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"One Word We!"

Review by Mark Gregory

From the Program

Would any folk singer have anything to do with theatre? Well in Australia of course there's always Reedy River to consider. It claims a special niche in both the history of theatre and the folk revival. Even so I have always considered theatre to be far too theatrical(?) to be a useful site of a folk performance. There's something that actors do to the songs that doesn't sit well with folk songs. They seem to regard folk music as a subset of vaudeville! Often they are trained in the classical genres and dont seem to notice that folk music has own musical and performance traditions. You wonder if that training has somehow cut them off from even noticing other music traditions and ways of making music.

With this sort of ideological baggage I went along to New Theatre's "One Word We!" subtitled "Pete Seeger and friends". There I discovered that coexistence is not only possible but works extraordinarily well. Not that I had a lot of choice: a theatre swelling with a singing audience is a persuasive argument indeed. The play written by Maurie Mulheron and directed by Frank Barnes treats the audience to about 40 songs ( and on the night I was there half a dozen encores ) from the vast repertoire that singing phenomenon Pete Seeger. In doing so it acquaints us with Seeger's philosophy and politics and gives us an insight into those in the USA who struggled against its transformation into superpower, particularly how they used folk music and their own home made songs to accompany political action and recharge spiritual batteries when things seemed hopeless.

The play urges us to sing our way through the history of trade union struggle, the civil rights movement, the antiwar movement, the women's movement, the conservation movement and the movement to be heard at all in the "land of the free" with its peculiar brand of censorship, black listing and shocking violence against its own citizens. As we do singalong we come to realise how amazing this singing movement really is, how much it has meant to all of us over the years. The songs are from Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly, Holly Near, Pete Seeger, and that ubiquitous songwriter Anonymous. Songs that were banned and blacklisted like their singers by the powerful mass media and music machinery of our age. Songs that bring out the we in us individualists.

I dont doubt that "One Word We!" will be on again after its minuscule first season. I would be surprised if it didn't find its way at least to Melbourne. It's a great tribute to a most amazing world citizen, and a timely contribution to the singing movement itself.


australian traditional songs . . . a selection by mark gregory