Let's revive Pete Seeger's Rainbow Quest

Rainbow Quest was an hour-long television broadcast hosted by the incomparable American curator of folk music idiomata, Pete Seeger, between 1965 and 1966. During its 39-episode run on New York’s pioneering UHF station, WNJU, Seeger introduced viewers to folk figures, traditions, and instruments from around the world, and especially to the dozens of artists active within or most influential upon the American folk revival. “We call it the Rainbow Quest,” Seeger tells guest Roscoe Holcomb in episode 17, “because we want to give people an idea of the different ways each other live.” The mission was to paint a rainbow-colored portrait of the people of the world through their vastly diverse musical expressions, and Seeger’s joy in fulfilling that mission was evident in his enthusiasm throughout.

Look for the show on any of your favorite video streaming services online today and you will find as many as ten complete episodes. Anticipating of course that dubious copyright claims[1], uploader whims, or just your average flying jellyfish attack might someday bring them down, I respectfully borrowed copies of those videos, cleaned them up a tiny bit, and uploaded them to Internet Archive’s Community Video collection. Here they will enjoy something approaching what we might call--bear with me here--’permanence’; they’ll at least get their regular and automatic fixity checks, and they will remain reliably retrievable from Internet Archive’s secure and redundantly backed-up data storage. We all, individuals institutions alike, can moreover now download our own copies of each episode in one or more preferred format.

Needless to say though, this is a meager solution, or at least an incomplete one. The videos clearly display some wear and tear, of both analog and digital varieties. The most complete and least degraded tapes of the show--the studio masters--were transferred to video cassette tape in the 1980’s (that story is pretty interesting in and of itself). The ten videos archived and embedded below represent the selection that was later transferred to DVD by various short-lived publishers, then ripped, migrated, reproduced, and recompressed among an unknown soup of different video formats by different amateur enthusiasts before they eventually made it online. Whatever became of the masters is a mystery (to me...).    

Pieces of the series can be found on tape in libraries far and wide. At the time of writing though, you can find catalog entries for the full run of the series--in beautiful VHS format--in the collections of only four libraries: those of National University, the Ohio State University, the University of Pennsylvania, and the University of Wisconsin-Madison. It is my sincere hope that this reintroduction will inspire one or more of these libraries to use their own, a friend’s, or simply Internet Archive’s transfer tech in order to digitize and share their holdings. Or maybe you have a friend of a friend at one of these schools who could be convinced to borrow all 39 cassettes…? 

There are so many precious little treasures to be found among just the ten episodes embedded below that I can hardly imagine what all remains to be found among the remaining 29, but this fan page provides some hints (ancient instruments; folk dances; South African, Vietnamese, and Yiddish songs; so much more…). I’ve highlighted some of my favorite moments so far below, and I look forward to hearing about yours and to finding still more.


1. The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem; Tom Paxton

To inaugurate the show, Seeger hosts Irish folk singers the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem. All of their characteristically up-tempo and cheeky songs are fun, but I might have an especially soft spot for “I Never Will Play the Wild Rover No More” (at 21:10). Tommy’s rendition of the mournful English song “The Butcher Boy” (16:35), on the other hand, is just heartbreakingly beautiful.

In act two, Seeger trades stories and songs with Tom Paxton, a regular of Greenwich Village’s storied Gaslight Cafe and the inspiration for the “Troy Nelson” character in the Coen Brothers’ folk revival film, Inside Llewyn Davis. At 31:46, Paxton tells the story of his song “My Ramblin’ Boy,” which gained worldwide popularity, and which Seeger himself performed during his 1963 set at Carnegie Hall.

That performance, I should note, happened just a few months after the Clancys’ own St. Patrick’s Day concert at the same!


3. Rosa Valentin and Rafael Martinez; Elizabeth Cotten

Around 6:30, Pete asks Puerto Rican migrants Rosa Valentin and Rafael Martinez where in New York he can attend a Puerto Rican music festival, only to be told that such things aren’t really organized and advertised. Instead, Rafael recommends he attend a less formal family gathering, which he says has the tendency to grow--in the Puerto Rican parranda style--into an all-night musical marathon. As an example of this spontaneous musical tradition, he and Rosa play an Aguinaldo, a distinctly Caribbean take on Christmas caroling. 

At 38:50, iconic guitarist Elizabeth Cotten shares the improbable story of a chance department store encounter with Pete Seeger’s stepmother Peggy that led to a housemaid’s job and a rediscovery of the ragtime music that she’d given up decades before, under pressure from her church. The family was enthralled:  “I’d cook dinner and put dinner on the table, and that’s about all the work I’d have to do. The kids would clear the table, wash the dishes, tell me to sit down and play ’Freight Train.’


