Friday, February 28, 2014

“They say I'm tetched...”: Deceased Artiste Harold Ramis

The recent death of Harold Ramis brought back memories of his great work as both a performer and head writer on the first season of SCTV. His output as a movie director was wildly uneven (I’m being kind here). I'm of the right age demographic to be hailing Ramis for, as the writer of one insanely hyperbolic piece on Gawker contended, being the man who “wrote and/or directed the greatest American movies of my generation.”

That isn't the case, though – Ramis's comedies are pleasant on first viewing (especially if you're a teenager or younger), but there is little to no reason to revisit them (Groundhog Day excepted), unless you're looking for a trip down Memory Lane. It's true that Ramis crafted the Bill Murray movie persona that everyone knows and loves, but the films just don't stand up to repeated viewings.
Yes, there's a line or two here, a situation there, but Meatballs, Caddyshack, Stripes, and the Ghostbusters duo (why is anyone at all, ever, even considering a third installment?) ain't The Producers (the original, not the appalling musical revamp). Ramis' later films were pure formula, from Analyze This and Analyze That to the godawful remake of Bedazzled (written by former Caesar writer Larry Gelbart!) to that goddamned Jack Black caveman comedy (his last feature film). 

A piece on says that Ramis is responsible for the fact that modern vehicle comedies include space for the performers to improvise – is that so? The writer apparently neglected to remember that he scripted most of the “influential” comedies and didn't direct them. Of the ones he did direct, perhaps only Caddyshack adheres to the Time writer's Platonic ideal of Ramis as the Paul Sills of cinema.

So let's return to the good stuff bearing Ramis's name, why don't we? As a young upstart, fresh from the superbly nasty National Lampoon Radio Hour, he was truly terrific on the first year of SCTV. He wasn’t able to do perfect celebrity impressions like his castmates — in fact he looked pretty much the same in every sketch he was in. He did, however share their ability to write and craft sublimely cartoonlike characters – as with the perpetually sweating station manager Moe Green, guru “Swami Banananda” aka Dennis Peterson, and “Officer Friendly.”

Sadly, the Shout! Factory SCTV DVD releases never included the first year of the show. At that point the series had a truly miniscule budget, but the writing was wonderful, and the performer-writers were discovering their strengths as satirists of TV.

The Shout! collections unfortunately ended with the season many SCTV fans would say was its absolute worst — the season that introduced Tony Rosato, Robin Duke, and Rick Moranis. I assume that Shout! issued this season (as SCTV — Best of the Early Years) because of the inclusion of Moranis. In the meantime the early years with and without Ramis are “MIA,” as is the odd final season that aired on Cinemax.

Segments from the show’s first season are available online, and I have chosen four great bits featuring Ramis. The first reflects his National Lampoon background — a grim little mock-PSA that features the seven “warning signs” of death. The show’s odd, intentionally weird laugh track was in full effect in the early days:

The second is an equally grim bit starring Ramis as “Officer Friendly,” an abusive cop who doubles as a kiddie show host.

Ramis' most notable SCTV character was the always-nervous station manager Moe Green. Here is the episode in which a wonderfully ridiculous parody of Ben-Hur is bracketed by Moe Green hosting “Dialing for Dollars”:

And the piece de resistance, a truly bizarre bit of business called “Muley’s Roundhouse.” This is a spinoff from a Grapes of Wrath parody (“The Grapes of Mud”) that aired on the same episode.

Here a supporting character from Wrath, a “tetched” neighbor of the Joad family (played by John Qualen in John Ford’s 1940 film) is the host of a children's show. Qualen's character is quirky, as seen here, but Ramis' interpretation paints him as a blissfully cranky loon who dotes on words with the letter “b” in 'em. This is Ramis at his best, and weirdest, as a performer. [The character comes back after the "Three Dummies" short with Flaherty, Levy, and Candy; ignore the "host" of this vid, he's gone pretty quickly.]

Friday, February 14, 2014

El Sid!: Deceased Artiste Sid Caesar

Looking back at the pioneering comedy variety-show hosts of the Fifties, it's easy to slot them into categories: the “Vaudeo” hosts (the initial term for the variety show format – vaudeville + video), whose work is very much of its time, including Milton Berle, Jimmy Durante, and Jackie Gleason; the movie stars who moonlighted on TV (Martin and Lewis and their fellows on The Colgate Comedy Hour); the innovators, who were ahead of their time and much copied and admired by their colleagues, including Steve Allen and Ernie Kovacs. And then there was Sid Caesar, perhaps the most talented character comedian of them all.

