Turn! Turn! Turn!: Pete Seeger, The Byrds, and The Seekers

Hello there! In this week’s blog we consider the song Turn! Turn! Turn! (To Everything There is a Season). This is a terrific folk/folk-rock song from the early 60s. We will start with the original by Pete Seeger, and then discuss covers of that song by Judy Collins, by The Byrds, and also The Seekers.

Pete Seeger and Turn! Turn! Turn!:

We first encountered Pete Seeger for his song Wimoweh, a cover of the song by the South African artist Solomon Linda, and again in our blog post on Seeger’s song If I Had a Hammer.

Pete Seeger was one of my heroes. He was a titanic figure in American folk music and political activism for seven decades, and his contributions to folk music (both original and adapted) are legendary.

My early musical tastes tended towards folk music. Inspired by the four-record Vanguard collection Folk Songs and Minstrelsy, I listened intently to Woody Guthrie, Odetta, Cisco Houston, and of course Pete Seeger. Inspired, I bought a banjo and laboriously copied Seeger’s clawhammer style.

Pete Seeger was born in 1919. His father was a musicologist who was forced to resign from the UC Berkeley faculty because of his pacifist stance during World War I.

In fall 1939, Seeger went to work for Alan Lomax, a musicologist who was assembling a collection of traditional music at the Archive of American Folk Song. There, Seeger met a number of folk singers, including Burl Ives, Leadbelly and Woody Guthrie.

In 1941 Pete Seeger joined with Millard Lampell, Lee Hays and Woody Guthrie in the Almanac Singers. Their anti-war tune Songs for John Doe was deemed subversive by groups that were trying at the time to enlist the U.S. in the war against the Nazis.

In 1950, The Almanac Singers were re-constituted as The Weavers, when Hays and Seeger were joined by Ronnie Gilbert and Fred Hellerman. Because of the strong anti-Communist fervor at the time, The Weavers tended to focus on less overtly political songs, such as Leadbelly’s Goodnight Irene.

However, that didn’t stop Seeger from being summoned before the House Un-American Activities Committee. When he refused to provide lists of fellow members of organizations he had belonged to, Seeger was convicted of contempt of Congress and given ten 1-year sentences, to be served simultaneously.

For a while it looked like Seeger was headed to jail; however, his conviction was overturned upon appeal, and so he returned to his life of music and activism.

Pete Seeger more or less personified the folk music movement for decades. He wrote several of the songs that became progressive anthems – If I Had a Hammer; Where Have All the Flowers Gone; and Turn! Turn! Turn! These tunes were almost invariably heard at folk festivals and protests, and often delivered by Seeger himself.

In addition, Seeger popularized and updated the traditional song We Shall Overcome, which became the unofficial theme song of the civil rights movement.

Seeger’s 5-string banjo, his bright clear voice and his unshakeable convictions were ubiquitous presences in virtually every progressive movement of the past century – union rallies, the civil rights struggle, the anti-war movement, environmental activism, even the recent Occupy Movement.

Here is a photo of Pete Seeger in his most familiar environment – playing banjo (or guitar) to whoever would listen. This shot is from about 1982.

Here is audio of a young Pete Seeger singing Turn! Turn! Turn! (To Everything There is a Season) for a live audience.

First off, this is apparently the popular song with the oldest known lyrics, since with a few exceptions every word comes from the Book of Ecclesiastes in the Bible. The exceptions are, of course, Seeger’s “Turn, turn, turn” interleaved between the verses, and his six-word interjection “I swear it’s not too late” following “A time of peace.”

As usual, Seeger gets his audience singing along. Pete Seeger composed the lyrics for this song in 1959, although he did not record it until 1962. It became one of the favorite tunes in Seeger’s repertoire.

Judy Collins and Turn! Turn! Turn!:

Here is a great video of Judy Collins appearing on Pete Seeger’s TV program, Rainbow Quest. This was a TV program from the mid-60s;
it was filmed in black and white, in a New Jersey studio with no audience, and broadcast over a Spanish-language UHF station. Seeger’s wife, Toshi, was listed in the credits as “Chief Cook and Bottle Washer.”

The show Rainbow Quest was really fascinating. To call Pete Seeger “technologically challenged” would be a massive understatement. At the start of the show, he seemed genuinely puzzled, because he could not see any audience with whom to interact.

However, Pete continued on for 39 episodes of the show. Now, all of the episodes will live on, presumably forever, through YouTube. In this particular clip, Judy Collins sings the melody of Turn! Turn! Turn! while Seeger plays guitar and harmonizes.

