Review: The Incomplete Folksinger (Firehall Theatre, until November 14)

A skilled actor can sustain an illusion, and make us believe. That’s what I found compelling about Mark Hellman’s one-man show where he plays Pete Seeger, complete with banjo and guitar and his own voice. When Hellman came back on the stage for a Q&A after the show, it was clear just how well he had sustained the illusion. I could hear and see Seeger in Hellman’s performance (I have seen many Seeger performances on YouTube and elsewhere), but with Hellman on the stage as himself, it was clear just how remarkable a transformation it was.

Event information

The show takes us through Seeger narrating his life, using material from Seeger’s 1972 600-page biography, The Incompleat Folksinger.  Seeger died in 2014 at the age of 94, so this book is still far from the complete story of Seeger’s life.

As a huge Pete Seeger and folk music fan, I loved this show. But my companion, whose tastes are somewhat different, still enjoyed the show as well. The play is not just about Pete Seeger, but about politics, folk music preservation, fascinating events in American history, and finding the courage to constantly be fighting for what you think is right.

Seeger started his career as a would-be journalist during the Great Depression, and could not help but notice all of the suffering. Soon he met Guthrie, perhaps his most influential collaborator. It was Guthrie who got Seeger out to explore the width and breadth of America, starting with a car Guthrie had not yet paid for, and continuing with riding the freight trains. In the aftermath of a 1949 concert with African-American singer and activist Paul Robeson, Seeger and his family were the victims of an orchestrated Ku Klux Klan attack where stones were hurled at his vehicle as they attempted to drive away.

Seeger was threatened many times for his political activism. He was in Mississippi when the bodies of three civil-rights workers were found in 1963. He was continually being prevented from appearing on television, although sometimes succeeding too. The infamous House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) tried to force Seeger to incriminate his friends. He waged a difficult legal battle, and fought criminal charges for refusing to speak, but ultimately prevailed. What Hellman did not dwell on, and what might be Seeger’s greatest error, was his initial support of Stalin, which lasted over a period of years, and was eventually admitted by Seeger to be an error.

All through this, Hellman would take up the banjo or guitar as appropriate, and sing another Pete Seeger song, or a song that Seeger had popularized. One of my favorites is “Lonesome Valley” (which a little online research indicates is a gospel song that predated both Seeger and Guthrie), but was popularized by both. I don’t have a video of Hellman, but here is Seeger singing it with Woody Guthrie’s son, Arlo:

The Q&A was fun. Hellman discussed the difficult process of winnowing down the 600-page autobiography to a single night’s performance. Hellman said there was more than enough material for another show. An audience member pointed out that Bob Dylan was omitted, as well as the notorious electric guitar controversy at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, but as Hellman pointed out, the book only discussed Dylan as a songwriter, and thus, to winnow the material down, the decision was made to exclude him.

I asked about when Seeger started singing Spanish-language songs. Seeger is well-known for his Guantanamera and De Colores covers, but I was unaware that Seeger’s love for Spanish-language music included a love of Spanish Civil War songs. I researched a bit, and found a 1940s-era album featuring Seeger and other folk singers, titled Songs of the Spanish Civil War: Volume 1.

Here is Pete Seeger singing one of these songs in 1993 (with translations provided by his singer grandson Tao Rodriguez-Seeger, who I have been fortunate enough to see perform in both New York and the Vancouver Folk Festival):

Pete Seeger did not seek out fame or fortune. He lived modestly, in a home he had built himself. Even into his 90s, he continued his political activism, through song and otherwise. Among the things I find interesting about Pete Seeger is how he combined his own creative genius with those of so many who came before and after him, and how he worked with others on the causes he found so important, including cleaning up the Hudson River.

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