For Pete’s sake: how Pete Seeger’s bold legacy has inspired a string quartet | Music

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Long Time Passing is the only Kronos Quartet album where the original idea behind it has an exact date and place. My daughter, Bonnie Quinn, is a third-grade teacher in San Francisco’s Francis Scott Key Elementary School. Kronos plays for her students every year, and on 2 May 2018 her students were joined by pupils from Monroe Elementary School across the city for our concert. Monroe’s teacher Mark Rosenberg brought his guitar. Our final piece that day was We Shall Overcome – the old spiritual that, with help from Pete Seeger, became a key anthem of the Civil Rights movement in the US. All the kids sang with us while Mark led the singing and joined in with his guitar. The whole room was filled with energy, optimism and promise. Mark said to me: “Tomorrow would have been Pete Seeger’s 99th birthday.” I remember replying: “That means we can celebrate his 100th birthday next year!”

That’s how our new album, Long Time Passing, had its beginning: as a 100th birthday tribute to a beloved performer who spent decades exploring the diversity of the world’s music and sharing it with many generations of audiences along the way.

We set about creating an evening-length celebration of Pete Seeger’s legacy in time for Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Arts’ (MASS MoCA) September 2019 FreshGrass festival, where we would perform the live set and record the album. Our final track, We Shall Overcome, was all figured out and clear to me. From there, Kronos jumped into overdrive and began an extensive exploration of Pete Seeger’s life and music.

Kronos Quartet at the Barbican, London, in 2014.
Kronos Quartet at the Barbican, London, in 2014. Photograph: Mark Allan/Sarah Lee/the Guardian

I had grown up hearing Seeger’s albums, the Carnegie Hall concert from 1963 being a favourite. My Kronos colleagues John Sherba and Hank Dutt had also spent many formative years with his albums and protest songs, absorbing kernels of social change. My wife and I would play his recordings for our kids (the Sesame Street album with Pete Seeger and Brother Kirk was a nightly must), and later we have played his music for our grandkids. But there is so much more to learn of his vast contributions. There are his albums, his writings, his print interviews, as well as radio and TV appearances. I learned more about his environmental, civil rights and anti-war activism, as well as the fact that he was blacklisted by the government for his prior communist affiliations. His own incredible musical discoveries, the songs he wrote, his courage, his modesty … the more I explored, the larger Pete Seeger’s life became, and the harder it became to tell his story in just a handful of tracks.

There will always be more that we could have recorded for this album. I wanted to perform together with Seeger’s recording of Estadio Chile – an incredible song about Chilean folk singer and poet Víctor Jara’s life and awful death. I wanted to perform our solo Kronos versions of Seeger’s beautiful renditions of South African Bantu songs. I wanted to incorporate those most inspirational radio shows on Chicago’s WFMT hosted by Studs Terkel where Seeger and Big Bill Broonzy performed together, all three close friends in a time when it was special and rare for Black and white people in the US to engage so deeply. And I wanted to tip our hat to the steel drum of Trinidad, an instrument Seeger played an important role in bringing into American musical culture. All of these are saved for another time, another album.

But what was missing was Pete Seeger’s own voice. It seemed essential that it be a part of the experience we were making, and so we invited Kronos’s longtime friend and collaborator Jacob Garchik to help us do that. Garchik was able to delve into decades of Seeger’s interviews, radio shows and concerts to find the sonic excerpts necessary to tell some of his life story. Thus began Storyteller, the album’s only new composition, a 16-minute track that would become the album’s connective tissue as it weaves through various moments and perspectives of Seeger’s work and ethics over time. Around it, we had to include the astonishing Mbube, Solomon Linda’s original recording of which Seeger uncovered in a pile Alan Lomax needed to cull in the 1940s. (It’s hard to imagine life without this song, also known as Wimoweh and The Lion Sleeps Tonight).

The Weavers perform in a 25th Anniversary reunion concert at Carnegie Hall in New York, 1980. Pete Seeger on left (with Lee Hays, Ronnie Gilbert and Fred Hellerman.)
The Weavers perform in a 25th Anniversary reunion concert at Carnegie Hall in New York, 1980. Pete Seeger on left (with Lee Hays, Ronnie Gilbert and Fred Hellerman.) Photograph: Richard Drew/AP

Garbage, one of the first environmental warning songs, also simply had to be included. Which Side Are You On was a must, as was Waist Deep in the Big Muddy. Kisses Sweeter Than Wine, with lyrics co-authored by Seeger, was featured in the very first piece written for Kronos (by Ken Benshoof) in 1974 and needed to be included too as an underlying connection. Then I heard Joan Baez sing The President Sang Amazing Grace, a 2017 composition by Zoe Mulford; I believe this incredible song could not exist without the life’s work of Pete Seeger, as it asks important questions and says essential things, like he did. It’s an example of a song stepping up to the plate and deeply, beautifully hitting a home run to the heart. What could follow it? We found Raghupati Raghav Raja Ram, a song Seeger heard before his first concert in India. He introduced this reflective song to American audiences; its timeless quality seemed to us like a place to rest in.

We found singers for each song like a painter finds the special palette for a painting and sought to introduce and reveal the distinctive voice and personality of each performer on the record: Sam Amidon, Maria Arnal, Brian Carpenter, Lee Knight, Meklit and Aoife O’Donovan.

On 3 February 2020, the recording of Long Time Passing was completed right where it began. In Room 207 of Francis Scott Key Elementary School, nearly 100 eight- and nine-year-old students joined us to record the vocals of We Shall Overcome. The final mix of the album was completed in New York City a month later, just before our country was locked down by Covid-19.

In this time of crisis, we look to Seeger’s legacy – a legacy that demands that we summon all of the skill, experience and energy we can possibly muster to tackle the injustices of our country.

I should have phoned Pete Seeger 40 years ago and maybe we could have figured out a way to perform together. Then again, I should have also called Ruth Bader Ginsburg and John Lewis, too. This album is just a start. Through this journey across the life and creativity of a luminous icon of music, we are given a way to sing together, explore together and protest together.

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