The annual Carnegie Hall concert tradition began with the Weavers -- Pete Seeger's old band -- who made a triumphant reunion concert at Carnegie Hall in 1955 while they were technically still blacklisted by the government. For decades now, the Carnegie Hall gig has been led by Arlo Guthrie. And, many times in recent years, Pete Seeger has been a special guest, often with his grandson, Tao Rodriguez Seeger. It is a beautiful thing to watch Pete and Tao collaborate and support each other on stage.
Arlo Guthrie is wonderful on stage. His piano adds so much to the performance. He played "City of New Orleans" beautifully and it was a highlight of the evening. We noted that Arlo did a little less talking and storytelling than usual last night. It was missed in many ways, but it did give time for a lot of good music from all the musicians on stage. Perhaps this event should be turned into a two day festival? (A music and storytelling festival!) One of Arlo's newest philosophical themes, as noted in the title of his recent tour, is that the world is a little lost. He spoke about that at Carnegie Hall and it resonated with the audience.
There were many other musicians on-stage. They were all briefly introduced, though I fear I cannot list them all. Standing next to keyboardist Abe Guthrie was a young clarinet player, though I am not sure where she fit into the family structure. There was also an appearance and short solo by Olivia, the young daughter of Sarah Lee Guthrie and Johnny Irion. Arlo's other daughters, Cathy Guthrie and Annie Guthrie, also did backing vocals. Arlo's grandson was a very competent drummer, who kept the evening moving along with vibrance.
An article at Fosters , describing Arlo's current tour noted: "Of those performing with him on the current tour, he says of his son, Abe, 'He is a great musician and a great engineer - a great tech person.'" My husband and I did not know Abe was also a tech person. Though, my husband did note that of all the musicians on stage, Abe Guthrie, at the keyboard, was able to play and add to every song. Abe is shy, but hugely talented.
Sarah Lee Guthrie performs and tours with her husband Johnny Irion. They both had some wonderful moments on stage at Carnegie Hall, him with guitar-picking, and her with vocals. Sarah performed an A Capella version of the Woody Guthrie/Billy Bragg song Birds and Ships. It is a short, whimsical ballad, which she performed as gracefully as a fairy tale princess, with a pleading, playful vulnerability. My heart was in my throat on her high notes, which teetered on the brink of whisper, yet carried through with strength.
Tao Rodriguez-Seeger performed a lot, leading some songs, and as backup. Tao also plays with various other bands, including the Mammals, who are great fun. Tao's biography informs his work. Wikipedia notes: "Tao spent nine years of his childhood in Nicaragua. Tao's father, Emilio Rodríguez, a Puerto Rican filmmaker, was invited by the Sandanistas to document the nation's civil war. Tao's mother is Mika Seeger."
Tao did a profound and heartwarming version of Guamtanamera. He utilized an excellent combination of Spanish language to keep it real and resonant, and English language to draw the audience into the story. Going to see these musical workers for peace and justice perform during the holiday season, it was so gratifying to hear Tao sing the verse: "With the poor people of this earth, I want to share my lot. The little streams of the mountains, please me more than the sea." I think Tao's telling of the story caused several of us poets to vow to look up - and possibly memorize - the history and all the verses.
There is a definite flavor and group knowing to this circle of performers - the Guthrie and Seeger families. For a person like me, who likes my propaganda bold and somewhat didactic, I sometimes experience their musically polished, uplifting vibe as a kind of emptiness. Though, I do believe it is simply more glowing and clever. During the performance, I cannot deny that what they are speaking of is peace, freedom and liberation. I can feel the peace worker inside me being nurtured and empowered. Though, I can't usually point to a specific cause or a call to action in the songs or stage banter.
I believe that some of my sense of dissonance is the disconnect between full time, self-identified musicians, vs. a part time, self-identified poet. I am also starting to see the work of the Guthries and the Seegers as a purposeful, disciplined, well-planned way to create infrastructure. If they were to say strong, risky political words, if they were to name specific politicians or causes to battle for, they might have difficulty filling Carnegie Hall. Or, they might not appeal to so many hundreds of people that would gather together for the annual healing of renewal. So, I have been thinking of them lately as a kind of less-complicated, more benevolent Rick Blaine, making sure that Casablanca is thriving, right under the nose of the oppressor, so that it may continue on through the war and controversy. Or, perhaps their life's work are like slave chants, with hidden messages about which path to take North, with the power lying in the fact that they are too oblique for the oppressors to understand and squash them. Perhaps, Pete Seeger is the Drinking Gourd.
As I look up a little of the background and biography for this post, I start to believe more and more that my "cleverly concealed message theory" is correct. One history piece notes both an experience the Weavers had in Peekskill, NY, where the audience and musicians were attacked by right wingers and also the years of the Weavers being Blacklisted.
My example for how the message was hidden more than it is in my work, was how the issue of immigration was handled. I know that with Tao's roots in Puerto Rico and Nicaragua, that he must know of the recent murder of Marcelo Lucero in Long Island, due to a hate crime. So, I waited all night for Tao to speak to that issue. I have been involved myself in the meetings and vigils for healing, and I thought that Carnegie Hall would be a wonderful place to speak the name of this new martyr in the world of immigrant rights. Though, all evening, even when they sang Deportee , no one named Marcelo Lucero (except for myself, far away in my red velvet box, spelling his name over and over again in sign language as the music washed over the audience.)
Though, Deportee does speak exactly to the recent tragedy of immigrant-haters murdering Marcel Lucero in the streets of Patchogue Long Island. And, Deportee is not a song that is always in their Carnegie Hall reportoire. So, I am sure that it was part of their message to honor Marcelo Lucero. And, I believe that I noticed some subtle twists and changes in the presentation. (Though, I feel like I could be wishing up my own mystery.) One of the background concerns related to Marcelo's murder is that, in Long Island, local politicians called immigrants "illegal" in the press over and over again in a way that created a background for hate. And, I think that the Guthries and Seegers may have adjusted the words in deportee to more clearly say something such as "They call us..." and a list of names including illegal. Also, I believe that instead of the name "Maria", they put it in that place "Marina", because I kept feeling corrected when I tried to sing along. Though, I don't know if or how Marina relates to the Marcelo story, unless it is because there is an immigration advocate and lawyer who had commented on the case somewhere.
Experiencing a concert by these two, great families of folk music, leaves one to all sorts of wonder, fancy and speculation. It stirs thoughts and feelings that can carry a person to next year's ritual get-together. I am eager to attend the folk concert at Carnegie Hall next year. And, in the meantime, I can't wait to look up all the stories that were hinted at, as well as the musical projects of many of the talented performers who graced the stage last night.
I also had the wonderful experience of sharing this concert with some friends who are poets and musicians. In our box was Miranda, a 5-year-old who had very different opinions about when we should clap and not. Sometimes she wanted us to clap, though, she knew we must all stop when Sarah Lee was singing. Miranda is famous at her school for saving the song Good Night, Irene from being axed out of a musical production. So, although, she had almost gone to sleep for the last two songs, Miranda perked up and joined in fabulously to sing This Land is Your Land and Good Night Irene.