This is the first article for a new column I'm writing for ThirdCoastDaily.com

The news of Pete Seeger‘s death was shouted down the basement stairs by my wife. At the time, I was working and thinking about “This Land Is Your Land,” wondering where something like that comes from. Yes, it was a striking coincidence, but it somehow didn’t seem that way. Seeger didn’t write the song, but he was closely associated with it, traveled and sang with Woody Guthrie and pretty much lived everything contained in the lyric.

Pete Seeger was a good example of a private school education gone wrong. To listen to him singing and playing, looking like he just came in from chopping wood, you wouldn’t suspect he was the son of academics and former student at Avon Old Farms (now there’s a preppy name) in Connecticut. His father and stepmother collected and transcribed folks songs, so while he may have been born to the manor, he saw his fair share of cabins and shacks. He heard his first banjo at a square dance festival in North Carolina that his father took him to and later he wrote the book on how to play it.

Seeger’s reputation as a songwriter was never the biggest part of his story and he certainly never caught Guthrie or Bob Dylan in that department. But the few songs he is known for are keepers and quite striking for their beauty. He was well known for the use of older words and ideas to make his point. History passed him and and a few of his comrades right about the time of Dylan’s electric game changer at Newport or shortly after, when Dylan described folk singers as fat and boring. Ouch! But timeless things have a way of shaking off little insults and working their way back into our  consciousness.

I teach guitar and was looking for songs for one of my students, a bright ten-year old girl named Grace. I bought a few Peter, Paul and Mary songs. I was surprised at how much I reconnected to the simple beauty in their earlier work. They had a huge hit with Seeger’s “Where Have All The Flowers Gone.” Who could resist such a perfect illustration of symmetry, a never ending loop of tragedy and longing that doesn’t fade easily from memory. With its source deep in Russian literature and song, it’s a good example of how Seeger labored in the folk tradition, where older ideas are updated and suddenly become brand new. There were even verses added to this song a couple years after he created it.

“If I Had A Hammer,” “We Shall Overcome” and “Wimoweh (The Lion Sleeps Tonight)” were, to varying degrees, old songs made new. Sometimes the line between brand new and slightly used is a little blurry in the folk music business. Dylan has often been accused of appropriation, as well as Led Zeppelin, who wound up paying Willie Dixon a tidy sum for the direct lift of “Whole Lotta Love.” The oral tradition and the concept of intellectual property are still negotiating with each and that’s a whole other discussion. Right now a more pleasant task, let’s look at one of the more exquisite products of Pete Seeger’s imagination.

“Turn! Turn! Turn!” certainly deserves its three exclamation marks, maybe even more. It has biblical language straight from Ecclesiastes, a simple, sturdy melody and chords and it is sticky like peanut butter on a dog’s nose. If you hear it once you’ll be humming along — two times will guarantee that anytime someone mentions it the song will unreel in your brain and generate warm feelings akin to love. There’s really nothing to analyze in a song like this; it relies on the age old trick of repetition. The title repeats at the end of the first two lines of every verse. It’s an odd place for sure, but not unheard of, especially in older (they’re all old, aren’t they?) English folk ballads

Why so much repetition? When the old folk singers, those earlier versions of Pete Seeger or Joan Baez, were working, there were no recordings and few people could read. How would you have gone about making sure someone would remember your song? Dropping a repeated phrase like Turn! Turn! Turn! at strategic points slows the pace and allows you to ponder the words that come before. It allows a song to breathe and unwind in a leisurely way. Not to say that repetition hasn’t been abused, but when it works it creates a lovely suspended feeling, a sense that you are peering back through the mists to a much different time.

The definitive version of this song was performed by The Byrds, who took it exactly where the die-hard folkies wouldn’t go, the land of rock. The Byrds were half a beat behind Dylan in creating folk-rock, a genre that made no sense to anyone until they listened to it. Performed by Roger McGuinn on his Rickenbacker electric twelve-string and Hollywood’s immortal Wrecking Crew, the sound of this (and all the early Byrds recordings) was distinctive. It became the template Tom Petty and many lesser talents used to create hits. The royalty checks probably weren’t sent back by Seeger, a man with warehouses full of integrity, but I bet he thought about it at first. Then I suspect he considered that his song now spoke to millions — it’s been reported he did indeed approve of The Byrds’ version.

