Pete Seeger’s ‘Rainbow Quest’: The Anti-TV, TV

Bob Dylan’s scene-shattering electric set at the 1965 Newport folk festival has become something of an icon for iconoclasts. Like many major cultural changes, one of its primary effects may be hip revisionism, with fans, historians and the popular music press falling over themselves to make sure we know they were part of the group that ‘got it’.

On the other side, not ‘getting it’, was Pete Seeger, or so we’re usually told. Accounts vary from Seeger being generally unimpressed with the electric sound, to being worried about his father’s hearing aid, to being so incensed with the affront of electric music at a folk festival that he charged around waving an axe looking for a cable to cut. Seeger claims he was mostly just pissed off that Dylan’s vocals were being drowned out by a poor sound system (‘If I had an axe…’ Seeger apparently uttered, presumably not paraphrasing his own ‘If I Had a Hammer’, launching a thousand exaggerations of an axe-wielding, knitted-jumper-wearing folkie).

Maybe that telling is just Seeger’s revisionism, too. Who knows? In any case, it’s a great story; Seeger had been something of a father figure to Dylan (sheesh, Seeger’s something of a father figure to just about everyone), which lends the event the same kind of primal quasi-Oedipal resonance that makes everything from Greek tragedy to Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man work (that’s a symbolic prohibition against a total unrestricted embodiment of the self, not just a sexual kink, psychoanalysis fans!)

Seeger, always openly political and radical, went from being a whipping-post for anti-communist hysteria (along with his popular and important band The Weavers) to being a whipping-post for a new culture of music. The radical Seeger went from being evil to being quaint. It seemed that everything Dylan was, Seeger was not.

However, where many followed Dylan’s move from ‘topical’ music to artistic self-expression — the intriguing Phil Ochs made an odd but interesting shift to Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde style with his Pleasures of the Harbor in 1967 (its highpoint ‘I’ve Had Her’ features the same blisteringly self-aware mix of romanticism and misogyny that also makes Eminem’s ‘Kim’ so troublingly honest) — Seeger remained gloriously unhip. He was on the wrong side of the cultural movement (not for the first time) and seemingly happy to be there.

While Dylan’s defection from ‘folk’ may have led to one of the greatest careers in modern music history, there’s always a duality (at least) in truth, and for all Dylan’s embodiment of artistic vision and individuality, there’s also a reality to what Greil Marcus presents as going through the minds of angry folkies that day in Newport:

“For when Dylan turned away from the equation of life and art, when he followed where his music led him, he turned away not just from a philosophical proposition but from an entire complex of beliefs and maxims that to so many defined what was good and what was bad … he signified no mere apostasy, but the destruction of hope. As he stood on stage he was seen to affirm the claims of the city over the country, and capital over labor — and also the claims of the white artist over the black Folk, selfishness over compassion, rapacity over need, the thrill of the moment over the trials of endurance, the hustler over the worker, the thief over the orphan” (Invisible Republic p. 30).

Marcus doesn’t really have much time for this point of view, suggesting that the real problem was that fans felt they had been ‘tricked’ by Dylan all along, and ultimately dismissing the folk movement as conformist, demanding and individually frustrating. Fair enough; but that’s also the fundamental problem of just about any point of view which attempts to deviate from the norm and establish organised action. As Slavoj Zizek points out, the accusation of ‘totalitarianism’ is one of the handier ways to disarm any political movement, unanalysed, whether it be right or left:

“The moment one shows the slightest inclination to engage in political projects that aim seriously to challenge the existing order, the answer is immediately: ‘Benevolent as it is, this will necessarily end in a new Gulag!’ … blackmailing us into renouncing all serious radical engagement. In this way, conformist liberal scoundrels can find hypocritical satisfaction in their defence of the existing order: they know there is corruption, exploitation and so on, but every attempt to change things is denounced as ethically dangerous and unacceptable, resuscitating the ghost of ‘totalitarianism'” (Did Somebody Say Totalitarianism?, pp. 3-4).

