Part 104: Charles Seeger, I Heard What You Said About My Daddy, and I’m Gonna Kick Your Dead Ass.
Photograph by Stacya Silverman of a painting by Jan Svetlik. ©Stacya Shepard Silverman Riley Shepard’s Promise 2023 All Rights Reserved
After the Hidden Brain podcast, and right after Internet Archives uploaded my copy of my father’s Encyclopedia of Folk Music, I came across a post from a man on Facebook–– a public post, with a reply from another person in the comments section. I don’t know who the two Facebook posters are. Total strangers. Since these comments were posted on someone’s page, I felt as though I was eavesdropping. Which I love. Free information! The man posted his thoughts about my father and some conversation he had with Charles Seeger–– and what Seeger had to say about my father, way back in the day. This was apparently on a drive to Yale.
The man posted this story publicly–– although perhaps unintentionally. I probably should get permission to put this conversation in my blog, but it’s been a few years since I copied it and saved it, I don’t know these people, and have no way to connect with them.
I’ll call the first guy “Gabby” just because. Because I was a little annoyed by him. I’ll call the guy who commented on Gabby’s post Clive, after Clive Owens, who is super cool and so is the name Clive. Although for all I know, Clive is a woman. But I think I remembered that these were two men chatting on Facebook. If you are reading this, and it’s you, don’t be mad. Gabby, just be glad I didn't call you Gabby Name Dropper. Everyone else, I’ve typed it all out for you, below, exactly as written. I did no editing, I typed it out exactly as it was.
Imagine me coming across this post from Gabby a few years ago:
Gabby: I remember Charles Seeger telling me in 1972 about Shepard, a former country singer who had become (to Seeger’s mind) a mentally-ill con-man.
Seeger was lecturing around the country about the re-use of older material in folk-derived musics (eg: he claimed the Youngbloods bassist used “Go Tell Aunt Rhody” as the bass-line for one of their songs). Afterward, I drove him from Wesleyan to Yale.
It seems Shepard had approached Seeger and UCLA’s Mantle Hood to get the university to underwrite a book on how every American popular song could be found to have originated in one of three or four early folk songs. I never met Shepard, but from what I learned, he really seemed to think he was the second coming of Francis Child. I have seen the Internet Archive upload, and know people who tried to use it when researching song material, but nobody treats Riley’s theories seriously...
Clive: That’s an interesting story. What I gather, having read quite a lot about Shepard and listening to an NPR documentary, is that he was something of a con artist for a time, may have been a pathological liar, but was also deeply in love with folk music and compiled his book over many years. I downloaded it and, so far, I find it quite interesting. He mentions Lomax and clearly takes issue with some of Lomax’s claims...so there was obviously some bad blood between them. I do have to say that–– as much as I am a lifelong fan of Pete Seeger and am quite familiar with his background vis-à-vis his father Charles, et al–– it seems ironic that there is sort of a “Folk Dynasty” that has established the proper narrative when it comes to an art form which in it’s true state is really a kind of anarchy.
Folk music is not the purview of a few people, no matter how scholarly they may be. So I think Mr. Shepard may be entitled to his theories even if he’s wrong about some of it...even if in other aspects of his life he was something of a charlatan. Why not simply see him as a part of the rich tapestry of folk music? A colorful figure who had an obsession with songs and who spend countless hours over many years to produce something he fully believed in. From what I can tell, this book was an immense task. Not something I would dismiss just because he wasn’t in the good graces of more illustrious men...(Also, I think you may be mis-characterizing the intention of the book...I don’t see that it’s based on the premise that “every American popular song could be found to have originated in one of three or four early folk songs.” It was just published on the Archive (Feb 14th of this year) and only been viewed 33 times as of today...so I’m curious about who has already tried to research)...
When I first read Gabby’s post, I was like, “No, your Dad’s a mentally ill con-man! Your mom is, too!”
But. I know these things, and perhaps Riley came across as a bloviating narcissist to Seeger, but he wasn’t like that all the time, and it doesn't take away from his accomplishments. Or perhaps Seeger was one of those insufferable academics who need to put everyone else in their place, corrects his guest’s grammar at cocktail parties, thinks Shakespeare couldn't possibly have written all those plays! Or maybe Seeger felt the need to keep everyone else in their place so he could be The King of All Folk Music, who knows.
Anyway, “Clive” seems smart, doesn’t he? This blog is all about this funny conversation on social media that I saved. I’m glad Clive corrected Gabby's assumption about Riley’s premise. I certainly never heard my father say anything like that, so thanks, Clive, whoever you are, whatever your real name is. You're cool.
In real time back then, I “liked” both comments and my last name is Shepard... so perhaps Gabby saw that someone named Shepard was reading his snark, felt bad and took it down, because I can’t find it anymore. I’d like to talk to both of them. (I won’t insult your mother again Gabby, I promise. No yo mamma jokes, I swear.)
Perhaps one day I’ll meet the people who wrote the comments. It’s a small world, just look what happened at the Library of Congress in November.
©Stacya Shepard Silverman Riley Shepard’s Promise 2023 All Rights Reserved