The thing that is remarkable about Caesar – besides that stunning writer's room that contained several of the most important comedy writers and filmmakers of the following twenty years – was the fact that, unlike Gleason, Sid didn't run his characters into the ground. In fact he only did two with any regularity: the Professor and the “husband” character in sitcom-esque sketches with Imogene Coca as a couple called the Hickenloopers (this later appeared in Caesar’s Hour with Nanette Fabray).

Sid's overwhelming versatility and ability to mimic a wide variety of ethnic voices, accents, and languages made him a truly unique comedian – it's hard to think of anyone with that much range until the generation of British comic actors (Guiness, Sellers) who would play several leads in the same picture. Caesar operated on a much higher level of creativity than Uncle Miltie or “The Great One” – there was indeed a skill and art that went into his comedy, and as a result he was reportedly a very emotional individual prone to crazy gestures (as in hanging the young Mel Brooks out a window when he pissed Sid off one day).

Sid was like a supernova of energy that splashed all over the Fifties, to the extent that he seemed to have exhausted his talent (more accurately, exhausted himself) in the Sixties and Seventies. The title of his autobiography reflected those years in which he was lost in addiction: “Where Have I Been?” The best thing that happened to remind us all of just *how* brilliant he had been was the release in 1973 of the wonderful compilation movie Ten From Your Show of Shows.

That film remains the single best introduction to what Caesar did in his prime: ethnic voices, exuberant and extremely-physical physical comedy, playing the sole sane person in a world full of lunatics, and acting out gorgeously detailed pantomime bits with the equally wonderful Imogene.

However, the release some years back of the VHS and DVD sets of sketches from Your Show of Shows (1950-54) and Caesar's Hour (1954-57) was another momentous occasion, since we were able to hear from the individuals involved in the shows (all the writers, Sid himself, costars Carl Reiner, Howard Morris, and Nanette Fabray) just how extraordinary the writing process on Sid's shows was, as well as view the full range of Caesar's talents in hours of his best sketches. Steve Allen dubbed Caesar “TV's Chaplin,” and he was entirely right.

I full recommend those boxes and will be drawing from them for forthcoming tributes to Sid on the Funhouse TV show. In the meantime I will spotlight a few personal favorites from the items available online. There were several different types of sketches that Sid and company did on his two Fifties variety series. The first were music parodies. Here is a gorgeous bit of free-form nonsense called “What Is Jazz?”:

And Sid, Carl, and Howie become “The Three Haircuts.” This is a parody of hiccup-voiced singers like Johnny Ray and the general tenor of rock lyrics (Sid and his writing staff were jazz, big-band and classical people, what can I say?):

The second kind of sketch was the “interview.” Here Sid as his professor character is interviewed by Reiner about how to get to sleep:

The third is possibly the most wonderful, since you’ll rarely (if ever) see it on current-day comedy shows. It’s pantomime, done to a fine turn by Sid and Imogene. I know that Gleason did pantomime too, but his often ventured into the cloying and sentimental. Jerry Lewis performed various mime bits to music that were terrific, but Sid and Imogene were the supreme practitioners on TV.

Here they and Reiner and Morris do their classic “Swiss clock” bit that functions – well, like clockwork. And here is their perfect routine in which they play two bored classical musicians passing time between musical solos:

The various movie parodies that were done on Caesar’s shows allowed him to show the full range of his comic acting, as well as his uncanny ear for foreign accents and singular ability to make up nonsense language (that sounded just like the real thing) on the spot. A uploader on YT called “Vintage Comedy Vault” has been uploading a number of things from the DVD boxes, including some primo examples of the movie parodies.

One of the sadder items revealed in the “Sid Vid” VHS/DVD releases, in which the writers and others reminisce in between the sketches, is that the producers of Sid’s variety series were told by NBC to stop doing their sublime foreign movie parodies as time went on because more TVs were being sold in towns across America. The people in these “new” territories were not familiar with foreign movies, so the network feared they wouldn’t “get” what Sid and company were doing, and thus would tune out.

Thankfully we do have kinescopes of the movie parodies that were done on Your Show of Shows, when the writers were unabashed about doing humor based on foreign films and cultures. Here is a wonderful French sketch called “Le Honore du Juelle”:

This sketch called “La Bicylcetta” has nothing to do with “Bicycle Thieves” plot-wise, but the very fact that the Show of Shows team saw fit to do an Italian sketch about a bicycle being stolen meant they had seen the De Sica classic (these sketches are indeed funny whether or not you’ve seen the original film, btw — that idea was lost on the NBC heads).