Besides, most of what Marcus summarises as the folkies’ concerns still seems pretty apt. Perhaps not about Dylan, but about about the broader cultures that always gather about the individual or the ideal. The fact that Dylan achieved an undeniable state of artistic greatness doesn’t mean we can ignore everything else that may have come along with it; popular culture is hardly defined by authentic non-conformity, and is it really a good thing that the mere idea of ‘selling out’ doesn’t seem to exist anymore? (Seeger’s belief that music isn’t about being a ‘pop star’ is another belief that seems to be on shaky ground.) That’s a different problem, however (and anyway, Marcus’ Invisible Republic is a great read).

Seeger’s status as an outsider was nothing new, of course. ‘Be good and you will be lonesome,’ wrote Mark Twain. Seeger was too respected to be ‘lonesome’, but his open and continued dedication to his sense of right led to media isolation and cultural exclusion. Seeger took a tough stand against the HUAC investigations in the ’50s and was blacklisted. With that in mind, perhaps a quote from Henrik Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People is more appropriate than Twain: ‘The strongest man in the world is he who stands most alone’. Seeger seemed to have no need for those parts of society that tried to block him out. He played where he was wanted and could speak freely, demonstrating his unwavering pursuit of his principles, unbeholden to the mainstream media. Still, as Seeger later said in Seeing Red: Stories of American Communists (1983): ‘It’s not easy on friends and family, but I really believe it’s better to put your cards on the table’.

Dylan may have declared ‘political’ songs like ‘Which Side Are You On?’ to be ‘already dead’ in a 1966 Playboy interview, but folk (whatever that means, exactly) lives on, as do its songs and many of the ideas it stands for. Maybe it’ll be a good thing when a union anthem like ‘Which Side Are You On?’ is dead, but with the usual divide between rich and poor, and with society seeming to revolve around capitalist-monarchies, that doesn’t seem like it will (or should) happen any time soon. It’s a shame if such dedication in the face of marginalisation and individual-focus is seen as simply a quaint remnant of what music was briefly, and foolishly, about. Thankfully Seeger never confused media disinterest with real lack of interest. Kris Kristofferson’s ‘To Beat the Devil’ makes a suitable summary for Seeger (apparently actually about Johnny Cash):

“And you still can hear me singing to

The people who won’t listen to

The things that I am saying hoping

Someone’s gonna hear.

And I guess I’ll die explaining how

The things that they complain about

Are things they could be changing,

Hoping someone’s gonna care”

With Seeger’s official blacklist having come to an end, but its ‘unofficial’ effects still lingering, Seeger turned to TV with his own musical showcase, Rainbow Quest in 1965. Perhaps TV offered the same threat of monoculture that he had always been fighting, but Seeger returned to TV still indifferent to its perceived needs:

“This is one of the big worries of most people who like folk music. That television is going to obliterate region after region… Curiously enough, in spite of TV and everything … I can see all around the country people doing things which are never heard of on TV, and it doesn’t make that much difference to them” (Reading Eagle, 26 December 1978).

Rainbow Quest, perhaps not surprisingly, comes across as something like anti-TV TV, more about sitting back and letting Seeger and the visiting musicians take their own time to sing what they’ve got to sing and say what they’ve got to say than working too hard to maintain viewer interest, its awkwardly unplanned atmosphere both clunky and charming. Seeger seems to trust the viewers, in the same way he recognises that TV’s priorities don’t represent the priorities of the people he meets in his travels.

He speaks to the camera in that same natural, some might say dull, conversational tone that he uses in his concerts, simultaneously mundane and insightful. There’s something of ‘Mr Rogers’ in the experience: an attempt at a personal warmth through the cold screen; Rainbow Quest can seem like watching a children’s show that somehow bypasses all the boundaries between child and adult. Seeger is still one of the few great artists who seems more concerned about involving the audience in a sing-along than giving a distanced untouchable performance: a sharing of the music, in the best folk tradition.

Entirely Real… and Unnatural

Broadcast on UHF and reaching a limited number of screens, Rainbow Quest produced about 40 episodes before the funds dried up and it came to an end (at a glance, it seems that the funds were pretty dry to begin with). Thankfully, the episodes still exist and a selection are currently available on DVD (with more out-of-print on VHS and floating about on Youtube). With two episodes on each DVD, there’s really no way to recommend one over another; guests like Johnny Cash and Mississippi John Hurt may draw the most interest, but perhaps the real pleasure lies in just going along with the slow, easy atmosphere of any episode and seeing what treasures pop up, almost in passing and unannounced (Seeger’s yodelling performance of ‘Way Out There’, well known due to the song’s use in Raising Arizona, pops up without warning in a great episode with Elizabeth Cotten).