Despite all the rock and roll, the song never comes close to losing its religion. When you hear the opening 12 string stabs you almost want to genuflect, it’s the musical equivalent of stained glass. When they pour their gorgeous harmonies over it, you see the clouds part and the heavens revealed. Just one more more message of peace from Pete Seeger, another day at the office for a man who made it his life’s work to fight for justice.

So what makes a song timeless? If there was a formula, it’s safe to say everyone would do it and we could listen to the radio all day with no clinkers. That is why when someone knocks it out of the park, the way Seeger and The Byrds did here, it is so rare and special. There actually was a time when you didn’t have to ask “What’s so funny about peace, love and understanding?” That time, along with Pete Seeger, seems to to be fading fast into the rear view mirror.

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AuthorJohn Sieger
CategoriesSieger on Songs
Leprechaun
Leprechaun

From the vaults, where it has lived for a few years, Ladies & Gentleman: The Spirit Of Drunkeness! This could have been written by a leprechaun if he was an American. I had stashed it away for several reasons, the main one being, it's a little pushy. Nobody likes an aggressive drunk and this song has been over-served. Let's not let that happen to you tonight—it's one thing to go out and have a bit of fun and whole other thing when you wake up the next town over and you're peeing green! The lovely little slide part is Steve Allen playing through a Califone portable record player. These are the old AV models from school. They have an input jack, so they can double as guitar amps. It would be a terrible idea to use one on a gig, but that cheap cheap sound is fine for a song like this. Blasting away on drums is Nashville's very own leprechaun, Phil Lee. The rest is moi abusing my Line 6 Pod, which can imitate everything but talent. I like the slide-y bass line, it makes me woozier than a night of green beer. Happy Paddy's Day to you.

© 2011 John Sieger

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AuthorJohn Sieger
CategoriesTune Du Jour

01 A Short Eternity A sad tale of a withdrawn man from a few weeks back. He's hiding out from the world — it's just too much for him! He has hung a "Do Not Disturb" sign on the door to his pitiful life. What drove him to this hermit's state? You guessed it — love. I somehow managed to use the word "fray" in this one, it's a pretty singable word I've never heard in a song. This demo reflects my current obsession with the nylon string "classical" guitar, which I used on two tracks. It's very meaty sounding and yet somehow it floats around the vocal, never obscuring it. It's the Ginger Rogers of instruments, dancing backwards in heels, while making Fred Astaire look that much better! An inch or so beneath this blog is an alternate drawing illustrating our poor, crushed protagonist. He has left his Motel Six for a nice secluded sewer in Arizona.

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AuthorJohn Sieger
CategoriesTune Du Jour
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15 Don't Knock The Mockingbird 1

Here is an unlikely suspect—the mockingbird. Are people picking on him? Or her? Not really. It's a wonderful and pretty little bird that never quite makes it this far north. It has a reputation for plagiarism, I don't know how true that is. In music, it's always a fine line between homage and theft. I rose to the defense of this defenseless creature when I lived in Nashville and my memories of what I was thinking are sketchy at best. I do remember making myself laugh a little when that line came to me —it reminded me a little of Give Paris One More Chance, a song I love by Jonathan Richman. That one seemed like a protest song with no real purpose. There's something absurd about defending Paris — isn't it one of the most beloved and romantic cities on earth? You're preaching to the choir, Jonathan... Give Kenosha one more chance! When my song came together, it sort of lost that aspect and became more of a metaphor for singers, musicians and songwriters. It sounded, I almost hate to say, poignant to me. Good thing you can't throw tomatoes on the internet, but there you have it.

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AuthorJohn Sieger
CategoriesTune Du Jour
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01 A Handsome Man 3-22-09

I love the title – it's classic Michael Feldman. As is the second verse: "Take a look at your average con - he's ugly without fail." Has this expression been around and I just never heard it? Or has M.F. coined another one? I'll ask him and update when I find out. Update: I couldn't tell from his cryptic response, so I'm going to claim authorship of this dazzling quip. It's hard to argue with the sentiment in this song, though it probably shouldn't be called a sentiment. More like the cold, hard facts. Statistics show attractive people earn more... look it up! Even the Onion has chimed in with the headline "Supermodels Have Banner Year." Should this song be sung by a handsome or a homely man? It would strike me as funny either way. Mr. Handsome could have a sense of out-of-touch entitled outrage and the nebbish could be making excuses for poor performance. Maybe it could be in a musical with verses from both and that way reveal a universal truth. (I certainly have high hopes!) I like the lushness of this particular demo, the music seems pretty enough to avoid incarceration and the guitar solo came out quite snarky.  Till we meet up again tomorrow, remember to stay handsome, it almost always works out!