And a beautifully detailed bit starring Sid and Howard Morris called “The German general,” which definitely reflects Murnau’s Last Laugh. This is silly, hysterical comedy that also has a brain (and a superb source):

The fifth type of sketch was one in which an ensemble is present and each new character that is introduced is crazier than the last. There are two perfect examples of this, the very funny “At the Movies” sketch and what is arguably one of the funniest sketches to ever air on American TV, a very broad and very brilliant spoof of the emotion-wrought series This Is Your Life. This is in the very top rank of Caesar sketches:

Sid was a consistently fine guest on other peoples’ variety shows in the Sixties and Seventies, when he was often paired with other Fifties icons like Berle (the two couldn’t have been further apart in terms of talent and comic approach). Here he is doing his professor character on The Dean Martin Show. Dean made a great straight man for Sid:

Much has been made of Caesar’s super-macho VHS workout tape (done when he was over 65), but I would like to highlight the fact that whenever Sid was presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award (as I noted here, the Mark Twain Prize people overlooked him entirely), he would ask the organization giving him the award to include Imogene, since he felt they had functioned so well as a team back in the early Fifties (the two reunited in 1958 for the short-lived Sid Caesar Invites You and did a short-lived British TV series in the late Fifties).

Here is a mellow and beautifully detailed piece of husband-and-wife pantomime the two did much later on (1977) on The Tonight Show:

Perhaps the most intriguing rarity for those who love comedy history is the full episode of The Admiral Broadway Revue that is available online. It’s a revelation, since this is in the very early days of TV, when “Vaudeo” was indeed the dominant style (specialty acts, including Marge and Gower Champion, are all over this show).

The three credited writers are, oddly, Mel Tolkin, Lucille Kallen, and producer Max Liebman (who I didn’t know had collaborated on the writing of Sid’s shows). The Admiral Revue was only on from January to June 1949 on both the NBC and Dumont networks. Admiral reportedly pulled the show when it proved so popular they received more orders for TV sets than they could possibly fulfill.

Sid did a bunch of his solo routines on the program, as with this “Five Dollar Date”:

The episode, which is up in its entirety on YT, has only three Sid segments and two with Imogene. They are:
— As a harassed dad with an Irish brogue (Imogene is one of his daughters), at 4:45

— As a Gorgeous George-style wrestler (17:30 in). Best line: “I’m supposed to win tonight – take it easy!”

— Imogene does a comic East Indian dance number at 27:00

— Sid does a piece “in one” in which he plays the part of a samba dancer dancing through the events of his life (37:30). Sid’s oddly Yiddish Spanish patter here isn’t his most accurate language impression, but it shows his ability to craft entire monologues in a fictitious language:

Caesar was the last of the Fifties TV icons to die, and he was certainly one of the most talented. “TV’s Chaplin” indeed.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Our Man in Mexico: Graham Greene and Deceased Artiste Shirley Temple

When Joan Fontaine died recently, the discussion among movie buffs naturally turned to the question “which Golden Age Hollywood stars are still among us?” Shirley Temple’s name was rarely if ever brought up, because she exited the business in 1950 (with a handful of “comeback” projects, including a TV show in the late Fifties), and her career — although massive at its height — didn’t last as long as those of Olivia de Havilland, Kirk Douglas, and the never-gonna-quit Mickey Rooney.

Still, Temple was the biggest child star of all time in America (“adjusting for inflation,” which makes the dimes spent going to the movies in the Thirties equal to the 12-14 bucks shelled out today).

She started attracting attention in the movies in the early Thirties, but her string of vehicles from 1933-38 made her a major star (from the ages of 5-10). She was a top box-office attraction from ’35-’38. The oddest bit of trivia: at the height of her fame, Fox had a 19-person team of writers at the ready to write Shirley’s vehicles (labeled the “Shirley Temple development team”).

In the Forties she became a pleasant teen performer, but the public wasn’t interested in seeing her star in films anymore; she did have nice supporting turns in Ford’s Fort Apache (1948) with her then-husband John Agar, and with Cary Grant and Myrna Loy in The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer (1947).

Her most notable film from that era, for movie “mythology” reasons, is That Hagen Girl (1947), a melodrama in which Shirley is believed to be the daughter of a lawyer, played by ol’ Bonzo himself, Ronald Reagan. The film ends with the two of them — father-figure and daughter-figure — going off together as a romantic couple (in real-life Temple was 19, Reagan was 36, so it’s not that unusual in a H’wood pic, but I guess the fact that their relationship changed so radically as the picture went on soured viewers and critics).

Temple liked the film, but noted that Reagan didn’t, and that prints of it seemed to “disappear” when he was president. The film came out of “hiding” in the Nineties and is now available on YT in its entirety:

Shirley distinguished herself as a diplomat from the Nixon administration through that of George H.W. Bush (she was a steadfast Republican throughout her adult years) and made an important decision to publicly discuss her bout with breast cancer in the early Seventies (she of course won, living 40 more years). She was that rarest of birds in Hollywood: a well-adjusted child actor, whose adult life may not have been spent in show business, but who made important contributions to society.

