“You have disobeyed me!”
Pete Seeger interrupted co-editor Rob Rosenthal, who was reciting an anecdote from their upcoming book Pete Seeger: His Life in His Own Words, to scowl out into the crowd and point his finger at a television journalist with his camera on a tripod. “Get to the back.” Mr. Seeger repeated this until the man begrudgingly complied and sulked to the back of the sizeable crowd in Bryant Park like a child humiliated by his teacher in class.
The embarrassed cameraman had been warned. The Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Famer had been welcomed to the Word for Word reading and signing last Wednesday by a standing ovation from about one hundred fans. Drowned out by the whoops and whistles, the 93 year old was handed a microphone.
“You should all be sitting. Everyone with a camera should stand at the sides. Everyone should be able to see,” he said.
Then, just as Mr. Seeger finished ensuring that everybody could see, nobody could hear—all of the microphones lost power.
With a great sense of community (and no acknowledgment of the infamous, apocryphal story of Newport Folk Festival incident, wherein Mr. Seeger was rumored to have pulled the plug on Bob Dylan’s recently electrified sound), the show went on and questions and answers were repeated loudly by a chorus of front-row audience members for the benefit of those further back, a la Occupy Wall Street’s “human microphone.”
Mr. Seeger told the story of how he got interested in music: early, and unexpectedly. “My mother was an extremely talented violinist. She tried to force music on my older brothers and they resisted. When it came to me, she just left instruments around the house and I played with them for pleasure,” he said. “By six years old I could bang a tune out on just about everything.”
The flaws of the human microphone technique were quickly exposed, however, when Mr. Seeger began to sing. The front rows strained to hear, and the weight of the responsibility for the rest of the audience was heavy, nobody possessing any sense of pitch, tone and tuning able to deliver. One verse ironically began, “I know that you will hear my singing.” As sound technicians frantically worked, the crowd grew restless. They had queued for a long time to hear Mr. Seeger, not the city’s worst collaborative karaoke act.
The power returned with enough time for a few questions from the audience, although only children under 10 were invited to ask. Adoring grandparents thrust their petrified grandchildren forward, and a simple response of “Cool” from a young girl after an in-depth explanation of musical influences from Mr. Seeger brought a laugh from the crowd.
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