Pete Seeger, The Complete Bowdoin College Concert, 1960
History as it's being written
When he took the stage on the night of this nearly two-hour performance, Pete Seeger was less than halfway through a life that has now stretched beyond 90 years. He’d been indicted three years prior for contempt of Congress after refusing to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee; his response, in part, was to start booking concerts at schools across America, including this one at a small college in Brunswick, Maine. It was broadcast by local radio station WBOR, and more than half a century later, it stands as a rare complete-concert recording of the era, documenting much of what we now take for granted as the Seeger legacy. Performances include his landmark instrumental “Living in the Country,” immortalized later in versions by such luminaries as Leo Kottke and George Winston, and his adaptation of the Idris Davies poem “The Bells of Rhymney,” which turned up on the Byrds’ debut album five years later. Despite the historical backdrop, Seeger’s repertoire isn’t overly political, though he digs in here and there on tunes such as Ernie Mars’s anti-war broadside “What a Friend We Have in Congress.” Another Mars tune, “Quiz Show,” elicits one of the biggest laughs from the audience: “They ask you some questions and someone keeps score/ And they slip you the answer a few days before.” The second set concludes with the obligatory audience sing-along “Wimoweh,” but more intriguing is a mid-set medley (rendered here as three separate tracks) in which he rambles through segments of 14 songs in 9 minutes. Toward the end of the medley is a number inspired by a snippet of a folk tune he’d seen in a Ukrainian novel; “it just had a fragment in it, and I had to kind of put the rest together out of my head,” he explains in a brief and seemingly innocuous introduction. He proceeds to sing the then-unknown “Where Have All the Flowers Gone,” which would become iconic in the ensuing decade through renditions by the Kingston Trio and Peter, Paul & Mary. That, in a nutshell, is the experience of listening to Live at Bowdoin College: we’re hearing history as it’s being written.