And then there’s Graham Greene… One of the most interesting things from today's perspective about the critical perception of Shirley Temple at the time of her amazing stardom was a review that the Third Man novelist wrote in October 1937 about the Temple vehicle Wee Willie Winkie, directed by the mighty John Ford (who did what Fox told him to do) and based on a Kipling tale. At the time Shirley was wowing Depression audiences with her moppet cuteness and chipper attitude. Greene, however, saw something else in her stardom.

In Night and Day magazine, he wrote of Temple: "Her admirers – middle-aged men and clergymen – respond to her dubious coquetry, to the sight of her well-shaped and desirable little body, packed with enormous vitality, only because the safety curtain of story and dialogue drops between their intelligence and their desire."

Greene was hit with a civil libel suit by the producer of the movie and fled to Mexico to avoid being prosecuted for criminal libel (the magazine went out of business). From January to May 1938 he stayed in Mexico writing The Power and Glory and avoiding extradition for the libel suit. Even forty years later he was not “allowed” to have the piece about Temple appear in one of his collections of articles.

The thing is, is that Greene was right. There was an odd underside to Temple's amazing success. It may not be as apparent in her squeaky-clean vehicle pictures (although author Jeanine Basinger has noted that there were weird Freudian symbols in those too), but the early series of shorts that Temple made called “Baby Burlesks” were sleazy as all get-out.

The premise is that little kids were parodying the adult movie hits of the day – quite like the “Dogville” series of shorts in which dogs acted out the hits of the day! It's not as disturbing to see dressed-up dogs pretending to be sexy and giving come-hither glances, a la Dietrich and Mae West. It is a little bizarre for kids dressed up in giant diapers to do it.

To strengthen Greene's argument, one would need only producer the short below, which is surprisingly deranged for its time (1933, still pre-Code!). Excuse the crappy colorization (it seems that most of Temple's kiddie vehicles were colorized in the Eighties). “Polly Tix in Washington” is insane:

So now that I've proven Our Man in Havana correct, I'll close out on a much sleazy note with the scene that has my vote for one of the silliest musical numbers of any Thirties musical (I'm not including Busby Berkeley items in this, as those are too bizarrely weird and kinky, and possessed of a very singular genius, to be classified as simply “silly”).

It's the moment in the 1938 Shirley Temple vehicle Little Miss Broadway in which our heroine wants to convince a judge that her adoptive father's show is a great one – so they stage a number from the damned thing IN the courtroom! (Methinks Lars von Trier was a fan, or at least had seen this moment of sheer craziness.) Here it is, again badly colorized, but you'll get the idea. RIP to the original “Little Miss Sunshine.”

Saturday, February 8, 2014

King Neurotic vs. the Ex From Hell (epilogue -- hopefully!)

After I wrote the two-part piece below, there was an explosion of media activity, not just from those who wanted to impart their personal opinion on the sexual abuse charge, but from parties who were friends with Woody and Mia, and finally Dylan and Woody themselves.

In the interests of posterity, I will list the most salient links below, as I already went through my opinions on the case in the two parts of this blog entry. Although my research was duplicated (or borrowed?) for the first link below, I'm very proud that mine has seemingly been the only piece to explore both Woody and Mia's on-screen personas and how they related to public perception of the case.

Firstly, on Jan. 27, 2014, the Curb Your Enthusiasm and documentary director (he did the two-part American Masters profile on Woody) Robert Weide decided to step forward to defend his friend and colleague.

Weide does use several of the same URLs I did to make his point, but he also supplies information he gleaned in the making of his documentary about Allen. He also made two interesting decisions that I had veered away from in writing the piece below. He chose to use Dylan's new name (Malone), which is a fact that's instantly retrievable from Google, but which Maureen Orth indicated as a kind of “family secret” (a not very well hidden one).

He also included a fact I left out of my piece, since I thought it swerved the reader's attention well away from the Woody/Mia relationship – namely, the fact that Mia's brother was a convicted sex offender.

The victim herself, Dylan, then decided to come forward and write an open letter to the public about her sex abuse. The New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof printed her letter, along with a prologue noting that he is indeed a friend of the Farrow family. This piece was interesting in that it was the only lengthy adult reflection on the case by Dylan (should we just call her Malone now?) that wasn't penned by Maureen Orth and includes a picture of her along with the article. (The picture at right is from her Twitter account, easily found on Google.)