12. Doc Watson, Clint Howard, and Fred Price

Seeger uses the opportunity of hosting Watson, Howard, and Price to introduce (at 12:15) the “home base” of mountain music to which he feels compelled to frequently return in spite of all of the musical globe-trotting he must do in between. On his way to becoming one of the most enduringly beloved figures in bluegrass and country music, Doc Watson was at this point still ascending in popularity, thanks largely to his set at the recent 1963 Newport Folk Festival. He, Clint Howard (no, not that Clint Howard), and Fred Price demonstrate why they are so revered for their technique on guitar and fiddle throughout the episode, but also find time for an a cappella arrangement of the gospel song “Daniel Prayed” (19:30).


17. Roscoe Holcomb; Jean Redpath

“I just took verses from one song to another to make one to suit me,” says Roscoe Holcomb (at 15:25), introducing his “Graveyard Blues” and in the process echoing one of the favorite traditions of folk music to which Seeger frequently returns throughout the show’s run. “It’s the way folk music has always been put together by folks; you remember it, but maybe you remember it a little different than the person before, so nobody sings it twice the same,” he puts it (29:32). 

Seeger contextualizes Holcomb’s trademark “high lonesome sound” within the hard living of miners, union organizers, farmers, and moonshiners of his native eastern Kentucky. And Holcomb certainly embodies that reality in more than just his music; he complains that he can no longer work construction due to the deterioration of his back, and his coughing may signify the asthma and ultimately emphysema that he contracted from coal mining. Seeger, who usually looks for opportunities to duet with his guests, spends his segment with Holcomb completely rapt in attention to the latter’s style and technique.

Seeger’s second guest has got to be the only woman ever awarded both the Order of the British Empire and the Honorable Order of Kentucky Colonels. Jean Redpath shares ancient and traditional songs from “another rocky part of the world,” her native Scotland. Then a fixture of the folk circuit in New York, Redpath would go on to become one of the world’s foremost curators of Scots music. So rich was her knowledge at this point already, that she could introduce Seeger and the television audience (at 34:53) to the role and influence of the “cant o’ the beggin tongue”--or those linguistic variations that hyperlocal communities would develop in order to distinguish one another--on the ‘English’ heard in Scots folk songs. She sings a cappella throughout, which also provides a good opportunity to demonstrate (at 41:50) the Gaelic vernacular mouth music tradition that developed in between opportunities to play with accompaniment at country dances.


18. The Stanley Brothers and the Clinch Mountain Boys; Cousin Emmy

Don’t let their farm country patter mislead you; the Stanleys, their Clinch Mountain Boys, and Cousin Emmy were some of most polished performers to grace Seeger’s stage due to their decades of experience on country music radio programs across the south. Tune in to the Stanley Brothers and Clinch Mountain Boys’ rendition of the classic “Worried Man Blues” (which Seeger himself would later record with Rainbow Quest guest Johnny Cash) or Cousin Emmy’s version of “Goin’ Down the Road Feelin’ Bad” for an inkling of what was like to take in one of those programs.

Other moments in the episode could only ever have been appreciated in a visual medium: see, for instance, bass fiddle player Chick Stripling’s Georgia-born “Butter Paddle Buck and Wing” dance at 19:34 or Cousin Emmy’s “You Are My Sunshine” played on a homemade theremin fashioned from a rubber glove (32:52).

This episode was one of the last times, if not indeed the last time, that Stanley Brothers Ralph and Carter would appear on a broadcast together. Carter died before the end of 1966. Ralph, on the other hand, continued to perform for decades and enjoyed a resurgence very recently due to the smashing success of the soundtrack to the Coen Brothers’ (there they are again…) O Brother, Where Art Thou? That record includes the Stanleys’ “Angel Band,” several renditions of their classic “I’m a Man of Constant Sorrow,” and Ralph’s Grammy Award winning “O Death.”


23. Donovan and Shawn Phillips; Reverend Gary Davis

Scottish singer-songwriter Donovan dropped in on Rainbow Quest just months before his single “Sunshine Superman” and its eponymous album gained him notoriety in the US. At 13:45 he is joined by collaborator Shawn Phillips, who introduces an instrument heretofore rarely (if ever?) seen on American television, the sitar. At 18:10, Seeger shares film from his trip to Calcutta ten years prior, including a sitar demonstration by Imrat Khan with tabla accompaniment. This episode, I should note, would have originally aired at about the same time that George Harrison’s popularizing sitar performance on the Beatles’ ”Norwegian Wood" first circulated, and shortly before Brian Jones’s on the Rolling Stones’ ”Paint It Black.”

