Judge Bill Gibron is so much more than just a wandering troubadour.
The Power of Song.
Over his six decades (yep—60 years) as part of the foundation of the folk music revival in America, Pete Seeger has lived by one simple, seemingly profound philosophy. If he could just get the entire world to sing, join together through the pure power of song, he could transform our life and times. Call it utopian or naïve, but it's the same creative code he's been applying to his craft since the earliest days of his career. Seeger has seen it all—World Wars, police actions, union organizing/busting, Dust Bowl desolation, the rise and physical fall of Woody Guthrie, the Red Scare tactics of the 50s (where he was a victim) and the promise and mass marketing revolution of the 60s. Even today, in his late 80s, he remains an icon to tradition, honor, and the undying brotherhood of man. Now, thanks to Acorn Media and Reelin' in the Years Productions, newcomers to the man's amazing oeuvre can see Pete Seeger in his element—alone, with an instrument, preaching his unmannered love of music to a grateful throng of attentive sonic students.
Live In Australia: 1963, is really a Pete Primer, an overview of the man who laid the long term underpinning for more familiar names like Dylan, Baez, and Peter, Paul and Mary. The disc consists of an entire performance in front of a friendly audience in Melbourne, followed by numerous TV appearances Downunder. Finally, there are some home movies, a tribute to Leadbelly, and a collection of rare photos and scholarly essays. Indeed, if it weren't for the amazing music scattered throughout, this would be a perfect Pete Seeger history lesson—and such aural delights are just that. The broadcast showcases give the musician a chance to sell his message, and the concert sees him taking time between songs to clarify and discuss context. While a set list would probably take up three quarters of this review, let's just say that Seeger digs deep into his amazingly dense arsenal, offering such recognizable classics as "Kum Ba Ya," "The Bells of Rhymney," "Down by the Riverside," and "If I Had a Hammer." He tackles some of Guthrie's catalog, sticking to nonsense songs like "I'm Gonna Mail Myself to You" and "Put Your Finger in the Air," while he acknowledges the current upheaval in folk by featuring a certain up and coming songwriter's "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall."
Elsewhere, he celebrates the "negro spiritual," points on the similarities in the sea shanties of certain countries, and offers lessons to those with limited familiarity of the genre. All the while, Seeger uses the simplest of arrangements—just his voice, his banjo/guitar work, and his interpretation of the lyrics. As he says, he doesn't always get the songs "right," but his performance argues for art over accuracy. By the time he makes it to the final encore, a goodtime sing-along of "I Know an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly," the Australian audience is eating out of his flawless, finger-picking hands. The rest of the material is equally engaging, Seeger appearing in news footage and on such perennial Oz land series as Bandstand. During these features, he performs "Who Killed Davey Moore," "John Henry," "Michael Row the Boat Ashore," and the regionally appropriate "Queensland Overlanders." The Q&As seem a little trivial since many Australian reporters aren't quite sure what to make of Seeger. Good thing he's articulate without being rude, ready to use his music as a means of making his point clearer and much more concise.
From a technical standpoint, Live in Australia is a combination of visual/audio issues. The bonus features listed above are stellar. The kinescope like 1.33:1 full screen image is not so. Granted, it looks better than one would expect from a 46 year old archival broadcast, but the black and white picture is more faded grey, and the occasional analog flaws can be bothersome. The sound situation will also displease purists. This is Dolby Digital Stereo as basic dual channel Mono reproduction. When Seeger moves away from the microphone, his voice disappears. Similarly, his playing can sometimes get lost in the ambient sound heavy mix. Still, for its age and rarity, we will take the less than perfect nature of the presentation. Of special attention is the 16 page booklet which offers some terrific liner notes by Seeger biographer David K. Dunaway. In fact, one who knows nothing of the man can definitely walk away with a deeper appreciation of what he means to the true spirit of folk music after experiencing this excellent DVD.
On May 9, 2009 Pete Seeger turns 90. That's nine decades as part of the American fabric, at least six of which were spent serenading the nation with its own musical mythos. There are massive celebrations planned, tributes featuring many of the musicians who this great man influenced and inspired. From his tireless commitment to rural traditions to his anti-war advocacy and work for the environment, Seeger will always be a lightning rod of controversy and clarity. If you want some insight as to why, check out Live in Australia 1963. One viewing and all will become clear.
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