In the wake of these two statements from people “inside” the case, the press bloggers came out with their knives for the other side. I will only link to two of these, because they seemed to be most eloquent about their beliefs. Firstly, Michael Wolff on The Guardian site wrote a piece about the case that was pro-Allen, “Media Spin for the Farrow Family?” 

And then Jessica Winter wrote a two-part piece on the case, taking Dylan and Mia's side, trying to focus attention on what she saw as the dubiousness of Weide's statements about the early Nineties custody case. Winter actually provides a more reasoned argument than anything penned by Maureen Orth in VF.

Then another “insider” stepped into the public spotlight on February 5th to talk about the case from his own personal knowledge of the family. Moses, the third and oldest of Woody and Mia's children (he was adopted, but was indeed adopted by both of them as a couple), decided to talk to People magazine; he sided with his father and accused his mother of completely manipulating and fabricating the sex abuse charge. 

Dylan then decided to do an interview with People, which appeared on Feb. 6, to rebut Moses' claims. The two most interesting things here were, again, a picture of the grown-up Dylan/Malone (Picture credit: “Courtesy Mia Farrow”) and that she uses the phrase “my cross to bear.”

It's been noted that Mia returned to Catholicism after Woody took up with Soon-Yi. As an ex-(ex-ex-ex-)Catholic myself I will simply note that suffering is redemptive in the Catholic faith – it is in fact (in one of the faith's more horrifying teachings) a good thing. The more you suffer, the more secure is your place in Heaven and the more you are loved by the supposed deity.

Dylan clearly feels that she is a martyr, but then oddly adds that she needed to speak up about her abuse not because of herself but because of her family. “But I will not see my family dragged down like this. I can't stay silent when my family needs me.” Thus, she felt she needed to speak out again, because of the attack on her family by her estranged brother Moses (who works as a family counselor and stated that Mia used to hit her kids when she was angry at them).

Clearly Dylan is a very damaged young woman. I find it fascinating, though, that she places her family (which would clearly be Mia, since she was the focus of Moses' statements) above herself.

The ping-pong game kept going back and forth this week. On the same morning that Dylan's new interview appeared in People, Dick Cavett (a longtime friend of Woody's) spoke about the case in very measured terms on the Don Imus radio show. He exhibited a clear sympathy for Dylan/Malone, but also did defend his friend against the charges.

And finally, Woody decided to write a response to Dylan's “open letter” for publication in The New York Times on Feb. 9. In it he states his case plainly and defends himself against the charges.

In doing this he harkens back to a bunch of the issues I mentioned in my piece, in addition to adding two things I didn't have time or space to include: that he took a lie detector test and Farrow refused to; and that he is a claustrophobe, who couldn't have remained in the attic where he was accused of sexually abusing Dylan. He also talks about the fact that adoption agencies allowed him and Soon-Yi to adopt two children, conducting thorough investigations into his background in the process.

Most interestingly, he notes that the actress Stacey Nelkin has come forward to say that Mia wanted her to testify against him in the custody case saying she was underaged when Woody dated her, which Woody says is untrue. But wasn't that Nelkin's declaration from the beginning, in saying that she was the source for the Mariel Hemingway character in Manhattan?

He addresses the side-issues, including Mia's statement that she was “involved” with Sinatra while dating Woody, and that he is indeed the father of Satchel/Ronan. Woody's take on the matter is “Again I want to call attention to the integrity and honesty of a person who conducts herself like that.”

Allen states his sympathy for Dylan and declares that he hopes there will be a rapprochement in the future with his daughter. Most laudably, considering that this affair has now been debated ENDLESSLY in the “court of public opinion” that is the Internet, he concludes in a parenthetical note: “This piece will be my final word on this entire matter and no one will be responding on my behalf to any further comments on it by any party. Enough people have been hurt.” 

But I want to give the final word to Mia in this instance. As I researched this piece, I found an amazing interview with Farrow that has surprisingly not been quoted yet in the see-saw, ping-pong media coverage. In a June 2, 2006 interview for The Independent, Mia claimed she could FORGIVE Woody: Asked whether she has since forgiven Allen, she says: "In an instant. I can't carry any of that. That's too heavy for me. It really isn't up to me to forgive or not forgive, is it?" Remarkably, in such a small city as Manhattan, Farrow says that she hasn't once run into Allen - or his bride - since their rancorous split. "It's incredible, I know. But I've had the good fortune and that has never happened to me. No, thank God."

Asked about whether she'd like to reconcile with Soon-Yi, as she had stated in the years between '92 and '06, she says, "Well, I've got over it, you know. You can get over almost anything. You just can't go on mourning forever, and so I've moved on. It's been a long time now. And I really don't think of her as my daughter any more. I can't. She isn't. She's estranged - and strange."

