Pete Seeger isn’t normally remembered for his instrumental skills, but that’s mostly because he had so many other skills that took precedence. He was a terrific banjo player and guitarist, and the single most influential player in the early folk revival — the main reason he wasn’t even more influential is that most people on the early scene didn’t even attempt his level of playing, and a lot of people who came along later didn’t realize how good he was.
That might sound paradoxical, but Seeger’s influence was so pervasive that his followers founded myriad separate scenes, and he got to be associated with some of those scenes to the point that a lot of people forgot his role in others. For example, he was the first urban performer to make a serious effort to play rural styles authentically, learning banjo and guitar arrangements note for note from the original artists, rather than using rural recordings as raw material for more urbane performances, a la Richard Dyer-Bennett, Burl Ives, or the Weavers — the same year the Weavers took “Goodnight, Irene” to the top of the pop charts, his Darling Corey LP showed off his mastery of southern mountain banjo styles, and inspired a new strain of revivalists that Dave Van Ronk would dub the “neo-ethnics,” including Dave and the New Lost City Ramblers. (Dave referred to Pete as “the man who invented my profession.”)
His massive role in the banjo story deserves more attention, but I’m not a banjo player… so on to guitar. Pete was not as influential on guitar as on banjo, in part because he favored the 12-string and very few people had the touch, taste, or finger strength to get the delicate, easy sound he got out of that instrument. Of course, he inspired his share of 12-string devotees, from Bob Gibson to Roger McGuinn to Leo Kottke, plus Eric Darling, Ian Tyson… but not a lot of people remember how good he was on guitar, except, of course, for all of us who play “Living in the Country” — which, I’ve found over the years, amounts to a lot of people.
I learned “Living in the Country” from the tabbed-out version in Pete’s Bells of Rhymney songbook, where he provides a typically self-deprecating introduction: “One day when fooling around with a guitar in D tuning (6th string one whole tone low), I developed this.” Judging by the video I’ve linked below, where he plays the piece to finish off a guitar lesson on the simplicity of keeping an alternating bass pattern, he didn’t notice how weird his arrangement is from a guitar point of view — he remains fundamentally a banjo player, and rather than using the bass strings to provide a rhythmic foundation (like an alternating bass), he uses them like the high drone string on a 5-string banjo. He makes this seem completely easy and natural, even whistling a harmony part the second time around: