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Mount Holyoke College News and Events Vista The College Street Journal Archives

February 8, 2002

Spinning Yarns with Pete Seeger

Folk legend Pete Seeger entertained a packed house at MHC on Saturday.

You can talk about telling stories—or you can just go ahead and tell some. The art of the latter has marked Pete Seeger's long career, and he pleased a full crowd at Chapin Auditorium Saturday afternoon with a typical set of shaggy-dog stories, banjo songs, and musings on the state of the world.

Seeger and his collaborator, poet Paul DuBois Jacobs, recently released Pete Seeger's Storytelling Book, a distillation of the many tales Seeger has learned, adapted, or simply made up throughout his sixty-year performing career. He told the crowd that the main point of storytelling was to encourage participation in something of value. "If there's a world one hundred years from now, I think that people will be back to doing things—coming together, communicating, telling stories," he said. "My goal in doing this is to encourage that and get people away from the worst drug there is—the ‘Plug-In Drug.'" True to his word, he had sing-alongs of a few of the songs (it's possible that nobody has ever gotten out of a Pete Seeger show without having to sing at least once first).

Seeger's appearance was very much in the style he has developed over his long career, which began with the Almanac Singers, the group he started with Woody Guthrie in 1940. A story verse would suddenly become the chorus to a song, accompanied by his five-string tenor banjo, then veer into a personal reminiscence, then back in to the story. He continues to write stories and songs; a brand-new one, still in progress, pays tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King. "I don't have much for verses yet," he admitted. "But the chorus is a good one."

He told the crowd that the raw material for storytelling is available to anyone, anywhere. After telling the Bible tale of David and Goliath—complete with a discursion into his attempts to teach himself how to use a slingshot as a teenager—he noted, "In the Bible, that's maybe one hundred words at most . . . You can spin any story out—long or short." Seeger cited the Tom Stoppard play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead as another example of taking a small piece of an existing story and getting entirely new material from it.

At age eighty-three, Seeger is still hale and energetic, but is happy to share a stage. He called on Jacobs to help out with a couple of story-and-song duets during the second half of the appearance. Also stepping to the mike was Seeger's grandson, Kitama Jackson-Seeger, a student at Hampshire College who has apparently inherited a wry storytelling gene from his grandfather.

Pete Seeger's Storytelling Book is available at the Odyssey Bookshop, which cosponsored the event with the MHC's Office of Religious and Spiritual Life.

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