Kronos Quartet Function As One Instrument in Tribute to Pete Seeger

Kronos photographed in San Francisco, CA March 26, 2013©Jay Blakesberg

“Turn, Turn, Turn” has been recorded a lot of different ways, so why not with an avant-garde, chamber-music quartet? That’s the thinking behind the new album, Long Time Passing: Kronos Quartet and Friends Celebrate Pete Seeger.

Seeger wrote the song circa 1960 by adding an original melody to several verses from the Bible’s Book of Ecclesiastes. He finally released the song on The Bitter and the Sweet, a 1962 live album taped at the Bitter End nightclub in Manhattan, presenting it slowly and deliberately with just his voice and guitar. A few months earlier, the folk group the Limeliters had done it as a hearty tavern sing-along. The following year, the Limeliters’ occasional guitarist Jim McGuinn (later known as Roger) created a 12-string acoustic-guitar arrangement of the song for singer Judy Collins. Two years after that, McGuinn’s own band, the Byrds, did it as an electrified, folk-rock masterpiece. Four years after that, Nina Simone did it over her own gospel piano playing.

David Harrington, the founder of the Kronos Quartet, says he wanted all those different versions reflected in arranger Jacob Garchik’s new treatment of the song, “like layers in the Grand Canyon.” And it works. On the chorus, you can hear the soaring guitar and vocal harmonies of the Byrds’ #1 pop hit. The ascending chord progression creates a buzzing density out from the strings’ close intervals. And the four guest singers—Sam Amidon, Aoife O’Donovan, Lee Knight and Brian Carpenter—echo the original harmonies of McGuinn, David Crosby, Gene Clark and Chris Hillman. But when the singers each take the lead vocal on a different verse, you can hear the austere purity of Seeger, Collins and Simone.

This is all possible only because the string quartet is a more flexible and potent tool than most people realize. Both classical and non-classical fans underestimate this instrumentation’s ability to handle folk, pop and experimental material. But whether tackling the music of Jimi Hendrix, Thelonious Monk, Laurie Anderson, Sigur Ros, Philip Glass, tango master Astor Piazzolla, the National’s Bryce Dessner, Bollywood’s R.D. Burman or Azerbaijan’s Franghiz Ali-Zadeh, Kronos have proven again and again that the string quartet can add something new to any tradition. And now they’re doing it with Seeger’s vast catalogue of songs.

“For me the string quartet is an instrument,” Harrington insists. “The two violins, the viola and the cello function as one instrument. This instrument can take on so many colors and flavors; that’s why it can reflect so many aspects of humanity. That’s why so many composers now want to write music for the string quartet. I don’t think of it as we’re playing Pete Seeger’s music on our four instruments. I think of it as we’re bringing our one instrument into his music to see what happens.”

This is not the first time the Kronos Quartet has engaged with American folk music. On the 2017 album, Folk Songs (based on a 2014 concert), Kronos recorded nine numbers—seven of them traditional songs by anonymous authors—with the singers Amidon, Natalie Merchant, Rhiannon Giddens and Olivia Chaney. The results were gorgeous. The four strings brought out the sustain and resonance in the four singers, while the singers brought out the vocal expressiveness in the strings. If that album was more ambitious musically, the Seeger tribute is more ambitious socially, spotlighting Seeger’s fearless political witness and its influence on America as a whole and on these singers and string players in particular.

“The music of Pete Seeger has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember,” Harrington says over the phone from his home in San Francisco. “As a kid, I remember hearing him, on television, on recordings. When we had children, we got some Pete Seeger records for them; then when we had grandchildren, we played CDs for them in the car. My daughter plays them for her students. The Sesame Street record with Brother Kirkus is so good. The Carnegie Hall version of ‘We Shall Overcome’ is so powerful it should have been on the gold record they sent out into space. If it could work in all those contexts, I thought it would work for the Kronos audience.”

“Each generation has its own version of the folk revival,” adds Amidon over a Zoom link from his home in London, “the ‘40s radical socialist version of it with Woody and Pete, the ‘60s surrealist literary expansion of it with Dylan. My experience of it in the ‘80s was very much community music-making rather than the solo artist. My dad Peter ran the Harmony Singing Tent at Pete’s Clearwater Festival for many years and encouraged everyone to participate in choral singing and hymn singing. That was my childhood.”

On October 23, the singer will release Sam Amidon, his own album of traditional American folk songs refurbished with indie-rock electronica, jazz reeds and old-time country. This is a methodology that Amidon has been pursuing throughout his career with ever more impressive results. Because he’s more of a composer than a lyricist, he likes to take the sturdy stories of traditional songs and revamp the music beneath the words.