Considering her recent outcries, that quote about forgiveness from 2006 ("In an instant") is rather startling.

Hopefully there won't be more about this matter in the press (although I know the Internet will continue to debate it for DECADES to come, as with the matter of the girl in the Polanski case, who has virtually pleaded with the press and public to move on, but whose wishes were countermanded by those who believe they know better than the victim). It would be best for everyone (critics and “avengers” of both sides) to let this be worked out in private, by those actually involved in the case.

Monday, February 3, 2014

“So Long, It’s Been Good to Know Yuh”: Deceased Artiste Pete Seeger

The phrase “great American” is used to distraction (or more accurately, misused) by a current-day conservative talk host (the one that John Cleese reminded us is “plump as a manatee”). In his usage, the phrase means nothing – it just means you agree with him. My idea of a great American is that old folkie who died a few days back after sharing his music with the world for over three quarters of a century (he died at 94 but had begun performing in the Thirties).

Pete Seeger was blacklisted in show business for quite a while, but never bailed from this country (who would have blamed him if he had?). He had a great enthusiasm for musical history and, in going through the list of his hit songs, one finds that not only was he one of the first great advocates of what is now called “world music,” but that he also continued to shine a spotlight on American history (usually the underside of our history) by keeping old folk songs alive.

He kept it simple, simple to a fault. He breezed past the winds of fashion and went in and out of style. There were moments when songs he had written were in the Top 40, and he surely was making a good deal of money from the publishing rights – he also was a member of the quartet that qualified as the first “crossover” folk act to hit the pop charts, the model for the Kingston Trio, Peter, Paul & Mary, and every other folk duo or trio that hit in the “folk boom” of the early Sixties. Seeger's group was, of course, the Weavers.

Here is a beautiful collection of what they called “Snader Telescriptions,”short films made in 1951 showing the Weavers at the height of their powers and celebrity. These were little “soundies” made for TV that show them singing, among others the catchy-as-hell Israeli song “Tzena Tzena,” “So Long (it’s been good to know yuh),” and their big hit,”Goodnight Irene”:

It was Seeger's love of this country, though, that always came to the fore. He involved himself with many causes, from union struggles in the Forties right through to the “Occupy” movement. 

His belief that a better America could be obtained through protest – and, of course, through music – was most likely the thing that kept his heart beating until the age of 94. (And most likely the recent passing of his wife Toshi – the two were married for just under 70 years – was one of the things that let Father Time catch up with him.)

Like most people of a “certain age,” I grew up seeing Pete on TV, performing both simple numbers for kids and incredibly serious and moving old folk tunes. What remained impressive about him was the fact that he truly didn't care about fashion – in a literal sense (except for his conductor caps or the occasional nice pullover, Pete was never a “natty” guy) and in the metaphorical one as well.

At a certain point his music was deemed too “corny” and his singalongs were the stuff of stupid jokes – yes, Pete could certainly croon several verses of “Kumbaya” and “Michael, Row the Boat Ashore,” both of which became punchlines for jokes about folk music and “brotherhood.” He didn't care, though – he loved classic folk songs and clearly *believed* in them as well. He could be an incredibly laidback performer (and certainly became more so as he got older), but he was always incredibly sincere.

The other thing that kept knocking me out as I delved into the trove of Seeger video material that is available online is that every third or fourth song I came across was one that I knew but didn't know the title of. Pete was the master at rediscovering older tunes that had incredible, fucking unforgettable hooks (thus the pop success of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” taken from “Wimoweh,” Seeger's version of an African folk song).

Pete had a heritage of music and social activism in his family. His dad was a musicologist who specialized in ethnomusicology and his mother was a concert violinist and teacher at Julliard. Pete was not from a poor family – he was sent to a boarding school and did indeed make it into Harvard, which he quit after realizing he really loved folk music (and radical politics, having joined the Young Communist League).

Here's a short clip from a filmed interview he did, where he talks about his interest in folk music:

The people he worked with in the Thirties and Forties are now the stuff of legend: Lead Belly, Burl Ives, Will Geer, Funhouse favorite Nicholas Ray, and the man he traveled the country with, the immortal Woody Guthrie. Seeger was already a “grand old man” of folk by the Sixties because he had known all of these legends who were long gone by the time of the folk boom (or, in the case of Woody, unable to perform any longer).

He first courted controversy as a member of the Almanac Singers, a loose-knit group of folkies whose first line-up included Pete, his pal Woody Guthrie, screenwriter Millard Lampell, and Lee Hays (later of the Weavers). Their first album (consisting of three 78s) was called “Songs for John Doe” and was released in 1941 well before Pearl Harbor.

