Spirit of the Times, by Don Firth

“A bunch of us, including Walt Robertson, got together in late 1952 or early 1953 and formed the Pacific Northwest Folklore Society. The fate of the organization is described below,”
Personal Reminiscences, Don Firth (1931-2015).
1954 – Pete Seeger in Seattle and the Fate
of the Pacific Northwest Folklore Society

In fall of 1954 a major folk music event took place in Seattle. For the Pacific Northwest Folklore Society it proved to be more than a major event. Pete Seeger came to Seattle to give a concert. Under the aegis of the Folklore Society, Walt Robertson made the necessary arrangements and obtained the use of the basement auditorium of Wesley House, where several earlier Folklore Society events had been held.

Seeger would be in Seattle on Monday and Tuesday, the fourth and fifth of October. Being weeknights, they were not ideal for drawing the largest possible crowd, but that would have to do. Walt made tentative arrangements and wrote to Seeger for his approval: the concert on Monday evening, and a party or gathering with Seattle’s folksingers, Folklore Society members, and friends on Tuesday evening. Seeger responded, saying that he would not be free on Monday because a group of friends in Seattle had already arranged a reception for him that evening. But Tuesday would be okay. And although it would make it pretty late especially for a week night, if we were game for a private party and song swap after the concert, that would be fine with him.

Tuesday afternoon before the concert, Dick Landberg and I were sitting in Howard’s Restaurant when a Folklore Society member joined us. He was upset, and he seemed almost furtive.

“I thought I’d better warn you guys, just in case,” he said in hushed, confidential tones. “I just found out that the ‘reception’ that Seeger attended last night was actually a fund-raising concert for an outfit that calls itself ‘Cafe Society.’ It’s a Communist front organization.”

Dick and I looked at each other, perplexed.

“You know what this means, don’t you?” he continued. “Seeger’s been called up before the House Un-American Activities Committee. People are going to think the Pacific Northwest Folklore Society is putting on a public concert so Seeger can pay his way out here and do a free fund-raiser for the Communist Party.

“Look,” he said, leaning forward and practically whispering, “I’m studying aeronautical engineering. I plan to work for Boeing when I graduate. Now, that’s probably going to involve my being able to get a security clearance. So I’m not going to Seeger’s concert. And I want my name taken off the Folklore Society’s mailing list!”

This may seem bizarre and paranoid to us now. Yet, during the early Fifties, mention of the House Un-American Activities Committee evoked emotions similar to those that must have been evoked in the 15th and 16th centuries at the mention of the Spanish Inquisition. People glanced apprehensively over their shoulders, shuddered, and crossed themselves.

There was not much Dick and I could do about it but pass the word to whoever maintained the mailing list. We talked it over and decided that this was probably an overreaction. No way were we going to miss Seeger’s concert.

That evening the Wesley House auditorium was packed. Rather that singing from the lighted stage with the rest of the auditorium dark, Seeger stood on a riser against the side wall of the auditorium. Folding chairs were arranged in concentric half-circles around the riser and the house lights were kept on. Seeger wanted to be able to see the audience and be among them.
Tall and slender, dressed in his usual plaid shirt and tie with sleeves rolled up well above his elbows and with his long-necked 5 string banjo slung over his shoulder, he strode rapidly to the riser, surveyed the audience with a friendly grin, and launched into his first song.

I’ve heard critical types say that Pete Seeger doesn’t have the greatest singing voice in the world. He characterized his own voice as “a split tenor with a corn husk stuck in his throat.” The same types also say that there are better banjo players or guitarists than he is. Okay, that may be. But one would have to search far and wide to find anyone as versatile, or who has the knack of engaging an audience as quickly and enthusiastically as he can. A couple songs, a story, a ballad or two, and he had the entire audience singing along with gusto. He is probably the world’s greatest song leader.
He is also a powerful advocate of “do it yourself” music. He urged everyone in the audience who felt at all inclined to go ahead and learn to play and sing. “Get yourself an instrument and don’t be deadly serious about it. Don’t say to yourself, ‘Okay, every Tuesday night I’ll practice for half an hour.’ Just pick it up and have fun with it. Goof off. Anyone can do it.” Then he grasped the banjo and launched into his “Goofing Off Suite,” a musical goulash that included ingredients such as Bach’s Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring, the Ode to Joy from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, the Cowboy Yodel, and much more, all on the 5 string banjo, occasionally joined by his “split tenor.” Amazing!

For over two hours he took us from whimsy to high drama, from Cumberland Mountain bear chases to chain gang songs to tragic ballads to exploding frogs to riding the rods with hobos to love songs to sea chanteys, jokes, tall tales, and many, many sing-alongs. The place rocked.
Anyone who has attended a Pete Seeger concert knows that it was not just a concert; it’s a unique, unforgettable experience.

After the concert, Dick and I headed directly to Carol Lee Waite’s house a couple blocks south on 15th N. E. where the after-concert party was to be held.