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AuthorJohn Sieger
CategoriesTune Du Jour

01 Magazine 6-1-10

This goes back to the early years of Mikey (Feldman) and Johnny. We both lived around Kenosha and Mike was a lyric tornado. He generated so much material and so much of it was good that all I could do was to try and keep up. This one, with lines like "Avalanche of hair burying her face" and "And them eyes, each of them was blue," seemed like pure inspiration. Last year, I decided I wanted to re-cut some of our earliest demos and do a better job than I had back then, when I sang almost exclusively through my nose! I'm hoping to get these finished and released in the near future, but let's listen to this almost-mixed "me-me-me" demo and see what we think.

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AuthorJohn Sieger
CategoriesTune Du Jour
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01 Bad Checks

This is a co-write with Robbie Fulks. If you aren't familiar with Robbie, you are missing out on a truly entertaining experience. He is a great singer and writer and his performances are legendary. I'd like to say this is the dumbest thing he ever wrote, but he might disagree. The kernel for this one is the phrase "Whip me, beat me, make me write bad checks," which I saw scrawled on a bathroom wall in New Orleans a long time ago. I thought it was good advice and a good title. Robbie is a gifted enabler of bad ideas—if you are going to run your train off the tracks he will be right behind you stoking coal. With his help, I was able to finish this and manage to capture what I think is a bit of New Orleans feel. We play this one in my band The Subcontinentals and it will probably be on our next recording.

NOTE: Your comments are always welcome and as I said in my mission statement, I'd be happy to email any of these songs to you... absolutely free!

Visit Robbie Fulks here.

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AuthorJohn Sieger
CategoriesTune Du Jour
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19 AKA Therese

This is a demo and sounds like one. Just me, an electric guitar, a bass and a cheap drum machine. Nothing fussed over, but you get the idea. The lyric is by Michael Feldman, which means his brilliant ideas come out of my mouth for a change. I guess that makes him my personal Cyrano, although my nose is every bit as big as his.  I love the idea of AKA Therese—she uses different names in different cities. Sounds like a tough cookie. If I get a better version of this, I will post it—until then it lives in a folder where I keep songs for the next Subcontinental CD. Sing along:

Her mama was working in a canning plant

Her daddy was state police

She raised hell as she raised herself

AKA Therese

Rose she was down in New Orleans

In Memphis it was Mary Louise

By Lexington it was no longer clear

AKA Therese

I can't call her by her name

Ain't that just a doggone shame

She never told me what it was

Where she's from or what she does

She married but she never took their names

She had her own self to please

If you loved Rose you loved Penelope

AKA Therese

© 2010 Feldman/Sieger Strum & Drang BMI

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AuthorJohn Sieger
CategoriesTune Du Jour

01 Authentic Feral Child

A surprise visit from strange wolf child lurking in my subconscious. You just don't know what the hell is in there sometimes. This should make it pretty obvious that one of my influences is Randy Newman. This is more a shout out to his peculiar world than a  direct imitation, because that would be impossible.  I hope I captured a bit of sideshow atmosphere in the middle section. I now have unlimited access to things like celestes and pan pipes and, if this is an early indicator of just how much I will be abusing the software orchestra at my fingertips, look for my first symphony about this time next year.

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AuthorJohn Sieger
CategoriesTune Du Jour

01 A Twenty-Two Or A Forty-Five This song is a day old. It's a demo, just me and my guitar gently weeping. It is nowhere near a finished or polished performance, but I like the feel. Never fired a gun myself, in fact I've done things to raise money for handgun control in the past. I'm no fan the NRA, the people who brought you John Lennon's death, not to mention countless thousands of others. And yet, when you put a gun in a song, it sort of adds narrative heft. Gangsta Folk. This guy lives in a tough little factory town and walks around under a cloud of resentment. Maybe he'll go postal — you can sort of tell he doesn't like his boss. Maybe he'll move to the country and join the Tea Party. He makes a good song character. I'm going to work on my finger picking and get a definitive version to post at a later date.

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AuthorJohn Sieger
CategoriesTune Du Jour
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