Interview: Jeff Haynes
Posted by Jenks Miller
Recently, Pete Seeger’s birthday gave us a chance to reflect on the late folk singer and social activist’s work and legacy. With a career that included early radio success with The Weavers in the 1940’s and 50’s, blacklisting in the infamous McCarthy era, a prominent role in both the folk revival and the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960’s, and induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996, Seeger played a significant role as a musician and leader in social movements until his death in 2014. In a written statement memorializing the folk legend, President Obama noted that Seeger “believed in the power of community – to stand up for what’s right, speak out against what’s wrong, and move this country closer to the America he knew we could be.”
Of course, the America of 2017 is still a far cry from the America Seeger knew it could be. On May 3rd of this year – also Seeger’s birthday – the head of the Trump Administration’s State Department, Rex Tillerson, became the first Secretary of State in decades to skip the press conference accompanying his department’s annual human rights report, claiming that the United States’ traditional insistence that its allies adhere to its values of freedom and human dignity creates “obstacles.” While Seeger would likely be among the first to note that there is still much work to be done in the pursuit of justice and human rights, he also embodied an unflagging optimism. His message was one of tireless engagement and sustained action. As he put it, “Participation – that’s what’s gonna save the human race.”
Today, Seeger’s message is sustained in The Storm King, a touring multimedia presentation of Seeger’s recorded stories, narratives and poems set to music and video. The Storm King, curated and presented by Grammy award winning percussionist/producer Jeff Haynes, comes to The ArtsCenter on Saturday, May 13th. We spoke with Haynes about his work with Pete Seeger and the role of the folk tradition in a changing world.
Photo courtesy Pete Seeger: The Storm King
1. First things first! What got you interested in Pete Seeger’s work? Do you recall a specific event, or did your creative paths slowly merge?
It’s like what you said. It was an organic process that Pete and I had together. It started when we were performing in local schools for children in Beacon, NY. Then we collaborated on a children CD called “Tomorrow’s Children” and another called “A More Perfect Union.” From that point on, Pete never stop coming to my recording studio. He would come at least two or three times a week for 3 hours each session telling me his life stories. I decided to ask him if I could produce a spoken-word CD recording the stories he was sharing with me and he agreed. So the process started at that point and lasted five years and that’s how the Storm King volume 1 evolved and then came volume 2.
2. The Storm King is the product of countless hours of conversation, listening, composing, arranging and editing: a true labor of love. Could you take us through the process that led to the finished presentation?
As you said they were countless hours—literally hundreds of hours of editing, fact checking, mixing and mastering the whole project, producing it, and deciding which piece of music would go under which particular story or which particular story would go with a piece of music that would not get in the way of Pete’s stories. Each piece of music and story had to be a perfect blend—a balance between each piece of music and story—so that it wouldn’t take away from Pete or draw attention away from his speaking. It had to enhance his story. Each piece of music had to be like a movie soundtrack. The same approach was taken with the performance.
3. What can attendees expect during your show at The ArtsCenter? Will there be familiar songs to sing along with, or is the presentation more focused on sharing unheard words from Seeger himself?
What I find to be true is that the audience will get a beautiful balance of Pete’s music, original songs from the artists on stage, and also music by Pete that was not mainstream—that he wrote when he was in a influenced during his travels around the world when he was blacklisted. He wrote songs with Tommy Sands from Ireland, he covered the song called Raghupati from India which was one of Mahatma Gandhi’s favorite songs. So the audience will get a buffet of old and new songs that they have not experienced before. And within that, they’ll be hearing stories and experiencing Pete telling them in his own voice as if he was in the room with us as well as the music.
4. The Storm King project has spanned both sides of the presidential election of 2016, when the country experienced what many feel is a kind of upheaval or realignment. Is there any difference in how you approached the project in, say, early 2016 and how you approach it now? Has the audience reaction been any different? What kind of feedback are you getting these days?
I truly don’t want to get too political with this, but I know where Pete stands and I think that his beliefs are reflected in the show and that these beliefs stand true from 2016 to now. I think the show represents how he feels—from many years ago through the civil rights movement, to his stance on the environment. He’s been a long time supporter of human rights reflected in the fact that he changed the lyrics to an old miner song singing, We Shall Overcome.
5. So far, you have curated two volumes of Pete Seeger’s stories and narratives. What is the future for The Storm King? Will there be a third volume in the series?
There is enough material for a third and a fourth volume if we should choose to do so. I would love to have success with the first two volumes, which I believe we are. God willing and if the universe provides the means, I would truly love to do more volumes. I truly love sharing Pete’s spirit with the world.
Jeff Haynes brings The Storm King to The ArtsCenter on Saturday, May 13th. Showtime is 8pm.