Catalogue of folk giant Pete Seeger lies at core of folkwaysAlive!

The musical and social legacy of a folk music legend lives on at the University of Alberta.


Folk legend Pete Seeger makes appearances throughout this video produced for the opening of folkwaysAlive! in 2003.

(Edmonton) Jonathan Kertzer never actually met Pete Seeger, but the director of the University of Alberta’s folkwaysAlive! has been one step removed from the giant of 20th-century folk music for much of his life.

“He was great because he was inclusive,” says Kertzer of the man who died this week at 94 after hammering out love, justice and freedom on his guitar for more than seven decades.

“He drew everyone in and got everyone involved in the performance. There’s no wall between performer and audience. Especially as he got older and started losing his voice, he’d ask others to join in.”

Kertzer recalls seeing Seeger at Carnegie Hall in 1998, headlining the 50th anniversary concert for Folkways Records, which is now housed in both the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., and at the U of A as folkwaysAlive! Because Kertzer worked with the Smithsonian at the time, he was invited to the after-party backstage, but says he can’t remember whether he actually said anything to the man of the hour.

What he does remember is eating lunch with Seeger’s father Charles, an ethnomusicologist who taught at UCLA, years before when Kertzer was an undergraduate music student. Kertzer also considers Seeger’s nephew Tony, with whom he worked at Smithsonian before coming to the U of A, a close friend.

Seeger influenced almost everyone in the folk world from the 1940s on, including Bob Dylan; the Weavers; the Kingston Trio; Peter, Paul and Mary; and an entire generation of musicians in the 1960s folk revival. He was also one of three core musicians—along with Lead Belly and Woody Guthrie—on the Folkways Records label, founded by Moe Asch in 1948.

“And Seeger worked with both those guys,” says Kertzer. “He played with Guthrie in the Almanac Singers.”

Asch recorded more than 50 albums with Seeger, many of them during the period when Seeger was blacklisted for alleged communist sympathies by the House Un-American Activities Committee.

“He was a favourite of Moe, and Moe couldn’t care less about the blacklist,” says Kertzer. “Seeger really didn’t like the pop music spotlight—he was much more interested in music as a social movement and non-commercial world.” Throughout his career, much of Seeger’s music was played to rally support for causes such as the civil rights movement, social justice and protection of the environment.

In addition to discovering many new singers and songwriters, Seeger also helped bring international music into the Folkways fold, says Kertzer. He was, for instance, one of the first to record songs like Guantanamera from Cuba and Wimoweh from South Africa.

The twist of fate that brought all of this to Edmonton came much later when Asch later spent time in the ‘70s and ‘80s visiting his son Michael, an anthropologist at the U of A. Asch fell in love with the city’s cultural life—including CKUA radio (which started on campus) and the Edmonton Folk Festival—and decided his collection should reside here as well as at the Smithsonian Institution.

So in 1985 he donated an entire copy of the more than 2,000 titles in the Moses and Frances Asch Collection of Folkways Records, and in 2003 folkwaysAlive! was born, carrying on Asch’s mission of keeping homegrown, community-based music alive through both scholarship and performance.

On Feb. 20, for example, folkwaysAlive! is sponsoring a blues showcase, along with a concert featuring contemporary female folk artists at Sherwood Park’s Festival Place called the Women of Folkways, as part of its Winter Roots Festival. A tribute to Seeger will likely happen that evening, says Kertzer.

This festival, and the many other events sponsored by folkwaysAlive! throughout the year, are reminders that although Seeger may have left us, the spirit of folk music is alive and well.

Despite its virtual absence in the mainstream, says Kertzer, “I think folk music is constantly rediscovered. There’s a whole generation of young musicians now who are very much influenced by Seeger and his legacy, who care about non-commercial music that comes from community and has deeper meaning in its lyrics—music that’s trying to say something.”