You are here

Pete Seeger - An inspiration for pan in the US

Monday, February 3, 2014
Pan Worldwide
One of the inspirations for the establishment of pan sides in the US. AP Photo

With the huge number of steelbands in the American school system growing daily and others, like that at Northern Illinois University, celebrating four decades of continuous activity, questions arise as to beginning of the movement. When were steelbands first begun at American schools and universities? 


Digital newspaper archives and the Internet are helpful in uncovering details of several contenders, though they only illuminate part of the story. Founded in 1973, the steelband at Northern Illinois University is the longest continually running steelband at any American university; however, there clearly were a number of short lived steelbands that formed at American universities in the 1960s and earlier. At a time when there are numerous tributes to Pete Seeger who died last week, his role in pan and with university and school steelbands has not been mentioned.


Likely the earliest steelband at an American school or university was at UCLA which had a short-lived steelband created by Pete Seeger in 1956. Folk singer and political activist Seeger considered pan as more than simply a musical instrument and was convinced of its use as a tool for community building and juvenile control. A political activist at heart, Seeger was fascinated with the political history associated with pan and calypso music noting, “there’s a kind of raucous democracy about a steel band.” Early American pan advocates, such as Seeger and Murray Narell, envisioned a future in which the steelbands could rise out the ashes of the imploded calypso craze and function as a legitimate vehicle for public good in cities across America. He had come to Trinidad and fell in love with pan and had one made for him and created the short film Music from Oil Drums about the music, the first film ever devoted to steelband.


Seeger was a folksinger by trade and during the mid-1950s, he embarked on long college tours throughout the United States. These were artistically fertile years for Seeger and he brought a variety of instruments with him on the road in the hope that the eclectic variety would serve as a metaphor for the diversity of American culture. “I arrived to sing at Cornell [University] and I had a steel drum with me and I had a mandolin, two kinds of banjoes, two or three kinds of guitars. It seems that I was a travelling music store.”


Seeger’s fluency on the steelpan was formidable, though he never reached true mastery of the instrument and was much more interested in introducing pan to his various American audiences. Seeger sought to bring pan to the masses and in a 1957 letter to Admiral Daniel Gallery, founder of the US Navy Steel Band, he listed some of the various steelbands that were recently brought to life—all of them first in their respective regions of America. “Last year my family and my neighbors [Beacon New York] and myself had a small band and we still play together occasionally but our repertoire is limited to two or three songs and we are only about six members all in all. On the UCLA campus in California the students followed my directions and put on a short performance for the other students.”


Seeger’s letter appears to be documented proof of one of the earliest steelbands at an American university comprised chiefly of students and the letter dates the UCLA band to approximately spring of 1956. Pan was well received in many of the universities that hosted Seeger in the late 1950s and, in addition to UCLA, he helped start steelbands at Cornell University, USC, and Michigan State University. 


The band at Michigan State University, known as the Bomboushay Steel Band, recorded and released an album on the Folkways label in 1962—the first commercial recording made by a university steelband. The band was comprised of students from Michigan State University and was one of several early American steel bands fostered by Seeger while on his college tours. Members of the band included English professor and political activist Gene Bluestein, American students, as well as several visiting Caribbean international students. The short lived steelband was led by Derek Hodge (1941-2011) from the Virgin Islands who later abandoned music for law and politics back in his native Bermuda and served two terms as the Lieutenant Governor of the islands. 


Seeger’s grand scheme was to subversively liberate the youth of America with the “raucous democracy” of steelband. As such, he was very interested in forming steelbands in schools and community organisations in New York City and outstate New York. The Wiltwyck steelband was one such community band. The school was initially designed as an experimental summer camp for Protestant African-American juvenile delinquents and potential juvenile delinquents and steelband consisted of local boys, twelve years of age, all of whom attended the Wiltwyck School near Esopus, New York. Trinidadian Kim Loy Wong began teaching the boys in June of 1959. By October, the new steelband offered a public concert in the school gymnasium which Seeger and sound engineer Peter Bartok recorded and produced into an album for Folkways Records. 


