The death of folk legend Pete Seeger reminded me of how my parents found extraordinary ways to make music a part of everyday life. The true meaning of “folk music” for me is that home-made quality, music for folks by folks, not primarily a product that is bought and sold. Music done right is as nourishing as soup made from scratch and should be shared with friends like a potluck supper.
The living room of my childhood home was filled with instruments: a baby grand piano, and underneath it my dad’s viola and classical guitar, my mom’s clarinet, my trombone and cello. Across the room stood an actual wooden pump organ, one rumored to have been salvaged from a ship. A bellows connected it to a wheezy old pump downstairs that had to be switched on for it to play. In the closet was a box full of percussion instruments, maracas, wood blocks, bongos but these only came out when my folks had a Hootenany.
Of course, my folks never called them “hootenanies,” but then again, they didn’t really have a name for the low-brow musical events that seemed to happen from time to time. Some of the most vivid childhood memories I have are of a room full of grown-ups, all of them singing, laughing, some clanging away at a drum, or strumming a guitar, while my mother played piano and my dad played organ. I grew up assuming that everyone’s family had these song-drenched get-togethers, and I remember feeling odd when I discovered they didn’t. I was the sole youngster at these events, one of the benefits of being an only child.
Our repertoire was as motley as the musicians. We sang show tunes and spirituals, hymns and folks songs. My favorite was the one about boxes filled with ticky-tacky although I also remember puzzling over the Laredo cowboy who was made of modeling clay. My mom loved “Climb Evr’y Mountain.” We sang nearly everything, including the political and topical songs of folks like Pete Seeger.
My father was a life-long Republican, a school teacher, part-time church organist and choir director. He was a teetotaler as well; these hootenanies were fueled by neither beer nor booze. My dad was as non-radical as one could imagine. But as an adult, already an accomplished keyboard player, he bought himself a nylon stringed guitar and watched a show on PBS TV to learn folk music. He’d record the lessons on a reel-to-reel tape recorder so he could practice until he got them right. And he shared the songs he learned with friends at these joyous, noisy soirees. That’s what folk music means to me.
Pete Seeger’s death reminds me of the loss of that festive, non-professional community music. The best tribute to both Seeger and my dad is to squeeze a bit more home-made music into my everyday life. An obvious start is a carol or two at the next Christmas party. Maybe next time we have guests for dinner, I will insist we share a song before we leave the table. A neighbor used to sit out front and play banjo during summer afternoons and, when he moved away, I honestly kept anticipating the day that new owners would pick up the tradition of that musical porch. I suspect if music is going to be played on anyone’s porch, it had best begin with my own.