Arts & Entertainment

Press Pass: Spook Handy

Spook Handy (left) with Pete Seeger (Photo: Courtesy of Econsmith)
Spook Handy (left) with Pete Seeger (Photo: Courtesy of Econsmith)

New Jersey-based folk singer Spook Handy first met Pete Seeger in 2003 when Seeger invited Handy to perform with him at the Pumpkin Festival in Beacon, NY. Seeger was introduced to Handy’s work by hearing his political folk anthem “Vote.”

“He asked me if I ever heard of founder’s disease…and I didn’t know what founder’s disease was but I said ‘You tell me, Pete,’ and he said ‘Founder’s disease is when the same people who founded an organization thirty years ago are still running it today,” Handy recalled. And then Seeger walked away, Handy said. That was their first face-to-face conversation.

“I knew he was telling me something important. It was about passing along – from one generation to the next – what we know. Passing along the tradition, the music, the knowledge…and they always need to be updated. The ways that we live our lives need to be updated.

Handy said he didn’t know much about Seeger when they first met, except that he was an important musician, but not much more than that. But he learned – he played with Seeger regularly from the day they met in 2003 until Seeger passed away in January of this year and through that experience, Handy said he learned quite a bit about music and, more importantly, life.

“I was pleasantly surprised by his being just an ordinary man. He was an ordinary man, and he was an extraordinary man,” Handy said. “So he had no airs of pretension about him, he was just a regular guy who lived an extraordinary life because he lived up to extraordinary values and ideals. And that really made an impression on me.”

Now Handy is on a worldwide tour, spreading the gospel according to Pete.

Handy’s put together what he calls a program called “Remembering Pete Seeger” as a tribute to his mentor and fellow musician. He’s taken the program to several cities in the U.S. and Canada (his goal is to take it to all 50 states in the U.S. and the 13 Canadian provinces) and he’s currently coordinating shows in New Zealand, Australia, Japan, England, France, Spain and Italy.

He’s playing Knox Presbyterian Church, located at 7416 Arlington Blvd., Falls Church, this Satruday from 8 – 10 p.m. at the invitation of The Folklore Society of Greater Washington.

During the program – dubbed that by Handy because it’s more than a show, it’s meant to be participatory – Handy plays popular Seeger songs like “Where Have All the Flowers Gone,” and some of his more obscure work as a means of introducing those unfamiliar to Seeger’s work and creating nostalgia for people already familiar with Seeger.

But Handy also plays some of his own songs and well-known folk songs like “She’ll Be Coming Around the Mountain.”
Also, if the venue lends itself to it, Handy will lecture about Seeger between songs, or invite audience discussion about Seeger, or anything else. For him, the tour is more about spreading the essence of Seeger’s legacy rather than being a Pete Seeger cover band.

“It’s more of the idea of demonstrating that music can reinforce important values to communities,” Handy said.He also wants to have fun, which is another important lesson he learned from Seeger.

“He knew that as important as this music is, you gotta have fun doing it. As important as the message is you’ve gotta be friends with the people that you’re working with,” Handy said. “I think he knew that he sang songs that some people think have changed the world.

“And yet, he thought that the most important change was happening within yourself and within your community and to build a strong community where people listen to each other and respect each other and make room for each other.”

• For more information about Spook Handy, visit spookhandy.com.