Tuesday, January 28, 2014

RIP Pete Seeger

An article I wrote in April 2012 about Pete Seeger was published in the Newton Tab in the weeks leading up to a Newton Family Singers Seeger-themed concert. It's no longer on the Tab website, and it seems appropriate to repost it here.

Reading it over, the article reads a bit like an obituary. Rest In Peace, Pete, and thanks for all the music!

Seeger continues to inspire

Pete Seeger turns 93 on May 3rd. He is known as a songwriter for writing songs as well-known as “Where Have All the Flowers Gone” and “Turn, Turn, Turn;” as an advocate of folk music for popularizing and adapting the songs of others, like “Oh When the Saints” and “Hine Ma Tov;” as a performer with The Weavers and in numerous solo recordings; and as the author of a number of books of songs and musical instruction. He is surely all of those things, but I think his primary influence has been as a music enthusiast, encouraging all of us to pick up an instrument, open our mouths and sing. Pete Seeger is probably indirectly responsible for about half the songs you’ve committed to memory and is directly responsible for your neighbors banding together to create the Newton Family Singers.

Where does a musical icon like Pete Seeger come from? It’s worth considering his family background: his mother Constance de Clyver Edson was a classical violinist and composer who taught at Julliard, his father Charles L Seeger was a composer and musicologist -- a room in Harvard’s music library is named in his honor. Charles’ second wife (Pete’s stepmother) was an avant-garde composer named Ruth Crawford and she and Charles helped Alan and John Lomax collect and transcribe traditional music from around the country and around the world. This musical upbringing had an effect on Pete as well as two half-siblings, Peggy and Mike, who had long musical careers of their own. (The legacy continues: two extended family members have joined the Newton Family Singers this year.)

Pete taught himself to play guitar and then learned songs from friends like Woody Guthrie and Huddy Ledbetter. With a few friends, he formed the Weavers and for years, as he has said, he played concerts to pay for all the time he spent playing union rallies and protests. His series of recordings for the Smithsonian called “American Favorite Ballads” is an encyclopedia of American vernacular music.

Given those accomplishments, where do I get the chutzpah to suggest that Pete Seeger’s greatest contribution has been to encourage others to sing? Well, from Pete himself. The desire to encourage and teach singing can be heard in the songs he wrote with his friends. “If I Had a Hammer” is a call for justice and freedom and love, but ultimately the most effective tool toward these ends is not the hammer or the bell but rather a song. And in his solo recording of “Wimoweh,” Seeger doesn’t perform the song, he teaches it; he introduces bass, tenor and soprano parts, so that his audience learns to sing together in harmony. Reading his memoir Where Have All the Flowers Gone, one can’t help but be struck by the way Seeger assumes the reader is also writing songs and leading sing-alongs and looking for advice in these endeavors.

And yes, Pete’s example is an inspiration for groups like the Newton Family Singers. We’re a group of men, women and children who enjoy singing harmonies and playing folk songs together. He’s also inspired one our group’s co-founders, Andy Rogovin, to write a tribute to Seeger and Woody Guthrie. The song benefits from a clever arrangement by Chris Eastburn, our guest musical director, who uses a medley of Seeger songs as an introduction: “If I Had a Hammer,” “Pastures of Plenty” and “We Shall Overcome” (the latter was a union song called “We Will Overcome” until Pete made one change and introduced it to the Civil Rights movement).  “Pete and Woody taught us songs of freedom...” Rogovin’s song begins, and subsequent verses list other types of songs from that rich folk tradition, songs of hardship, and of laughter: “music of our children / rising in the air.”

It’s a reminder that not every song has to be about love or heartbreak. When former rock and roller and now folkie children’s music hero Dan Zanes was searching for songs to sing with his daughter, he thought of his old Seeger records. The Beatles are great, Zanes has said, but songs of romantic love aren’t emotionally appropriate for young kids. Seeger’s songs are those we learned in childhood and carry into our old age. As Rogovin writes: “Pete and Woody taught us songs of freedom / I hear them ringing in my ears / Can’t you hear them echo through the years?”

A few days after his birthday, on Sunday May 6 at the Memorial Spaulding School, the Newton Family Singers will be celebrating Pete Seeger’s life in the best way we can: picking up some instruments and joining each other in song. We hope you can join us!

And here's "Pete and Woody" by Andrew Rogovin, performed by the Newton Family Singers:

Friday, January 24, 2014

What I learned from Twitter following the Sudanese Hug

A week or so ago, the Boston Globe Magazine published an essay I wrote about the "Sudanese Hug," a greeting I learned while visiting that nation.

There was a great response to the piece and I felt like I've been learning on the fly how to navigate social media (especially Twitter) as a freelance writer and personal essayist so I'm writing down some notes to remind myself of stuff I could do next time, and perhaps as a service to others.

First of all, it probably shouldn't be a surprise, but I learned there is a large Sudanese diaspora. And many of them speak English, and naturally they are tracking news about Sudan. Only the Globe knows how many people accessed the article (and from where) but through Twitter I was able to see a number of retweets (RTs) from Sudanese, from NGOs with an interest in Sudan, and from journalists in Sudan and East Africa.