After Judy Collins finishes singing his own song, Seeger remarks “Gee, how proud that makes me.”

We covered Judy Collins in our blog post on the Ian & Sylvia song Someday Soon. We will very briefly review her career here.

Judy Collins first appeared as a folksinger in 1961 with her debut album A Maid of Constant Sorrow. She gained fame in the late 60s with covers of Joni Mitchell songs such as Both Sides, Now and Chelsea Morning.

Collins was very supportive of young musical talent. She encouraged artists like Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen well before they became famous. In addition to her bright, clear voice, Collins was also famous for her striking good looks. Here she is in a photo from about 1970.

Later, Judy Collins branched out from folk music, performing the music of composers such as Kurt Weill and Stephen Sondheim. For example, Collins had top-20 hits with Sondheim’s Send in the Clowns, and also with the traditional Christian hymn Amazing Grace.

Ms. Collins continues to perform, although she is now over 75 years old. We hope that you keep on going, “Judy Blue Eyes.”

The Byrds and Turn! Turn! Turn!:

We encountered the Byrds previously with their cover of Bob Dylan’s Mr. Tambourine Man. Here we will briefly review their career.

The Byrds were one of the most influential bands in rock music. Although Bob Dylan really invented the field of folk-rock music, it was The Byrds who made it commercially successful.

Roger McGuinn (born Jim McGuinn, he changed his name in 1967) had previously played banjo and guitar with folk groups such as the Limeliters and the Chad Mitchell Trio. In early 1964, McGuinn met up with Gene Clark who had previously sung with the New Christy Minstrels. The two of them began to perform at LA’s The Troubador folk club and were soon joined by David Crosby.

Here is a publicity photo for the Byrds in the television show The Big TNT Show from 1965. L to R: Chris Hillman; David Crosby; Gene Clark; Michael Clarke (on drums); Roger McGuinn.

The trio began performing in West Coast coffeehouses and clubs, and were inspired to combine Bob Dylan’s folk music stylings with the pop sounds that were such a craze in British Invasion music.

Their big break occurred when the Byrds worked up a folk-rock arrangement of Bob Dylan’s Mr. Tambourine Man. Their version became an instant classic, reaching #1 on the Billboard pop charts in April 1965.

Whereas Bob Dylan’s vocal stylings were considered too rough and raw for the general public, at that moment the tight harmonies of the Byrds seemed just right for the pop market. In fact, McGuinn deliberately chose his vocal style to be a fusion of the musical presentations from Dylan and The Beatles.

Furthermore, Roger McGuinn’s guitar work became a standard for the folk-rock music sound. McGuinn’s Rickenbacker 12-string guitar, with heavily compressed output to achieve a bright and sustained tone, produced an unmistakable trademark jangly sound.

Following The Byrds, a host of other folk-rock groups sprouted like weeds, with several of the new groups sounding suspiciously like The Byrds. Even the Beatles themselves appeared to incorporate some aspects of folk-rock into their music, in particular with the song Nowhere Man.

The Byrds followed up Tambourine Man with another cover that became a giant hit, Turn! Turn! Turn! The Byrds converted Seeger’s moving folk ballad into folk-rock, using their same formula of tight vocal harmonies backed by McGuinn’s Rickenbacker 12-string guitar.

So here are the Byrds in a live performance of Turn! Turn! Turn!

Released in Oct. 1965, Turn! Turn! Turn! also hit #1 on the charts. The song had deep appeal to anti-war sentiments (remember, the Vietnam War was heating up at this time) with Pete Seeger’s exhortation “a time for peace, I swear it’s not too late.”

This performance is from the 1965 TV special, The Big T.N.T. Show. This was a follow-up to the extremely successful 1964 T.A.M.I. Show (Teen Age Music International). The idea here, as evidenced by the publicity poster shown above, was to feature performers in several different pop genres: rhythm and blues (Ray Charles, Bo Diddley, Ike & Tina Turner); folk-rock (The Byrds, Donovan, Lovin Spoonful); rock and roll (The Ronettes and Petula Clark); and folk & country (Joan Baez and Roger Miller).

The show’s producer was Phil Spector, and its emcee was David McCallum of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. fame. The show was a major success and gave even more national exposure to The Byrds.

The Byrds subsequently spearheaded the psychedelic rock movement, and finally turned to country-rock. They were major influences on several different fields of rock music.

