Speaking Pete Seeger’s language to young listeners
Alastair Moock was wowed by the music of folk legend Pete Seeger at an early age. “My dad took me to see Pete Seeger and Arlo Guthrie,” recalls the Melrose-based singer-songwriter and educator. “That was a pretty transformative concert experience for me. I had been to other concerts, but I had never seen this sort of interaction between performers and audience, where it felt like there was this collaboration happening. The stage wasn’t a wall, or a divider.”
Moock will honor the late Seeger’s legacy as a musician, educator, activist, and “nexus of everything” on May 5 at Cambridge’s Club Passim, when he plays two shows celebrating Seeger’s 100th birthday. (Seeger was born on May 3, 1919.) The early set will be a family show, giving the younger members of the audience the chance to listen to Seeger’s music as well as celebrate it onstage; Moock will play alongside his 12-year-old twin daughters Cleo and Elsa, and the teenage fiddler Quinn “Fiddlin’ Quinn” Eastburn. Guitarist Anand Nayak will also perform.
Q. What inspired you to create a family version of your Pete Seeger tribute?
A. When I play at Passim these days, I generally do an adult show and a kid show. A big part of what I do is bridging that gap, and the person who really modeled that for me is Pete. Pete played for everybody. He was from a generation of people that didn’t make such a distinction between kids’ and adults’ music. Woody Guthrie, Lead Belly, Mississippi John Hurt, Elizabeth Cotton — these people all made music for kids and adults. When [Seeger] was blacklisted in the ’50s, the only place he could play was in schools. That became a transformative thing — he played for so many people, a lot of whom went on to become musicians or activists themselves.
Q. You’re an educator and a musician. How do those two pursuits connect to your Seeger appreciation?
A. I perform history assemblies for kids. While putting them together, I learned that Pete Seeger is the nexus of everything. He’s the nexus of all the 20th century’s progressive movements for change in America. He was smack dab in the middle of the labor rights movement; he became heavily involved with the civil rights movement; he was very heavily involved in the environmental movement. When he was in his 90s, he was banging his walking stick on Wall Street. It’s an amazing life of activism through music.
Q. How does Seeger’s music connect to the present day?
A. The story of “We Shall Overcome” is a really central piece of what I talk about in schools, because it’s not just the story of a song, it’s the story of how two movements interacted with each other and were connected. Pete was very involved with the Highlander Center, in Tennessee. It was originally founded to train union organizers, and it became a pivotal center for civil rights; it’s where Rosa Parks attended a retreat and went to classes for two weeks, six months before the Montgomery bus boycott. And it’s where “We Shall Overcome” entered the movement. And 10 days ago, the Highlander Center, the main office, was burned to the ground by what appears, almost certainly, to be a white nationalist. [The civil rights monument caught fire on March 29, and its parking lot was defaced by white-power symbols.] It’s horrific, but it’s also a really important reminder — and I think Pete would have been the first one to make this point — that this stuff is not old history. This is living history. The battles that he was so involved with 50 or 60 years ago are still happening in a lot of ways.
Q. What’s the biggest lesson you’ve taken away from Pete Seeger’s music and career?
A. The thing I learned from Pete, more than anything, is that folk music and political music have to be cross-generational, or else it’s just singing to the choir. As someone who only played for adults for years, and who always was bent toward a certain amount of political music, I had the feeling that I was playing for a very self-selecting audience. When I play for kids, I have an opportunity to be outside of that bubble quite a bit.
100th Birthday Trib-Hoot to Pete Seeger
Presented by Alastair Moock: Family Show. At Club Passim, Cambridge, May 5 at 4 p.m. Tickets $15, $10 for kids 12 and under. 617-492-7679, www.passim.org