I have two musical fathers, and they are both gone now.
One taught me there were no limits on my chosen instrument, and the other taught me the spiritual power my instrument has with all Americans.
They knew each other, but I only got to meet one. That didn't matter, though, as they both shared many traits, and both had equally valuable and fatherly teachings I tried to learn well.
One was Pete Seeger. The other was Earl Scruggs.
I can't remember exactly when I decided I wanted to play the 5-string banjo.
It's half-barbaric twang (I didn't coin the term, but it fits) always attracted me, even when I didn't know what it was I was hearing, and it was only much later than when I was first thrilled by that sound that I realized the 5-string banjo is different from all the other banjos.
I have an odd ability to remember things; the first time I was gobstopped by the 5-string was when I was 5 or 6, when I heard the Weavers singing Goodnight irene on the battery-powered radio in my grandparent's cabin, high up in the Blackfoot mountains of Idaho on the Diamond Dot sheep ranch.
The radio needed a long antenna, and a Quaking Aspen on the corner of the house, with a copper wire strung up through it's branches served as the antenna while the tree served as it's mast. I was the only kid small and light enough, and with no fear of heights, to shinny up that tree and wrap the wire around the topmost branches.
But the work was well worth it. I was allowed to hear the rippling sound of the 5-string and Pete's silver trumpet of a voice for the first time because of that antenna.
My father and my his mother both loved to sing, and loved to sing that song. So did I. And we loved all the other Weaver's hits- Tzena, Tzena, Tzena, Gotta Travel On, and all the others.
But I was very young then. Time passed, and I never realized until a couple of decades later who it was that I heard singing and playing. That thrilling high tenor voice, and that thrilling 5-string banjo's sound came from Pete Seeger.
By December, 1962, I owned a banjo. I was the only banjo player I knew, and I wasn't even a banjo player yet, but I knew I would be. Back then, at the 5-string was just beginning to recover from it's near-extinction as a musical instrument.
But Pete wasn't a part of my life just yet. Dave Guard, the banjoist in the Kingston Trio, was who fired me up to play, along with Earl Scruggs, the flashy banjoist I first saw on the Tonight Show, starring Jack Parr, 2 days after I graduated from high school. Flatt and Scruggs came on the show, and I thought they were another country group.
Until Earl put down his guitar and picked up his banjo. Four minutes later, I realized my mouth was hanging open in amazement. I don't remember the song he played, but it hit me like a shot of hot cheap whiskey, and I was a banjo player from that moment on!
But when I went out to find a book to teach me, as there were no players I knew, all I could find was a Guckert's chord manual that had been collecting dust on a music store shelf. It was first printed in 1905, but mine was a 3rd re-print, so it was only about 30 years old. I got it for a nickel, only because I bought the only other banjo book in the store at the same time.
That book was Pete Seeger's How To Play the 5-String Banjo.
Pete first wrote it around 1958, sold it in mimeographed copies, then revised it in around 1961 when a publisher showed interest in it. It's never been out of print since then, and is still one of the best to get a kid started, even though it has many references to sources that are long gone now.
Within a couple of days, that slim red book got me playing, even though some of the techniques were incomprehensible. As importantly, even though Pete didn't ever master the style himself, he provided me the basic keys to unlocking the 3-finger Scruggs bluegrass style of playing in one brief chapter.
For the next 18 months, I bought some Seeger and, later, some Scruggs records. I tried to sing like Pete and sound like Earl, but Pete's songs kept me going while I undertook the long, long time needed to learn Earl's incredibly difficult and subtle playing. I only accomplished the second by integrating part of Pete's techniques into Earl's music.
Pete Seeger sang stories. He sang allegories, too, and intimately understood what music most moves the American spirit. He could write those moving songs just as well as he could sing them, and he loved to hear others sing. In his hands, his audience always became his chorus, allowing him to sing high and sweet as a songbird above them in harmony. He taught me everything I know about keeping an audience on my side, and bless him for it. I paid a lot of bills and kept my family fed from sitting at Seeger's knee, learning to use what he so freely gave me.
Earl was a pretty good singer, but so was his partner Lester, and later on, his boys. His right hand did most of the singing for him, striking the strings on his old Mastertone. And his tone was certainly masterful; his choice of instrument brand created an entire industry of copyists, and kept Gibson in the banjo business for his entire life.
Pete, too, was a virtuoso. His own unique banjo, with it's extra-long neck, was an object of desire for just as many players as Earl's banjo, and Pete's banjo also kept another banjo maker, the Vega company, in business, and also spawned an industry of copyists. Even after Vega was sold, twice, the Vega long neck is still popular and is now enjoying a resurgence in increased popularity. Pete invented it, and it's still the best singer's banjo to be had.
No other 5-string design has ever been quicker and easier to use in all keys without beginning to sound like a banjo ukulele, and the banjo is uniquely difficult in key changes.
And for the following 50 years, I have never abandoned either man or his playing. My own hybrid style has always had equal elements of both.
They were very similar men in many ways. Both were humble while being quite self-confident, and both always enjoyed sharing what they knew with others. Both loved their job and their instrument to the end, and both shared very similar influences and personal tastes in music.
And to this day, both can make my hair stand straight up when I listen to them. Niether's power was ever diminished by time. One shaped me as a singer and performer, and the other shaped me as a musician.
Both lived long lives, but Earl died younger and sooner than Pete, who outlived all his old friends and enemies. 94 is a good, long life.
Neither every lost their command of the banjo. Earl's speed and accuracy never diminished. In fact, it was as though his weakening body concentrated all its strength into his right hand. He could easily outspend his early playing in his last days, and loved to play right to the very end.
Pete's voice was eventually taken from age, but his playing never suffered. On his 90th birthday party, celebrated in Grand Central, he was supposed to sit offstage and enjoy the joyous musical tributes of many other exceptional musicians, but at the end, he couldn't stand it any longer. He had to get up and play some banjo with the band, and rocked the crowd with a blistering blues break on his old, very worn companion. That moment was caught on a DVD that's a real treasure.
Thanks, Pete. Please say hello to my other father Earl when you see him. I hope I'm fit now to join you in Heaven's great band. The circle will always remain unbroken, thanks to you both.