PopMatters is moving to WordPress. We will publish a few essays daily while we develop the new site. We hope the beta will be up sometime late next week.

Pete Seeger's 'Rainbow Quest': The Anti-TV, TV

Somewhat awkward, clunky and charming on his TV show, Pete Seeger seemed to trust the viewers in the same way he recognised that TV's priorities don't represent the priorities of the people he meets in his travels.

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).

DVD: Seeing Red: Stories of American Communists

Film: Seeing Red: Stories of American Communists

Director: Julia Reichert, Jim Klein

Cast: Pete Seeger

Release Date: 1998-18-19

Distributor: Facets

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/columns_art/m/macfarlane-seeingred-cvr.jpgBesides, 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.

Next Page

Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology and hosting provider that we have less than a month, until November 6, to move PopMatters off their service or we will be shut down. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to save the site.





Laura Veirs Talks to Herself on 'My Echo'

The thematic connections between these 10 Laura Veirs songs and our current situation are somewhat coincidental, or maybe just the result of kismet or karmic or something in the zeitgeist.


15 Classic Horror Films That Just Won't Die

Those lucky enough to be warped by these 15 classic horror films, now available on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection and Kino Lorber, never got over them.


Sixteen Years Later Wayne Payne Follows Up His Debut

Waylon Payne details a journey from addiction to redemption on Blue Eyes, The Harlot, The Queer, The Pusher & Me, his first album since his 2004 debut.


Every Song on the Phoenix Foundation's 'Friend Ship' Is a Stand-Out

Friend Ship is the Phoenix Foundation's most personal work and also their most engaging since their 2010 classic, Buffalo.


Kevin Morby Gets Back to Basics on 'Sundowner'

On Sundowner, Kevin Morby sings of valleys, broken stars, pale nights, and the midwestern American sun. Most of the time, he's alone with his guitar and a haunting mellotron.


Lydia Loveless Creates Her Most Personal Album with 'Daughter'

Given the turmoil of the era, you might expect Lydia Loveless to lean into the anger, amplifying the electric guitar side of her cowpunk. Instead, she created a personal record with a full range of moods, still full of her typical wit.


Flowers for Hermes: An Interview with Performing Activist André De Shields

From creating the title role in The Wiz to winning an Emmy for Ain't Misbehavin', André De Shields reflects on his roles in more than four decades of iconic musicals, including the GRAMMY and Tony Award-winning Hadestown.


The 13 Greatest Horror Directors of All Time

In honor of Halloween, here are 13 fascinating fright mavens who've made scary movies that much more meaningful.


British Jazz and Soul Artists Interpret the Classics on '​Blue Note Re:imagined'

Blue Note Re:imagined provides an entrance for new audiences to hear what's going on in British jazz today as well as to go back to the past and enjoy old glories.


Bill Murray and Rashida Jones Add Another Shot to 'On the Rocks'

Sofia Coppola's domestic malaise comedy On the Rocks doesn't drown in its sorrows -- it simply pours another round, to which we raise our glass.


​Patrick Cowley Remade Funk and Disco on 'Some Funkettes'

Patrick Cowley's Some Funkettes sports instrumental renditions from between 1975-1977 of songs previously made popular by Donna Summer, Herbie Hancock, the Temptations, and others.


The Top 10 Definitive Breakup Albums

When you feel bombarded with overpriced consumerism disguised as love, here are ten albums that look at love's hangover.


Dustin Laurenzi's Natural Language Digs Deep Into the Jazz Quartet Format with 'A Time and a Place'

Restless tenor saxophonist Dustin Laurenzi runs his four-piece combo through some thrilling jazz excursions on a fascinating new album, A Time and a Place.


How 'Watchmen' and 'The Boys' Deconstruct American Fascism

Superhero media has a history of critiquing the dark side of power, hero worship, and vigilantism, but none have done so as radically as Watchmen and The Boys.


Floodlights' 'From a View' Is Classicist Antipodal Indie Guitar Pop

Aussie indie rockers, Floodlights' debut From a View is a very cleanly, crisply-produced and mixed collection of shambolic, do-it-yourself indie guitar music.


CF Watkins Embraces a Cool, Sophisticated Twang on 'Babygirl'

CF Watkins has pulled off the unique trick of creating an album that is imbued with the warmth of the American South as well as the urban sophistication of New York.


Helena Deland Suggests Imagination Is More Rewarding Than Reality on 'Something New'

Canadian singer-songwriter Helena Deland's first full-length release Someone New reveals her considerable creative talents.


While the Sun Shines: An Interview with Composer Joe Wong

Joe Wong, the composer behind Netflix's Russian Doll and Master of None, articulates personal grief and grappling with artistic fulfillment into a sweeping debut album.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.