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REVIEW: Pete Seeger salute? Lovable
Tuesday, 04 July 2017 10:23
Special to the Daily Planet

Songs that marked the career of a major figure of American folk music rang out in “Seeger, a Multimedia Solo Show” June 14-25 at the North Carolina Stage Company in downtown Asheville.

“We Shall Overcome,”sung by actor Randy Noonjin in a portrayal of Pete Seeger, was associated with the icon and was the anthem of the civil rights movement.

Nooonjin explained to the small crowd at the venue that Seeger adapted it from an early 20th century song called “We Will Overcome.”

“Pete changed it to ‘shall,’” said Noonjin, sporting a trademark Seeger billed leather cap and carrying a long-neck banjo. “‘Shall’ felt better in the mouth for singing than ‘will,’” he added.

Nonjin’s rendition of “Goodnight, Irene” drew heart-felt vocal accompaniment from the June 16 audience. In 1949, the Weavers, a folk quarter that included Seeger, had a smash hit with the song written by Leadbelly.

A songwriter himself, Seeger with fellow Weaver member Lee Hayes, penned “If I Had a Hammer.” Noonjin, in clear tenor voice, sang it that night and once again the mostly  grey-haired crowd of 33 in the 150-seat theater sang along.

In 1951, Seeger was charged by the federal government with associating with communists and was blacklisted. For 17 years, his music was banned from the national airwaves.

During that period, he penned “Turn Turn Turn,” with verses adapted from the Bible. In 1965, it became a No. 1 hit for the folk-rock group, the Byrds. On June 16, 2017, Noonjin’s version was accompanied by scenic landscapes projected on a large screen.

While forcibly out of the spotlight, Seeger, according to Noonjin, played small venues only. “He loved playing in grade schools more than anything,” said the actor who also wrote the narration of the 90 minute production. “He loved leading those kids in singing ‘This Land is Your Land.’”

In 2013, the real-life Pete Seeger led a singalong of the Woody Guthrie anthem at a Farm Aid concert — with Willie Nelson, Neil Young and John Mellencamp helping out.  Five years earlier, Seeger (who died in 2014 at age 94) sang at the Smithsonian Institution with family members, including half-sister Peggy Seeger.

A singer/songwriter herself, Peggy Seeger lived in Asheville in the 1990s — and performed here often.

Asheville is where Seeger — a life-long champion of peace, human rights and clear air and clean water — first  heard the  five-string banjo, his signature instrument. It happened when he, as a teenager, heard one at a Mountain Dance and Folk festival and reportedly it was love at first listen.

Noonjin following his show pointed out  that the banjo he uses is authentic — it, like the model Seeger invented, is two frets longer than the standard one. On it is inscribed the words: “This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender.”

“Woody Guthrie’s guitar had ‘This machine kills facists’ written on it,” said Noonjin. “Pete was following suit.”

Five years ago, Noonjin was in Asheville, portraying Woody Guthrie in a one-man show called “Hard Travelling With Woody Guthrie.”

On tour nationally with his simply titled “Seeger” show, he is the winner of countless acting and writing awards. 

A native of Indiana he did NOT grow up a folk music aficianado. “I liked Hank Williams,” he said. “The folk music came later.”



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