Pete Seeger had a television show, “Rainbow Quest,” which aired out of Newark New Jersey for a total of 38 episodes between 1965 and 1966. It featured appearances by a who’s who of American folk, bluegrass, and old timey music: Donovan, Doc Watson, and Judy Collins all made appearances, and Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash appeared in multiple episodes, relaxing on stage in rocking chairs and trading stories about learning to play the banjo and entertaining the troops over in Korea.
The performance gems that result from the show’s brief life happen very much in spite of Seeger himself. During the videos, one is compelled to ignore ol’ Pete’s annoying habits. In this clip with Mississippi John Hurt, Seeger’s affected contractions meant to sound down-homey (“So John, whahcha gohnna sing?”), the fact that he misspeaks the name of Hurt’s tune (“How bout spike glider? Spike drivers?”), and the comical miscommunication between Hurt and Seeger combine to create a feeling of pity for the show’s host, as he’s upstaged and outclassed by the guests he’s invited to join.
Pete Seeger, “Mississippi John Hurt: Spike Driver Blues” (1965-66)
Likewise in this Roscoe Holcomb video, which sees Seeger leaning forward in such an exaggerated posture his face is left only a few inches away from Holcomb’s banjo. One can only guess he meant to convey rapt attention, but to perform with someone bearing down like that must have been distracting at the least.
Pete Seeger, “Rainbow Quest – With Roscoe Holcomb” (1965-66)
These clips show very different styles of playing from two very different musicians. Hurt is essentially a blues player with a strong bent toward folk in his picking style, while Holcomb is a Kentucky-raised coal miner whose fluidity between the banjo and guitar perfectly exemplifies the Appalachian folk style.
Despite the fact that Seeger is too often on screen as a part of this show he created (and, toward its end, funded out of his own pocket), the resulting appearances are extraordinary examples of very fine American folk musicianship.
- Peter Wolfgang