When legendary folk artist and activist Pete Seeger passed away at the end of January at age 94, a shock wave spread throughout the music community and the world at large. Despite Seeger’s advanced age, it was still a surprise and a blow to so many who had been influenced by his life.
Tribute events have been ongoing, and an event involving a long list of outstanding Chicago-based musicians will be at SPACE in Evanston March 28. Performers include Corky Siegel, Sons of the Never Wrong, Eddie Holstein, Megon McDonough, Mark Dvorak, Justin Roberts, Ingrid Graudins, Chip Covington and Steve Dawson for “If I Had a Hammer: A Tribute to the Life and Songs of Pete Seeger.” Tickets for this show have been selling quickly, with just standing-room-only tickets remaining. Proceeds will benefit Seeger’s foundation, Hudson River Sloop Clearwater.
We spoke with one of the event’s performers, Mark Dvorak, a renowned folk musician who is on staff at the Old Town School of Folk Music. Dvorak is also a member of Weavermania, a quartet that recreates the sound of The Weavers [a group formed in 1948 by Seeger, along with Lee Hays, Ronnie Gilbert, and Fred Hellerman.]
Q: The March 28 event at SPACE involves a lot of musicians. Will each perform, or will there be group sings?
Mark Dvorak: The idea was to get as many people involved as possible, and each performer to do one or two songs, keep it brief and keep it moving. I’m sure there will be a group sing at the end. [General Manager] Jake [Samuels] at SPACE had the idea for this event. People all over the world feel a sadness over losing Pete, a very great man; this will allow us to share our loss.
Q: The list of artists reveals an eclectic range of performers, because almost all musicians have been touched by Pete in some way, right?
A: He touched any kind of music you could imagine — from children’s music to ballads, to world music. He reinvented the banjo, he popularized the 12-string guitar. He was a pioneer. If you are a folksinger, you’re lying if you don’t say Pete Seeger was an influence.
Q: You’re an artist who carries forward Pete Seeger’s legacy, in fact, you play the part of Seeger in Weavermania.
A: I’ve been remembering Pete, and all of the books of his I’ve read, and the records I’ve listened to, and I guess, like many people, I was struck with a feeling of loss. When I was a new performer and trying to learn and make a living, Pete had all the materials. I didn’t realize the level of impact he had on my growth as a performer, and one of the things I inherited from his way, was that I became a live performer first, and recording artist second. I have become very comfortable standing in front of an audience.
Q: How did you become part of the Weavermania group?
A: Michael Smith and Barbara Barrowman got the idea to recreate the sound of The Weavers, and Barbara heard me singing at the Old Town School one night, and in the second half we were singing Lead Belly’s “Bourgeois Blues.” She saw me playing a long neck banjo and said to Michael, “I think we may have found our Pete.” It was quite a learning experience, really stretched me, learning to sing with Michael and Barbara, and Tom Dundee and later Chris Walz, and I feel lucky for the experience. I was trying to do what Pete did on the records, to get as close as I could, but then [renowned folk musician and co-founder of the Old Town School of Folk Music] Frank Hamilton told me, “You’re a very different banjo player than Pete, you’re a different person than Pete — so find a reference to his vigor and spirit for your own sensibilities.”
Q: Did you have occasion to meet Pete Seeger?
A: Sure. Several times. We sang together with Weavermania at the Chicago Historical Society in 2002. I picked him up at the airport a couple of times, had lunch with him on a couple occasions, and talked with him on the phone. He was thoughtful and considerate.
Q: What will you perform at SPACE’s tribute event?
A: (laughing) Oh, it’s a secret. I actually picked a couple obscure titles, one that he wrote, and one that I learned from Pete Seeger, that he taught me after his show in 2002 at the Chicago Historical Society.
Q: What can you say about Pete Seeger?
A: To quote [‘60s folk revival musician] Michael Cooney, “If the birds in the sky and the fishes in the sea could talk, they would sing the praises of Pete Seeger.”