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June 28, 2017

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Seeger tribute at Newport honors traditional folk

PROVIDENCE, Rhode Island--There are few musicians as inextricably linked to the Newport Folk Festival as the late Pete Seeger.

Newport, known as the place where Bob Dylan cast aside his acoustic guitar and went electric in 1965, has made its mark on the festival scene more recently with an innovative mix of old and new — most with a far different sound than the folk movement Seeger helped lead. This year's top acts include Jack White, Jeff Tweedy and Mavis Staples.

In a hearkening back to its roots, and in tribute to Seeger, the festival is launching a new program this year to provide a platform for folk musicians who carry the spirit of Seeger's life and work. For Pete's Sake, organized by Chris Funk of The Decemberists, will feature workshops and performances by little-known acts with a variety of styles and instruments: hurdy-gurdy players, a Scottish fiddler, a legendary buck dancer accompanied by his banjo-playing grandson.

Those who knew Seeger say it's the tribute he would have wanted, with a focus on the music, not on him.

A banjo player, singer and political activist, Seeger wrote his own songs but also revived and adapted traditional folk songs and verses and popularized them: songs like "If I Had a Hammer," "Turn! Turn! Turn!" "We Shall Overcome" and "Where Have all the Flowers Gone?"

The first festival happened in 1959, when Seeger was still blacklisted from commercial television after refusing to answer questions about his "associations, philosophy or religion" before a House Un-American Activities Committee hearing in 1955. He was later convicted of contempt of Congress, but it was ultimately overturned.

George Wein, who founded the Newport Jazz Festival in 1954, recalls visiting Seeger and his wife, Toshi, at their home in Beacon, New York, to talk about launching the folk festival.

"Pete said, 'I'll do it if every artist gets the same money: US$50,'" Wein said. "Every artist agreed to work for US$50. Only Pete Seeger could have done that."

Seeger was deeply involved with the folk festival until he died in January at 94, often leading a traditional sing-along that brought together many of the weekend's musicians to mark the festival's end. In his 90s, he even once climbed the rafters to watch The Decemberists.

Jay Sweet, the folk festival's producer, said his last conversation with Seeger was about ideas to provide support for traditional folk acts. The Seeger foundation is helping provide funding for the program.

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