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The kind of thing that passes me by

Music critic Michael Stewart makes a confession

This week the world has been mourning the passing of highly-respected banjo-plucking folk music legend Pete Seeger at the age of 94.

I’ve been reading a range of obituaries setting out the highlights of his long career and the extent of his influence upon American society that extended way beyond the tunes he wrote and performed. He was widely admired for his committed beliefs and principle. His political activism paved the way for generations of both folk protest singers, not least Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen, and what might be termed left wing campaigners. He was still performing in public well into his nineties. There is scarcely an individual to be found who ever said a bad word about him. His reputation is secure.

In which circumstances my personal reaction to Mr Seeger and his music may seem a tad churlish.

In general, whilst admiring the general technical musicianship and sincerity of those who plough a folk music furrow, I have to confess that – with occasional exceptions – it leaves me stone cold.

I accept that there exist great swathes of fanatical devotees around the world, who no doubt connect with things in it that plainly escape me (possibly because of my lack of musicality and/or music appreciation), but I find the genre as dull as ditch water.

When I think of folk music, the performers that immediately spring to mind are the likes of Peter, Paul and Mary, The Springfields, The Spinners, Bert Jansch and John Renbourn, The Incredible String Band, Fairport Convention, Steeleye Span, Pentangle, John Martyn and Ralph McTell. All proficient, all successful and respected – but none of them have ever raised in me a scintilla of more than passing interest.

Why is this?

I guess it is because – for average Joes like me – music has to ‘grab’ you by the balls and inspire you to get up out of your metaphorical chair and punch a hole in the nearest wall. To make you feel more alive, prompt wild enthusiasm, leave you physically and mentally drained – just thankful to be alive, in this era, in this moment … putting all concerns about career, family, relationships and the mundane details of everyday living aside for a delicious hour or two.

A few months back, I attended a ‘John Renbourn plus friends’ gig at the Half Moon pub in Putney, largely because of his status as a British folk music national treasure and outstanding guitarist. The evening was technically superb and received by the packed audience with quasi-religious reverence, but I totally failed to ‘get it’ and was left, longing for it to end, nearly an hour before it actually did.

For me, Pete Seeger and his ilk, for all their positive qualities, can be summed up in a single word – insipid.

You only have to consider what are regarded as Seeger’s all-time greatest hits – Where Have All The Flowers Gone? and If I Had A Hammer (The Hammer Song).

See what I mean here, a vintage performance of the latter, spotted on Youtube – WHERE HAVE ALL THE FLOWERS GONE?



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About Michael Stuart

After university, Michael spent twelve years working for MELODY MAKER before going freelance. He claims to keep doing it because it is all he knows. More Posts