Unfortunately, as early as 1966 the group began to fragment.  Gene Clark departed in February 1966, and David Crosby and Michael Clarke left the group in fall 1967. Although the band added new members, the influence of The Byrds was diminishing, and the group disbanded in 1973.

At that point, Roger McGuinn and Gene Clark went off to pursue solo careers, David Crosby joined the supergroup Crosby, Stills & Nash, Chris Hillman joined the Souther-Hillman-Furay band, and Michael Clarke joined the group Firefall.

The Seekers and Turn! Turn! Turn!:

The Seekers were an Australian folk-pop singing group. They were initially a trio formed by Bruce Woodley, who played guitar, mandolin and banjo; Keith Potger, on twelve-string guitar and banjo; and Athol Guy on double bass. All three had been high school classmates in Melbourne.

The group then added singer Judith Durham. Durham had been a jazz vocalist, and was already an established singer when she joined The Seekers.

Here is a particularly cheesy publicity photo of The Seekers from Feb. 1965.  The group members are, I suppose, meant to be “seeking” something. Clockwise from L: Keith Potger; Athol Guy; Bruce Woodley; Judith Durham.

The group’s fortunes really took off when they traveled to Britain and met Tom Springfield. Springfield was an established folk singer and songwriter, who had led the British folk group The Springfields, along with his sister Dusty and Mike Hurst.

Tom Springfield wrote the song I’ll Never Find Another You for The Seekers. That song hit #1 on both the U.K. and Australian pop charts in 1965, and made it to #4 on the U.S. Billboard charts.

At that point the Seekers became a major success in the U.K. The British music journalism publication New Musical Express named The Seekers the Best New Group of 1965, and in 1966 they appeared at a concert in London’s Wembley Arena that included The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Dusty Springfield and The Animals.

The Seekers thus became Australia’s first big internationally successful pop group. They achieved worldwide renown but at the same time remained major celebrities in Australia. When The Seekers returned to Melbourne in 1967 on a tour, they performed at a concert that drew 200,000 people.

Springfield subsequently wrote two more of the Seekers’ biggest hits, A World of Our Own and Georgy Girl. The latter tune was the title song for a British movie starring James Mason and Lynn Redgrave; the song was nominated for an Academy Award in 1967.

Both of those songs made the U.S. Top 20, and the Top 5 in the U.K. and Australia.

Here are The Seekers singing Turn! Turn! Turn!

This is “enhanced video” (translation: lip-synched music video) from the DVD The Seekers Down Under. It combines a 1966 documentary about the group, with a 1967 TV special.  In this video, the group are pretending to assist in harvesting grapes at a winery in South Australia’s Barossa region.

I have always enjoyed Judith Durham’s bright, clear, easily recognizable voice. Paired with the group’s traditional folk-pop arrangements (very similar to those of The Kingston Trio or Peter, Paul & Mary), and combined with Tom Springfield’s songwriting, this made for a very appealing combination.

Judith Durham left The Seekers in July, 1968. Although the group then attempted to continue with a replacement singer, it proved nearly impossible for them to find a lead singer of comparable stature to Ms. Durham.

The group soldiered along for several years, picking up new members along the way.  Then in 1993 the four members of the original Seekers re-united for a Silver Reunion Celebration tour. It was sufficiently successful that the re-constituted group continued on tour for another eleven years.

The Seekers also featured in a 2001 documentary on the history of Australian rock and roll. Although The Seekers seem to be a pretty mainstream folk-pop group, they were nonetheless included in the second segment of this documentary.

Source Material:

Wikipedia, Turn! Turn! Turn!
Wikipedia, Pete Seeger
Wikipedia, Judy Collins
Wikipedia, The Byrds
Wikipedia, The Seekers
The Atlantic, Jan. 28, 2014: Rainbow Quest: Pete Seeger’s Strange, Magical 1960s TV Show, Jennie Rothenberg Gritz.

About Tim Londergan

Tim Londergan is professor emeritus of theoretical physics at Indiana University-Bloomington. He studies the properties of the quarks and gluons that form the internal structure of protons and neutrons. He also writes a blog "Tim's Cover Story" that compares covers of important songs in rock music history. He and his wife share their college-town life with two delightful cats, Lewis and Clark. His hobbies include tennis and ornithology, and he is a life-long fan of the St. Louis Cardinals baseball team.
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2 Responses to Turn! Turn! Turn!: Pete Seeger, The Byrds, and The Seekers

  1. Thom Hickey says:

    Loved this Tim! Always inspiring to visit. Thom.

    Like

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