of my first musical memories are from Pete Seeger’s children’s concerts in New York many years ago, where I screamed “Abiyoyo” with an auditorium full of kids. If you don’t know his name, just Google it. You’ll find him described as America’s best-loved folksinger and a lot of other superlatives.
One of the things that’s special about a Pete Seeger concert is the way he introduces each song with a story. He talks about where he heard it or how he thought up the tune or why the lyrics are important to him. His delivery is so understated that it’s easy to miss what great stories they are. At a recent concert I could feel the whole audience holding their breath through each story, waiting for the moment when they could connect the story to the song he was about to sing. Sometimes he timed it perfectly: the pieces didn’t fall into place until the first banjo note. And we all exhaled the opening lyrics with him.
That’s the other thing that’s special about a Pete Seeger concert. He can get everyone in the room to come together in song, even those of us who rarely sing outside of the shower. Pete’s getting older and doesn’t have much of a voice left. But all he needed to do is remind us of the story, give us the tune, and let us sing the song. He makes music into a participatory act of community by acting less like a performer and more like a facilitator or leader.
Peggy Seeger, Pete’s sister and a singer-songwriter in her own right, was there, too. Leading an folk song, Dear Old Buffalo Boy, she made us get into character. The song is a conversation, alternating verses between a man and a woman. The first time we sang it just fine, but without much emotion. Then, she told the audience about the context of the song and the social setting behind the humor. With a character — a persona — to imagine, the song got funnier, deeper, more alive, and so did our singing.
The whole concert was a great example of how we create stories (and songs) together.