To the casual ear, it may seem odd for a group like Kronos Quartet, known for is imaginative and often sophisticated string arrangements, to take on the simple proletariat folk of Pete Seeger for their new album, Long Time Passing: Kronos Quartet and Friends Celebrate Pete Seeger (due October 9 on Smithsonian Folkways.)
Seeger himself did not grow up in a banjo-picking household. Sure, his father Charles was a musicologist and song collector, but his mother was a concert violinist and his stepmother, Ruth Crawford Seeger, was a modernist composer long before she turned her interests to folk music.
One of Seeger’s greatest assets was his ability to see and play folk music as an outsider who had reverence for the form, rather than someone who was born and raised inside of it and could not see its value beyond his front yard.
That Pete Seeger had an inkling that folk music could be valuable to people in every part of the United States allowed him to endear the ideas of rural, Southern, and poor people to folks who lived very different lives from them, to show the common interests and values that people everywhere share.
While Seeger often found and adapted old songs for new situations, he also penned a fair number of new folk songs for use during the folk revival of the mid-20th century. Among them, “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” was a lament on cycles of violence that take many to war and then to the grave. It is a protest song couched within a love song. It is a song of loss and longing and confusion, a song that spotlights our shared humanity, pegged to the line, “When will we ever learn?”
To pay tribute to Seeger, the Kronos Quartet enlisted the voices of Sam Amidon, Aoife O’Donovan, and others to tell the tale in a sort of relay, with a new voice for every verse. The result feels like the song is posing a question that a community ponders, rather than being the rumination of a single singer. Indeed, in these challenging and often troubling times, many of us find ourselves wondering when we will ever learn.
The music for Long Time Passing: Kronos Quartet & Friends Celebrate Pete Seeger was commissioned by the FreshGrass Foundation. Kronos premiered the songs in a series of concerts in San Francisco, Barcelona, and other locations, culminating in the world premiere of the full program at the FreshGrass Festival at MASSMoCA in North Adams, Massachusetts, in September 2019.