Still, among those 40 episodes featuring appearances by Tom Paxton, The Clancy Brothers, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Doc Watson, Donovan, Rev. Gary Davis, Judy Collins, and Johnny Cash (along with June Carter Cash) to name just a few, the episode featuring Roscoe Holcomb is definitely among Retro Remote‘s most-played.

As always, the episode gets straight to the music, the jangling of Seeger’s banjo leading to the show’s theme ‘Oh, Had I a Golden Thread’, a song that indirectly gives the show its name (with its reference to a ‘magic strand of rainbow design’) that seems to encapsulate the breadth and compassion of the show’s intentions: “Far over the waters, I’d reach my magic band, Through foreign cities, To every single land, To every land”. It’s as strong a statement about folk music as it is about responsible television; it’s a shame this particular UHF rainbow thread didn’t initially reach too far out of New York.

The bright optimism of ‘Golden Thread’ is displaced suddenly and a little jarringly by the ominous minor tone of ‘John Hardy’, that ‘desperate little man’, a dark and bitter tale of murder and retribution. Seeger sets the dark tone with some brief banjo picking, slips into some easy chat about the roots of the song, verbally leading the audience out of their comfortable apartments to ‘the most musical section of the nation’, then launches immediately back into the doom-laden tale.

Like most of those folk songs that seem timeless and strange (even if they can, like ‘John Hardy’, seemingly be tied to a specific event), the simplicity of the lyrics and delivery seem to refuse to place the song in some kind of broader context of social understanding. Hardy’s crime, flight and hanging are all delivered with a consistent lack of emotion or suggestion of resolution; it’s a vision where tragedy and suffering demonstrate nothing more than their own immediate existence. A history with no meaning found or offered.

It’s something popular modern adaptations invariably miss, or can’t manage to sell. Nick Cave’s forced tremors of darkness and despair when he delves into folk roots can’t approach the nihilistic mundanity of a point of view that approaches a tale of tragedy with little more than a shrug.

As in Carson McCullers’ ‘Reflections in a Golden Eye’, there just isn’t much to say about all those moments of anguish and despair, where any glimpse of real meaning is lost, leaving only the mere superficial fact of the event: ‘There is a fort in the South where a few years ago a murder was committed. The participants of this tragedy were: two officers, a soldier, two women, a Filipino, and a horse’ McCullers sums up bluntly. When John Huston filmed McCullers’ book in 1967, he ended the film with the murder and a camera that panned jarringly back and forth between the participants, locked in a loop of motion, trying to find a place to settle, to locate it all, but only resolving in the blackness of the fade-out. This is some of that distanced impossible-to-capture strangeness that Greil Marcus finds in the ‘old, weird America’ in Invisible Republic; Marcus draws on John Cohen’s analysis of Harry Smith’s liner notes to his famous and seminal Anthology of American Folk Music where Smith bypasses all notions of depth and probing in the songs he presents, simply describing them with sardonically dismissive and superficial snippets in the style of trashy news headlines.

Indeed, Seeger tries to sum up the final line of John Hardy’s defiance — ‘my six shooter never told a lie’ — but falters when he gets to it and only ends up repeating it, the notion too blank and opaque to allow any further exploration.

Seeger follows up with a union story and song, that song which Dylan declared ‘dead’: ‘Which Side Are You On?’. The melancholy call to choose a side carries a sense of ethical demand that goes beyond the immediate politics of the song, a reminder that, in places, ‘there are no neutrals there’. ‘Dead’ or not, and even if one steps away from the politics (um, because workers’ rights are all settled now?), it carries its own quiet and resonant power. Furthermore, as Kurt Weill said, as he was more concerned with who was actually out there hearing his music and perhaps best known for overtly political works with Bertolt Brecht: ‘To hell with posterity!’