This last fact is important because the album stressed an anti-interventionist message about the ongoing war in Europe. The sentiment behind this position was that U.S. corporations were beating the drums for intervention. Here's the lead track, “The Strange Death of John Doe”:

This isolationist message of course fell out of favor quickly as 1941 came to a close. The Almanac Singers toured all over America and even recorded an album of songs called “Dear Mr. President” that praised America's role in the war. In the meantime the group sang other types of tunes (including sea shanties) and on other topics (including the Spanish Civil War and, most importantly, the union movement).

But the isolationist material they recorded on the “John Doe” album brought them to the attention of the FBI and the right-wing press, which branded them “commies” (they were, of course) whose music was “dangerous.” This, mind you, while the war was raging overseas – thus, Pete and his friends were tarred and feathered in the press by right-wingers even before the HUAC existed.

Here's an interesting ditty the Almanac Singers performed called “The Dodger Song”. The group also performed classic folk material like the song “Liza Jane,” but the one song from that period that Pete kept in his repertoire for years to come was this item (recently redone by the Dropkick Murphys and Ani DeFranco – separately).

Pete served in the Army during WWII in a performing unit. After the war he began his solo performing career, which didn't last very long (in this era), because by 1949 he was part of the Weavers. The group's repertoire was indeed sublime – they chose to sing American folk classics, great new tunes by folks like Lead Belly and Guthrie, their own new tunes (including Pete's “If I Had a Hammer”), and songs from around in the world in English translation.

Their records were selling, they were a popular touring act, but the appearance of Pete's name in the infamous publication “Red Channels” meant the group was now under surveillance by the FBI and Seeger was blacklisted from appearances on TV and radio.

Pete did go up before the HUAC in 1955 and made news by not “taking the Fifth.” Instead he evoked the First Amendment and indicated that his decisions and beliefs were private. He was held in “contempt of Congress,” was indicted in '57, and wasn't cleared of the charge until '62.

What was most interesting, given the “underground” and then crossover appeal of folk music in the late Fifties, was that the Weavers did reunite in 1955 to play Carnegie Hall, and sold the place out. As a result they stayed together for the next few years, until Seeger quit the group because he objected to their doing a commercial for cigarettes.

He continued to reunite with them over the years, the most poignant occasion being when Lee Hays was ailing and the group once again played Carnegie Hall, certain this was the last performance of the original quartet. The performance is chronicled in the documentary The Weavers: Wasn't That a Time! (1982). Here is the final song from the show, the group's biggest-ever hit, “Goodnight Irene”:


The maker of the terrific PBS documentary about Pete, Pete Seeger: The Power of Song has uploaded some of Pete's home movies, made with a sound camera in the mid-Fifties. Here is a great clip of him in 1955 giving a little crash course in how to play the banjo:

And an equally interesting lesson in “How to Make a Steel Drum”:

These home movies tie in to what Pete did to make a living during the time he was blacklisted: he toured the college circuit doing concerts and also taught music in schools and summer camps.*****

In researching this piece I was reminded of how important a “curator” of this music Seeger was. At the time in the Sixties when his songs were hits for other artists, he undertook one of his most interesting experiments in the media, a weekly show called “Rainbow Quest,” that was shot at and aired on an NYC/NJ UHF station, WNJU (Ch. 47, whose programming was primarily Spanish-language).

He only did the show from 1965-66 (he funded it himself with coproducer Sholom Rubinstein), and there were only 39 episodes, but the result is a timeless piece of musical history. 12 of the shows were released on either DVD or VHS (some on both media), and currently a number of complete episodes and wonderful clips are available online. 

The uploader named “d3singh” has put up complete episodes, and every one of the shows is a gem. Pete made sure to represent different types of folk music on the program, and so the viewer gets a musical education, as well as being entertained by some truly kick-ass musicians. The first episode finds Pete musing on being a TV host (this is, remember, when he was still banned from mainstream TV).

He talks about it here at 5:00, before inviting on his guests the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem, and Tom Paxton:

The Rainbow Quest clips available online include some terrific performances. Among them are Malvina Reynolds (who cowrote the classic “Little Boxes” with Pete) performing her song “Turn Around,” which is a number that I haven't heard in many years, but which used to appear on TV quite a lot (as noted, these songs are burnt into all of our minds and hearts from many years ago).

The guests run through a range of material, from old gems – Hedy West singing the “murder ballad” called “Little Sadie” and Pete's brother Mike and the New Lost City Ramblers singing “Man of Constant Sorrow” – to younger artists doing their own work – the act that Pete seems most enraptured by is Richard and Mimi Farina, doing Richard's “House Un-American Activity Dream.” 