The new Kronos album includes several of Seeger’s best known songs: “Turn, Turn, Turn,” “We Shall Overcome,” “If I Had a Hammer,” “Where Have All the Flowers Gone,” “Kisses Sweeter than Wine,” Woody Guthrie’s “Which Side Are You On?” and “Mbube,” the South African song also known as “Wimoweh” or “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.”

But the tribute record also includes some overlooked corners of Seeger’s long and restless career. Maria Arnal sings the flamenco number “Anda Jaleo” as well as the Spanish Civil War anthem, “Jarama Valley,” taken from Seeger’s very first recording, 1940’s Songs of the Lincoln Brigade. The latter tune, sung in English and Catalan, highlights Seeger’s constant interest in other cultures. So does the album’s only instrumental, the South Asian raga “Raghupati Raghav Raja Ram.

“While researching this project,” Harrington says, “I found there were a lot of similarities in Pete’s approach to music and ours. He collected musical experiences. Whenever he went to a new country, he tried to learn a new song. He popularized the steel drum in the United States, and he added ‘Mbube’ to American culture. And we’ve done that as well. If we’re going to a country we’ve never visited, we try to find a composer there we can work with.”

Seeger was a lot of different things: a composer, banjo picker, children’s entertainer and political rabble-rouser. He was a charismatic song leader; many was the time I witnessed him coax the most reluctant public singers (myself included) into full-throated singing.

And he was a world-class talker. Whether telling stories between songs on stage, answering questions on the radio or hosting his legendary, public-television show, he was never less than captivating. That talent is reflected on the new album’s centerpiece, “Storyteller,” a 16-minute montage of archival spoken-word clips and musical fragments from Seeger woven together with composer Jacob Garchik’s new music. Garchik—a jazz trombonist for the Lee Konitz New Nonet, film composer and world-music performer—has a long history of arranging for Kronos, including the songs sung by Merchant and Chaney on Folk Songs.

Amidon has a similar history of working with art-music arrangers such as pianist Thomas Bartlett (his childhood pal) and composer Nico Muhly (whose protégé is San Fermin leader Ellis Ludwig-Leone). It was Muhly’s arrangements of the traditional tunes “Oh Where” and “I See the Sign” that Amidon sang on the Kronos Quartet’s Folk Songs. At the 2017 Winter Jazzfest, Amidon sang a set of old folk songs with such jazz greats as Andrew Cyrille, Marc Ribot and Kris Bowers. So stretching the possibilities of folk songs was an old habit for Amidon.

“Often it starts with a guitar figure,” he explains. “Over time I’ll collect different guitar parts before I go back and see how they fit together. It’s a collage process. Only then do I add the folk song; it’s coming from the bottom up, music first. Of course, the song will affect the music once I start singing. On the new album, for example, I had a guitar riff and then went looking for a song to put on top. I found ‘Spanish Merchant’s Daughter’ in the Harry Smith anthology of folk music. I liked the back-and-forth dialogue, where the woman keeps saying, ‘No, sir, no, sir,’ and the man finally figures out to ask different questions. I kept the contours of the melody, but it’s totally different music.”

The Kronos Quartet is crossing the boundary zone between classical and folk music from the opposite direction from Amidon. Trained in the rudiments of European art music, they have discovered that those skills can be applied to almost any music that attracts them. And those skills can be supplemented by the example of string players from other cultures.

“The friction of horsehair on strings has been part of my life since I was young,” Harrington says. “If I hear Stony Stoneman play ‘Orange Blossom Special,’ I want to sound like that. Fernando Suarez Paz, Astor Piazzolla’s violinist, had an amazing ability to soar, so when we played in Argentina I made sure to have a lesson with him. Jordi Savall makes sounds on the viola da gamba that I’ve never heard anyone else make on any instrument.

“Then there’s the great, turn-of-the-century, Viennese violinist Fritz Kreisler. There were certain moments on the Pete Seeger record where I decided I wanted to sound like Kreisler—certain notes on ‘Kisses Sweeter than Wine’ and ‘Turn, Turn, Turn.’ When I hear musicians like these, Kronos has to explore their music. We don’t have any choice.”

Seeger died in 2014, but he would have turned 100 in 2019, so Kronos decided to celebrate that centennial with a concert. That went so well that, as they often do, they turned it into an album. It was a recording that had long been on Harrington’s wish list, but he’s glad he put it off until now.

“Back in 1983,” Harrington acknowledges, “if the audience started singing along with us, we wouldn’t have known how to handle it. We didn’t have the sound system; we weren’t ready. But if something sounds like a good idea, I’ll keep it in the back of my mind. After hundreds and thousands of experiences, with composers and audiences and each other, we’ve learned how to create concerts and make albums that tell stories. Whether it’s this Pete Seeger album, the album of African music or the album with Laurie Anderson, these albums tell a story through music—and sometimes through voices—about the life we all share right now.”

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