While the language difference (predominantly Arabic) would seem to be a barrier to reaching a Sudanese audience, I think the smaller English speaking Sudanese audience has more of an incentive to follow all things "Sudan" on a social network like Twitter. In contrast, I would not expect as many people in an English speaking country with the same population as Sudan (about 35 million) -- say Canada -- to monitor social networks for references to their home. (I could be wrong; Canadians can be very patriotic.)

This may be obvious, too, but people like good news. While there is an audience of people looking for news on Sudan, it must be refreshing for them to read something complimentary and not about war or tragedy. In fact, the editor who bought my essay has mentioned to me more than once that too often her submission pile is filled with sad stories about death or heartbreak and she appreciates seeing, and being able to publish, a more positive balance.

Following an essay can be difficult. I used bit.ly to shorten the link (http://b.globe.com/1j3uIDy) and then I can see how many click throughs come through "my" link. (I put "my" in quotes because anyone else can use the same link, but bit.ly keeps it on a page for me to reference.)

What I found, too, was that the article was getting tweeted elsewhere, from the Boston Globe, and from various readers. I was able to track this somewhat by copying the URL that the essay lived on and searching for that address on Twitter, results here. (Note that this method finds both the direct URL and my bit.ly shortened version.) I was able to then "favorite" any mentions and engage with those who liked the article.

And now I can spend more time searching on Twitter for links to previous articles...

... I'm back.

That was disappointing. Clearly, if you want your work to surf Twitter, you've got to do it yourself. On the bright side, here's an opportunity to start a new round of tweets with old articles.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Huffington Post

Brain, Child Magazine originally published my essay on hugging my tween son (why he needs it and how I screwed it up), and now, through a partnership, the essay has been reprinted in the Huffington Post HuffPost Parents section here.

Nice to see the story continues to resonate with readers.

Monday, January 13, 2014

The Sudanese Hug

What's more than a handshake and less than a hug? The Sudanese have the answer.

From the Boston Globe Sunday Magazine (1/12/14):

Ladies and gentlemen, allow me to introduce to you the Sudanese hug.
While working on an archeological excavation in northern Sudan, I was fascinated by a form of greeting I had never seen before. Two men would each clap his right hand down on the other’s left shoulder. They might pat each other’s shoulder a few times while smiling and exchanging greetings. And then the arms would drop and the men would shake hands.
Curious about this custom, I asked the dig director about it. He told me it was the “Sudanese hug,” and he suggested I ask Mahmoud, the Sudanese government representative who minded our excavation, to explain it. Mahmoud had spent time at academic conferences in Europe and was aware that the Sudanese hug was unfamiliar to most foreigners.
“When you greet a friend,” he explained, “and maybe you are not family, so you do not want to hug him, but you are not just business acquaintances, so you want to show more affection, then you do the Sudanese hug.”
This was a revelation.

Monday, January 06, 2014

An Open Letter to Jack Cheng (from Jack Cheng to all other Jack Chengs)

Dear Jack Chengs,

I’m not currently looking for a software job in Southern California. Are you? If so, you may want to redirect that Monster job search listing to your own e-mail.

Jack Cheng in the Midwest, please thank your friends for all the invitations to church potlucks. I will be unable to attend. Similarly to the Jack Cheng in Hong Kong -- if I can’t make it 1000 miles to the Midwest, you know I won’t make it to Kowloon! Jack Chengs are a pious group; God bless us.

Jack Cheng, you may want to clarify your e-mail address with any companies you are working for or consulting with. I’m happy to look over your Powerpoint presentations but I always feel a little bad when I get to the footnote that says all the information is confidential.

To my (second) favorite Jack Cheng, the designer and writer in Brooklyn who writes about tea and the slow web and had a successful Kickstarter campaign for his novel. Congrats! I’m sorry if my own attempts to build a writing career has confused Googlers trying to find you. You got the domain name; good on you. Also, you may want to get in touch with the Geekdad blog -- they have some nice messages for you.

I don’t know about the rest of you Jack Chengs, but I’m trying to reduce my material impulses. (Okay, I’ll admit I just bought a new acoustic guitar and I didn’t NEED it, but man, it’s sweet. It’s a L’Arrivee from Vancouver, the same brand [not the same model] that Commander Hadfield played in the International Space Station. Have you seen his “Space Oddity” video? Are you space geeks like me?)

Oh, sorry, I got sidetracked. Where was I? Trying to buy less. For that reason, I’d appreciate it if you didn’t sign me up for all those store newsletters. You know what I’m talking about -- Sears, sporting goods stores, car dealerships. I’m earning mad bonus points at Barnes and Noble even though I hardly ever shop there. Jack Cheng, I apologize for using your $5 B&N coupon but it was on my phone and they took it. You’d do the same, wouldn’t you?

I have to say, I’m oddly happy to see all the fitness newsletters; I didn’t think Jack Chengs were a particularly athletic lot. But we try! Am I right?

You may be wondering how it is that I got the awesome Gmail address. Well, my cousin Wilson works at Google and he invited me when Gmail was still in beta. Pretty cool, right? But it seems like there is some jealousy or just plain confusion on the part of the rest of you. It’s time now to just face the facts: I got the address and you didn’t. Don’t hate the player, bros.

Try Hotmail.


Jack Cheng