Earlier this week, after hearing that Pete Seeger had passed away, I quickly began to feel overwhelmed. What’s the best way to celebrate the life of someone with such a staggering legacy, whose music empowered so many generations of people, groups, and movements?
Obituaries, radio tributes, and concert footage started pouring into my online newsfeeds, giving me plenty of ways to commemorate Seeger’s gifts to the world. But something was missing. When I arrived for my work shift at Wesleyan’s music library on Tuesday night, I realized what it was.
I wrote a feature for The Argus last semester on Wesleyan’s World Music Archives, a treasure trove of recordings housed on the third floor of Olin Library. Among these recordings is a collection of three decades of audio footage from the Towne Crier Café in upstate New York, a longtime hub for American folk music and world music performers. Seeger, a local, frequented this venue. He first performed there in 1973, the same year the Towne Crier was founded by Phil Ciganer, who still owns the café.
For people who want to listen to any Towne Crier performances from between 1973 and 2003, Wesleyan is the place to go. The World Music Archives houses the only copies of these recordings, all of which are available on either reel-to-reel tape or cassettes, and a few of which are now available on CD as well.
Sifting through this collection on Tuesday, I found CD copies of three of Seeger’s performances: one from June 1973, one from November 1982, and one from November 1984. When I popped the first CD into one of the music library’s stereo systems, put on a pair of headphones, and pressed play, I was curious, but I wasn’t prepared to be as blown away as I was. The sound of Seeger’s voice, accompanied by the twang of his banjo and the hum of the audience, was so real and pure and direct that it trumped all the other tributes I had read and heard that day.
After listening for a while, I struck up a conversation with Director of the World Music Archives Alec McLane, who told me more about the background of the collection.
“The Towne Crier has been owned by Phil Ciganer since the early- to mid-1970s,” McLane said. “From that point onward, whenever he had performers there, he would make recordings of them. This venue was a very good one for the local folk and singer-songwriter scene–that is, in the Hudson Valley–and also expanded to include the larger world of folk music and singer-songwriters.”
The Towne Crier, which recently relocated from Pawling, N.Y. to Beacon, N.Y., continues to celebrate local folk music today. In fact, on Wednesday, Jan. 29, hundreds of people gathered at the Towne Crier for a night of tributes to Pete Seeger, who performed there as recently as November 2013.
“I think there’s considerably more [of Seeger’s performances] than what we’ve digitized,” McLane said. “Pete certainly played at the Towne Crier after 1984, so we’ve probably just tried to preserve those and not yet digitized them.”
McLane noted that the Towne Crier collection features countless performances from members of the Seeger family, as well as members of the Guthrie family and plenty of other big-name folk musicians. However, only 24 of these recordings have so far been digitized onto CDs and added to the library catalogue.
The people who run the World Music Archives hope to one day make the Towne Crier collection available online. But this requires getting permission from the performers, or, as is now the case with Pete Seeger’s recordings, the performers’ heirs. For now, the recordings are only available for in-house listening at Olin.
“We really have to protect these, more than a lot of what we have,” McLane said. “It’s so tempting–it’s so much easier–for people to just pop the CDs into their laptops to listen, rather than sit with the equipment in the carrels. But we really don’t want to risk making copies.”
There’s something pretty special, though, about listening to these recordings at Olin.
It is an experience simultaneously intimate and connected, tapped into the collective voice that Seeger cherished so much.