Seeger knew that because of their knowledge and expertise having Trinidadian panmen start steelbands was a key element in starting a steelband movement in American schools. Working towards this goal, he facilitated the successful immigration of native Trinidadian steelband pioneers to the United States. Most notably among his efforts was Kim Loy Wong, from Hi-landers Steel, who, in addition to his work with the Wiltwyck steelband, established a steelband and pan manufacturing facility in University Settlement, New York in the late 1950s. He later moved to Texas and still is involved with pan. Ray Funk is a retired Alaskan judge who is passionately devoted to calypso, pan and mas. Andrew Martin is an ethnomusicologist, percussionist, pannist, and Associate Professor of Music at Inver Hills College in St Paul, Minnesota. (BBC)




Andrew Martin’s detailed article on Pete Seeger and pan.

Michael Eldridge’s new post on his calypso blog on Pete Seeger and calypso:

Pete Seeger’s movie Music From Oil Drums can be viewed on YouTube.




Born in New York with a musicologist for a father and concert violinist for a mother, Seeger grew up with music in his bones but lacked creative direction.


Schooled in the banjo, guitar and ukulele, Seeger remained a musical fish out of water until he chanced upon a square dance festival in North Carolina.


There, the "frank and honest" lyrics and rippling melodies made folk music for Seeger a natural medium of expression.


He made it to Harvard, but decided that music was his only talent, and abandoned his formal education to travel across America.


He discovered the concerns of the common man, and expressed them with his banjo, performing at union meetings and for radical groups.


Folklorist Alan Lomax said that folk music was born on March 3, 1940. This was the date Seeger met Woody Guthrie, and together they continued their cross-country journey.


That year, they formed the Almanac Singers, a loosely formed musical collective, dedicated to bringing all forms of social injustice to public attention.


The Almanac Singers initially recorded labour movement and pacifist songs. But when Seeger was drafted into the US Army during the war, the Almanacs gained a popularity that unsettled their left-leaning fanbase.


Falling foul of traditional union movements, Seeger wrote his most defiantly optimistic ode to change in the late 1940s.


If I Had a Hammer brought him into artistic collaboration with Lee Hays and together they formed The Weavers, finding more success with the Leadbelly song Goodnight Irene. Seeger maintained that his music belonged to the people.


Seeger joined the Communist Party in the early 1940s but left in 1951—he was later called before McCarthy's UnAmerican Activities Committee, indicted and briefly jailed, when he refused to testify to his political associations.


Although the case was thrown out by the Appeals Court, Seeger was thrown off the television networks for 17 years.


Seeger sang in colleges, schools and on local radio and television, slipping away before anyone could object.


In 1965, he joined a civil rights march in Alabama, where his version of We Shall Overcome first became an American anthem of defiance.


Protesting came naturally to Seeger. In the late 1960s, he joined the movement opposing the Vietnam war, and he later sang for Solidarity, the Polish trade union.


Seeger increasingly channelled his energies into environmental causes. These became personal once he had built his home beside the Hudson, and he became involved in the campaign to cleanse the river of industrial waste.


His Clearwater Organisation offered education programmes, sailing instruction and festivals.


Inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996, he was awarded a Grammy for best traditional folk album a year later.


He was still recording into old age, joining other artists expressing opposition to George W Bush’s incursion into Iraq.


Seeger never toppled a government with the weight of his banjo.


But he was satisfied if his little songs inspired a different way of looking at bigger troubles. 





MORE info

Ray Funk will be presenting an evening of historic calypso, pan and carnival clips for the T&T Film Festival which include Pete Seeger performing a Growling Tiger classic calypso. The free event will be in San Fernando on the Hill on February 21 and at the NALIS amphitheatre in Port-of-Spain on February 23.







User comments posted on this website are the sole views and opinions of the comment writer and are not representative of Guardian Media Limited or its staff.

Guardian Media Limited accepts no liability and will not be held accountable for user comments.

Guardian Media Limited reserves the right to remove, to edit or to censor any comments.

Any content which is considered unsuitable, unlawful or offensive, includes personal details, advertises or promotes products, services or websites or repeats previous comments will be removed.

Before posting, please refer to the Community Standards, Terms and conditions and Privacy Policy

User profiles registered through fake social media accounts may be deleted without notice.