The show did run the gamut, from the memorably ridiculous

to the incredibly sublime:

Seeger took care to bring on living legends, but he also brought on the new talents of the Sixties, including Donovan (who guested with an Irish friend who played sitar and blues icon Rev. Gary Davis):

Buffy Sainte-Marie and Pete did a cover of “Cindy,” which I've spoken about on this blog in relation to Dolores Fuller and Howard Hawks:

The most memorable episode from the series is the one that feature Johnny Cash and June Carter. Johnny is clearly on some drug, but he's very eloquent and sings very well. Again, it's fascinating to see these iconic figures interacting with each other:


Rainbow Quest was a local production that was meant to be syndicated around the country, but independently – I'm most curious what kind of commercials aired in the ad-breaks on WNJU, seeing that the station was predominantly a Spanish-language station. Seeger made his first network TV appearance in a decade and a half when he guested on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour.

His song “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy” just cut too close to the bone for America at the time, so CBS edited out the song from the September '67 show on which he sang it (he was still included in the final edit otherwise). Tom Smothers brought the case to the “court of public opinion” by getting the press to cover the act of censorship, and so CBS allowed the song to air on a January 1968 show on which Seeger returned as a guest.

Pete also sang his classic “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” on the Smothers show. Another controversial TV appearance he made a few years after this was his guest spot on The Johnny Cash Show after he had visited North Vietnam when the war was still at its height. Cash defended him and had him on for a full segment:

After Vietnam and the civil rights movement, Seeger chose to “think globally, act locally” by campaigning for the clean up of the Hudson River. After the bigger struggles he had faced from the Forties through the Sixties, his turn to environmentalism might be seen as a “simpler” task, but it was totally in keeping with his interest in the world around him. He sang plenty of songs about the river and the environment, but the one that burned itself into my brain was this modest children's tune:

Pete did weigh in on the other battles of the Seventies. Here he does a number by his sister Peggy that reflected the women's liberation movement of that period. Doing these numbers Pete could indeed be looked upon as corny, but the guy was so charming and earnest, he brought the numbers to life beautifully:

Seeger was incredibly generous to younger performers whose work he admired. I doubt Joni Mitchell would've wanted anyone else adding to her work, but when it came to Pete, she was clearly flattered that he decided to write an extra verse to “Both Sides Now.” (Pete's verse is clearly from the point of view of a parent, so it briefly turns the song into “Father and Son” by Cat Stevens.)

The whole concert featuring Joni and Pete was available as of a few days ago, but has been now been taken off of YT. Here is their duet on “Both Sides Now”:

The one artist Pete was most closely allied with in the last few decades was his friend Woody's son Arlo (you can read about Springsteen's tribute to Seeger everywhere online, so I'm going to skip over that collaboration). Pete and Arlo worked perfectly together, with Arlo supplying the lighter side and Pete getting the crowd alive and singing. Here they are in 1993 (Pete is a mere stripling of 74), doing Seeger's big hit “If I Had a Hammer”:

One younger performer who admired Pete and wrote a wonderful tribute song about him was Harry Chapin. Harry acknowledges the fact that Seeger was derided in some quarters, but beautifully conveys the importance of the man as a conscience for our country:


The only way to really close out this piece is with Pete's own wry take on aging – at points it seemed like he had left his sense of humor behind, but this tune proves it was always lurking somewhere in the background.

There is a clip from his very last performance (in Nov. 2013) online, and most of his obits pointed out that one of the most significant performances he gave in recent years was when he played at Pres. Obama's inauguration – an event that seemingly served as an apology from the U.S. government for having attempted to ruin his life for over a decade and a half.

One of the most moving clips related to Pete on YouTube is a record of an event that took place in April 2012 in a town square in Oslo, where 40,000 people gathered to sing the Seeger song “My Rainbow Race.”

A right-wing terrorist who was on trial at the time for terrorist acts (which he confessed to having committed, stating they were “atrocious but necessary”) had cited the song as an example of “cultural Marxism” and multiculturalism that was used to “brainwash” Norwegian children. The man leading the crowd in song is Norwegian singer Lillebjorn Nilsen, who had a big hit with the Norwegian version of the song.

I know that Pete played in front of thousands of people at many of the historic concerts and folk festivals he performed at, but there's something especially moving about one of his latter-day anthems being sung by tens of thousands of people in a foreign language in a country he was never identified with. (Pete's original version of the song can be found here.)

Seeger always said that for him the happiest moments at his concerts were hearing the voices of audience members singing along. Now that he's gone we'll just have to keep singing for the “old folkie.” He certainly spent enough time teaching us how.