Anyway, if there’s a real line between political and non-political songs (apparently Billy Bragg & Wilco clashed over it while recording the excellent collection of Woody Guthrie songs, Mermaid Avenue), Seeger ignores it, jumping to ‘Darlin’ Corey’ about a female moonshiner playing banjo and running from the revenue men. Seeger finally breaks loose of the blunt vocal flatness here, giving a hint of the enthusiastic heights his voice could reach (Seeger’s talent as an emotive vocalist has always been underrated or at least overshadowed by his political image). ‘Darlin’ Corey’ flits through visions of moonshinin’ life, love, and death and comes to an end before it even seems to have started, a jaunty tone leads to the ‘hole in the meadow’ to ‘lay darlin’ Corey down’, and then it’s over just like that (Murder, Misery and Then Goodnight as Kristin Hersh called her album of Appalachian folk songs.)

So far, it’s been nothing but Seeger and his banjo, but after (presumably) a commercial break, the frame is spontaneously filled with a face that’s as unreadable as Seeger’s is warm. It belongs to Roscoe Holcomb, in his mid-50s at the time of filming, but the etchings of a hard life as a Kentucky miner and farmer making it look at least 20 years older.

Holcomb’s ‘high lonesome sound’ starts with ‘Little Birdie’ (a song which Seeger sings on the Johnny Cash episode, as do the Greenbriar Boys during their episode). If Seeger’s ‘John Hardy’ suggested the strange distance of the old weird folk vision, then Roscoe Holcomb seems to encapsulate it, heading for strange caterwauling peaks and trailing off into flat nothings, the evasive call-and-response of the song posing questions with no answers and a strange emptiness of the moment: ‘Little birdie, little birdie, what makes you fly so high? It’s because I am a true little bird, and I do not fear to die’ … ‘Little birdie, little birdie, come sing to me a song. I’ve a short while to be here, and a long time to be gone’.

Seeger sits back, arms behind his head then leaning in for a closer look at Roscoe’s banjo playing, the awkwardness of his presence adding to the sense of sitting around and sharing a moment rather than the structured environment of most music shows. Seeger takes a stab at talking about tuning while Roscoe has a brief coughing spell over to the side, nodding a quick ‘excuse me’ to the camera, another nicely anti-television moment. More tuning before Seeger tries to draw a little chat out of the far-from-talkative Holcomb. It turns out he’s only recently ‘came up north’ to play, before that just playing around home, and even then ‘not very much’, making his living as a construction worker (and not recorded until the late-’50s). He chuckles at Seeger’s mention of his nimble fingers, wondering at how they can be after all the cinder blocks they’ve carried.

Roscoe trades the banjo for a guitar and plays ‘Graveyard Blues’, the words barely making it past the thick and almost overwhelming sounds of his vocals. Seeger follows up by explaining they have some footage taken of Roscoe’s home and life that they’ll play during the next song (noting, among other things, the wallpaper made of newspaper), helping people from ‘one part of the world’ understand ‘people from another part of the world’.

More tuning and Roscoe turns to ‘Little Gray Mule’, a banjo instrumental, then back to more tuning on the guitar. Perhaps the real definitive moment of Rainbow Quest‘s unpolished allure (even more than the endless tuning) comes during ‘Rocky Mountain’: Roscoe starts playing then stops during the first verse, catching sight of the previously promised footage of him popping up on a nearby monitor.

It’s a moment of TV uncertainty that’s almost gone in an age when just about everybody on the street is ready to step in front of a camera and ask to be shot on their good side. When Jean Redpath then joins the episode, there’s something audacious in having the Scottish balladeer and earthy Kentucky enigma sit awkwardly across from each other, mugs of coffee on a studio-based kitchen table, quietly waiting for Seeger to make small talk.

When they finally all play together, Seeger, Redpath, and Holcomb on ‘Auld Lang Syne’, the uneasy mix never manages to really take off: awkward but honest. One of the joys of Rainbow Quest isn’t that it presents a real and natural setting, but that we seem to see real people in a TV setting that is somehow still unnatural, even after it’s become such an unavoidable part of mainstream life. The TV context seems an imposition, a false construct, rather than an unquestionable invisible window. It gives the awkwardness of the round-the-table setup and stilted flow an authenticity that reminds us that people are still ‘out there’ and not just ready to fit inside the box, invalidating the television construct rather than the people in front of it.

Rainbow Quest remains about people, not TV. As Seeger said, ‘I can see all around the country people doing things which are never heard of on TV, and it doesn’t make that much difference to them’.

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