Remember singing "Where Have All the Flowers Gone? " at summer camp? If you do, it's unlikely you also know who wrote this venerable anti-war...
Remember singing “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” at summer camp?
If you do, it’s unlikely you also know who wrote this venerable anti-war anthem — or at least its fourth and fifth verses. You know the ones, where the message drives home, full-circle, with the flowers shooting up from soldiers’ graves.
Those lines flowed from the pen of Joe Hickerson, who offered them to his hero (and original “Flowers” author) Pete Seeger, back in 1960.
A folk singer’s folk singer who describes his style as “vintage pre-plugged paleo-acoustic,” Hickerson performs on a Seattle Folklore Society double bill with Portland folkster Dick Weissman at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at the Phinney Neighborhood Center, 6532 Phinney Ave. N., Seattle ($7-$15; 206-528-8523 or www.seafolklore.org).
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Equally comfortable on stage or in a classroom, Hickerson is also in town to lecture at the University of Washington. Hickerson worked for the Library of Congress for 35 years (he retired in 1998), first as a librarian, then as the head of the Archive of Folk Song. There are few people in the world who know as much about folk music.
“I’ve been fortunate in that I’ve been able to do it from both ends,” said the genial, soft-spoken 71-year-old musician by telephone earlier this week. “One scholar said to be able to do that you must have a split personality. I think they’re both fun.”
Hickerson’s latest project is “Folk Songs of the Catskills: A Celebration of Camp Woodland” (Cob’s Cobble Music). The recording also features Seeger and Ronnie Gilbert, both members of the Weavers, a group that inspired Hickerson as a college student and kicked off the ’50s folk boom.
Camp Woodland was a progressive summer camp in upstate New York where, in the 1930s, campers collected local songs and folklore. On the CD, Hickerson sings the stark lament “Poor Man’s Family,” an 1875 song in which striking Irishmen voice their anger about other immigrants stealing their jobs. (Plus Ã§a change … )
Typically, Hickerson sings it in a plain, untutored style that rings with conviction yet lets the song speak for itself.
In the original, nativist lyric (which Hickerson softened), one puzzling line referred to Italian and Chinese workers coming “from the south.”
“Back in the 19th century,” Hickerson explained “the Chinese workers in the West and the East were — lo and behold — brought into Mexico, then brought across the border. That was easier.”
So how does a scholar justify changing the lyrics to an old folk song?
Easy, says Hickerson. Folk songs are nothing if not mutable.
“I like to call it ‘the depth and breadth of the song,’ ” he said. “The song itself can have its melody and its words, but what has fascinated me is the history, the spread of the song, where a particular version came from.”
Hickerson’s expertise was recently called upon in connection with the Coen Brothers film, “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”
Hickerson traced the song from the baptism scene, “Down to the River to Pray,” back to the mid-19th century, but discovered the lyric had been changed from “down to the valley.”
“It never was ‘river’ until that movie,” he said.
During his performance, Hickerson will tell such background stories for each song. In the second half, he and Weissman will swap songs on the same topics.
If he sings “Where Have All the Flowers Gone,” though, don’t ask him where those fourth and fifth verses came from. Because now you know.
Paul de Barros: 206-464-3247 or email@example.com