Within a few minutes the place was packed. Bob Clark brought several quarts of his home-brewed beer, and other beverages and comestibles appeared. Nancy-Lu Patterson who had done the mural-sized poster for the Folklore Society’s Hobby Fair exhibit was there with her husband; Dick Landberg and I, of course; and . . . it’s impossible to remember who all else. Most of the folksingers and folk music enthusiasts that I knew were in attendance. People sat on the furniture and on the floor and on window sills and there may have been a few people hanging from the picture molding.
Walt Robertson and Pete Seeger arrived. Seeger accepted a glass of Bob Clark’s home brew and opted to sit cross-legged on the floor. A lot of singing went on that night and Pete sang a bit himself, but mostly he wanted to hear other people. I sang some, as did Dick, Bob Clark, Nancy Lu, and many others.

Walt reluctantly left early because he had to go to work in the morning (it was past midnight by now) and many others did the same, but as long as there were those who wanted to stay, Pete was game. It ended up with about a half-dozen of us sitting in a circle on the floor passing a guitar–my recently purchased Martin 00-18–back and forth.

It had never occurred to me until then that Pete played anything but the 5-string banjo, but it was obvious that he really knew his way around the guitar as well. It wasn’t like a class, workshop, or anything that formal, it was just a half dozen people sitting around trading guitar licks and tricks. Pete’s enthusiasm was contagious and we all learned a lot from him that night. He talked about various singers he knew, how they would approach a song, and what they did on the guitar. Then he would demonstrate.
For example, he told us how Leadbelly heard someone sing an Irish ballad about a dead cow. Intrigued by the modal melody, Leadbelly worked it out on his 12-string guitar in his own unique style and played it just as an instrumental. Normally it would have started and ended on an A minor chord, but Leadbelly played an A seventh instead. This made for a modal melody with a strong rhythm and some unusual and unexpected “lemon juice” in the harmony. Catchy. Lee Hays* of The Weavers heard Leadbelly play it, liked it, and wrote a new set of words to the tune. That’s how one of The Weavers’ signature songs, Kisses Sweeter Than Wine, came about.
I watched carefully while Pete demonstrated the way Leadbelly played it, and later incorporated it into my accompaniment when I learned the song. Whatever the source of the song might be – the Irish ballad, Leadbelly’s guitar arrangement, or Lee Hays’ lyrics – picking it up from Pete like I did, I felt very close to that source.

We finally broke up, and I think I got home and to bed very shortly before the sun come up.

That was a memorable event in my life. I learned an immeasurable amount from Pete that night. Some things were specific, such as guitar techniques and arrangements. But many things would be difficult to put into words: things like staying true to the spirit of a song, but exercising your own creativity at the same time.

And that contagious enthusiasm. My interest in folk music and folksinging multiplied many times over.

The aftermath of this event was less felicitous. The dark side manifested itself in a particularly sinister way.

Several people were irked because Seeger had done two performances in Seattle for two different organizations on consecutive evenings. They maintained that this was a violation of performer’s ethics. But worse than that – as the person who buttonholed Dick and me in Howard’s Restaurant had complained – it made it appear that the Pacific Northwest Folklore Society conspired to arrange for Seeger to come to Seattle so he could do a fund-raising performance for what many insisted was a Communist front organization.

After all, Seeger had been called up before the House Un-American Activities Committee and he and The Weavers had been blacklisted. Despite that, the first major performer the Pacific Northwest Folklore Society sponsors is Seeger. Never mind that the Folklore Society consisted of a loose-knit group of people, most of whom were apolitical and some even fairly conservative, who simply liked folk music and wanted to hear Pete Seeger sing. Truth? What did that have to do with it? What mattered was what it made the Pacific Northwest Folklore Society look like.

It was Kafkaesque. Furtive calls came in from people who almost cringingly insisted their names be dissociated from the Folklore Society. It was like cattle stampeding in panic. By the end of week the membership list had dwindled to less than a dozen names.

After what seemed to be such an auspicious beginning, the Pacific Northwest Folklore Society ceased to exist.

They might not burn heretics at the stake anymore as they did in times past, but it appeared that the spirit of Tomás de Torquemada and the Spanish Inquisition lived on in Senator Joseph McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee.

To be suspected was to be condemned.
*In Folksingers and Folksongs in America (Duell, Sloan and Pearce, New York, 1965, 2nd Edition), Ray M. Lawless credits Fred Hellerman, another member of the Weavers, with writing “Kisses Sweeter Than Wine.” I would swear that Pete said it was Lee Hays. I’ve since heard a couple of variations on the story, but unless I hear something authoritative otherwise, I’ll stick with my recollection of what Pete said.

Don Firth (1931-2015) was one of the founding members of the Pacific NW Folklore Society. His interest in folk music began with the folk music revival in Seattle in the early 1950s. This was taken from his “reminiscences”:  “For some time I have been writing personal reminiscences of the folk music scene in Seattle and elsewhere during the Fifties and Sixties. Not a history. That, I’m afraid, would be a ‘four blind men and an elephant’ operation, so what I’m doing is more of a memoir—my own personal observations.”


One thought on “Spirit of the Times, by Don Firth”

  1. SUPERB WRITING! Over the many years of friendship with Don, I’ve heard him tell this story many times. And it never changed. bob nelson

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