Clip Job: an excerpt every day from the Voice archives.
April 18, 1963, Vol. VIII, No. 26
Footnotes to ‘Hootenanny’
By Nat Hentoff
Singers Tom Paxton and Barbara Dane and the Greenbriar Boys (a bluegrass unit) have turned down appearances on ABC’s “Hootenanny” series for the same reason that Joan Baez refused to appear — the banishment of Pete Seeger. For Dane, Paxton, and the Greenbriar Boys, the decision was particularly selfless. They do not as yet have repuatations outside of a relatively small nucleus of listeners, and being on the program could have benefitted them considerably. It is easy enough for an outsider to challenge ABC and “Hootenanny” in The Voice, but the action of these folk performers is of a different order of courage and deserves respect as well, I hope, as emulation.
In a forthcoming issue of Playboy, I have an article on folk music which was written a year ago — before the “Hootenanny” explosion. My last chance to update and revise it also occurred before the news about Seeger’s exclusion so that I could not add anything about the blacklisting. In the article I was critical of Seeger on musical grounds — as I have been in the past. He is a superior proselytizer and a most earnest singer, but I have reservations about the way he handles some of his material. In any case, I do not want this piece to provide any ammunition for ABC or Richard Lewine, the producer of “Hootenanny.” There is absolutely no question but that any series concerned with American folk music must include Pete Seeger.
Seeger, moreover, would have been essential to “Hootenanny” by the very criteria which Lewine has set for the series. In an interview with Ralph Gleason of the San Francisco Chronicle, Lewine said “We wanted groups who could carry a national audience, a much larger audience than the Greenwich Village coffee houses. We want to take folk music out to the public without jamming groups down their throat. After all, we want to get a way from the esoterica.”
If any folk singer can “carry a national audience,” it’s Seeger. He’s done it for so many years. Lewine added that Seeger is too “slow” and “thoughtful.” The Weavers, according to him, were never considered because the show, he explained, needs “peppy and funny” groups. As Ralph Gleason observed at the close of the column, “Woody Guthrie, who wrote half the songs most of these groups sing and who, with Seeger, is responsible for the popularity of the word ‘hootenanny’ itself, is too ill to work. If he were healthy, would he be ‘peppy’ and ‘funny’ enough? Or too ‘slow’ and ‘thoughtful’?”
The first “Hootenanny” show, incidentally, was a drag. Musically and in terms of camera work. The one local critic with the musical and visual sensitivity to say so was Jack OBrian of the Journal-American — and you know that O’Brian couldn’t care less about a blacklist. He even claims none exists, although he tries occasionally to add people to this “figment” of civil libertarians’ imaginations. “The show,” O’Brian wrote, “may find its audience, which we suspect is the upper-teen to crewcut crowd, but it belies its own listing as ‘folk music.’ Otherwise, it’s s genial, modern form of musical regression which could be categorized as junior middlebrow.”
Above all, the show was dull. And Seeger, whatever his occasional stylistic deficiencies by my way of listening, is never that. The point, of course, is that there is no likelihood whatsoever that Seeger was absent for musical reasons. An aesthetician Mr. Lewine is not. A scared man he is.
[Each weekday morning, we post an excerpt from another issue of the Voice, going in order from our oldest archives. Visit our Clip Job archive page to see excerpts back to 1956.]