January 29, 2014

This Machine

Cover of Pete Seeger, Childrens Concert at Town HallCover of Pete Seeger, Childrens Concert at Town Hall

This post is excerpted and adapted from a longer post from ten years ago, on my other blog, hungryblues.net, about loving music that my father loved. In pulling out this part about Pete Seeger, I realize it’s also about how, in a very personal way, I’ve come to see Pete’s rendition of Abiyoyo as an allegory for the famous message written on his banjo, This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender.”

All through my childhood my father tried to excite me with music that was important to him. As a little boy, I danced around our living room to Woody Guthrie’s children’s songs. Dad also got me listening to Pete Seeger’s Children’s Concert at Town Hall—with those renditions of work songs and of old ballads like Henry My Son (aka Lord Randall”):

What did you eat in the woods all day,
Henry my son?
What did you eat in the woods all day
my pretty one?

Eels, dear mother. Eels, dear mother.
Mother be quick I got to be sick and lay me down to die.

What color were those eels,
Henry my boy?
What color were those eels,
my pride and joy
Green and yeller. Green and yeller.
Mother be quick I got to be sick and lay me down to die.

For the longest time, those lines Green and yeller. Green and yeller. / Mother be quick I got to be sick and / lay me down to die” were about the funniest things I’d ever heard.

The other song Dad taught me to love from that children’s concert was Seeger’s adaptation of Abiyoyo, the South African lullaby. In Seeger’s version there’s a father and son pair who both are always getting into trouble. The father, a magician, can make things disappear with his magic wand. He goes around playing practical jokes, making chairs disappear as folks were about to sit down, zapping a log out of existence right while a worker was sawing it in half. In the meantime, the magician’s son went around with a ukulele, playing it wherever he could and disrupting whatever might be going on. The townspeople got frustrated with these two troublemakers and made them live on the outskirts of town.

Then one day a huge, scary monster called Abiyoyo came marching along, swallowing sheep and cows and people in one bite. Everyone was running for their lives. The magician said to his son, Oh, son. It’s Abiyoyo. Oh, if only I could get him to lie down. I could get him to disappear.”

The boy said, Come with me father.” He grabbed his father by one hand. The father grabbed the magic wand, and the boy grabbed his ukulele. Over the fields they went, right up to where Abiyoyo was.

People screamed Don’t go near him! He’ll eat you alive!”

There was Abiyoyo. He had long fingernails, cause he never cut em. He had slobbery teeth cause he never brushed them. Matted hair, cause he never combed it. Stinking feet, cause he never washed them. He was just about to come down with his claws, when the boy whipped out his ukulele.

Abiyoyo, Abiyoyo Abiyoyo, Abiyoyo Abiyoyo, yo yoyo yo yoyo Abiyoyo, yo yoyo yo yoyo Abi…

Well, the monster had never heard a song about himself before, and a foolish grin spread across his face. And started to dance.

ABIYOYO, ABIYOYO, The boy went faster.

ABIYOYO, YO YOYO, YO YOYO ABIYOYO, YO YOYO…

The giant got out of breath. He staggered. He fell down flat on the ground.

Zoop, zoop! went the father with his magic want, and Abiyoyo disappeared.

People streamed out of their houses, and ran across the fields. They said: Why, he’s gone, he’s disappeared!”

They said: Come on back to town. Bring your damn ukulele; we don’t care.”

A little while back I discovered that the Children’s Concert at Town Hall” had been reissued on cd. I went out and bought a copy and started listening again. Seems to me now that in 1962, when the record came out, Abiyoyo must have been to my dad—and maybe to Pete Seeger, too—an apparition of all the violent social and political forces he was fighting against—segregation, nuclear proliferation, economic injustice, anti-communist witch hunters.

Pete Seeger. (Photo credit: WireImage, via WBUR)Pete Seeger. (Photo credit: WireImage, via WBUR)

Dad’s activism was driven by great idealism but also by profound feelings of loneliness and a deep need for attention, not for fame but for a kind of recognition that comes only in the moment. In my childhood, as Dad’s intense involvement in political movements was moving into the past, I think he had this romantic feeling that I’d be his ukulele playing sidekick who’d finally make his own strivings come right.

Before I really knew what they were all about, I was also hearing the songs of the Civil Rights Movement. There were the versions Pete Seeger had brought up from the South at his 1963 Carnegie Hall Concert. Even more important was a record that you can’t get anymore, though I have the original from Dad’s collection, the SNCC Freedom Singers’ We Shall Overcome, with those amazing renditions of Woke Up,” Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around,” We Shall Not Be Moved” and, of course, the title track, the freedom song so famously adapted from church and labor songs, by Zilphia Horton and Pete Seeger.


pete seeger paul greenberg civil rights movement music childhood hungryblues.net


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