Adding another distinct color to the rainbow, Seeger then welcomes Piedmont Blues musician Reverend Gary Davis to the show. Davis’s influence on the folk revival of the time endures through recordings of his songs by Peter, Paul, and Mary, the Grateful Dead, and Bob Dylan, among others. Few moments may be more emblematic of Seeger’s ambition for the show than all of these diversely inspired musicians singing along to Davis’s gospel song “Oh Glory How Happy I Am” (at 37:30), or the blind Davis feeling Phillips’s sitar as Phillips explains its mechanics (45:30).


25. Mamou Cajun Band

So narrow was the reach of their musical style by this historical point that fiddler Adam Landreneau, accordianist Cyprien “Cyp” Landreneau, and trianglist Revon Reed are introduced simply as “The Cajun Band.” In fact the Mamou Cajun Band’s tours of folk festivals throughout the US and Europe in the 1950’s and 1960’s greatly expanded the audience for South Louisiana Cajun music. Seeger first encountered them performing in full Mardi Gras pomp and costume at the 1957 National Folk Festival in Oklahoma City, OK, his film from which is shown around the 8-minute mark. Reed, a schoolteacher by trade, provides Seeger and his audience a concise history of the migration that brought French speakers from the Canadian territory of Acadia all the way down to the rice farming country of South Louisiana two hundred years prior to this program (beginning at 2:57).


34. Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee

Seeger had known and collaborated with country bluesmen Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee for 25 years before hosting them on his program. At 6:08 he recalls their presence at many of the first “hoots”--parties he’d thrown with his folk singing and/or radical leftist housemates in their “cooperative apartment” in Greenwich Village:

Every Sunday afternoon, the Almanac Singers would have a rent party. We’d charge 35 cents at the door and maybe a hundred or more people would crowd in. We’d sit around all afternoon singing songs. Other friends who like to make music would drop in--Burle Ives and Leadbelly and of course you two.

In addition to several of the songs one might have heard at those hoots, like Leadbelly’s “Rock Island Line” (11:09), the three play songs from McGhee’s prodigious songbook. My personal favorite is probably “(We May be Fighting a) Losing Battle” (16:05), which Peter, Paul, and Mary also recorded in 1965 as “Tryin’ to Win.”

Few brave souls have ever, by contrast, attempted to emulate Sonny Terry’s distinctive (to say the least) harmonica style. “You never heard anything like it,” Seeger recalls telling Broadway musical writer Yip Harburg in 1947 (30:26). Hear Terry’s characteristically energetic “Hootin the Blues” at 47:56. Cinephiles will no doubt instantly recall the hollering vocal and locomotive blues harp style from its place in the enigmatic closing sequence of Werner Herzog’s Stroszek some thirty years later. 


36. Mississippi John Hurt; Hedy West; Paul Cadwell

Cutting a vibrant cross section of the rainbow, Seeger asks folk revivalist Hedy West, iconic country bluesman Mississippi John Hurt, and amateur banjoist Paul Cadwell to take turns in a circle of songs and stories.

Cadwell preserved a turn-of-the-century ragtime banjo style otherwise unheard among these shows. He had an ingeniously cost-effective strategy, too: at 9:30 he explains to Seeger how he saves money by using fishing line--gauged by the size of fish that each can reel in--to string his banjo rather than expensive nylon strings. If you ever want to know the source of the American idiom “take the cake,” by the way, continue watching for Cadwell’s performance on the cakewalk accompaniment, “Georgia Camp Meeting,” and ensuing discussion of the cakewalk tradition (beginning at 10:30). 

Two other takes on long-traditional folk songs define this episode for me, though. West’s “Little Sadie” (at 17:19) preserves that dark and mournful Appalachian sound lost in so many later interpretations of that murder ballad, like Johnny Cash’s raucous “Cocaine Blues.” Hurt’s adaptation of the staple American folk tale of John Henry, in the meantime, must be my personal favorite sequence in this whole collection. His “Spike Driver Blues” (36:15) is a jaw-droppingly virtuosic demonstration of his self-taught but highly influential finger-picking guitar style. His likewise singularly soft vocal delivery may obscure it if you’re not listening closely, but the song also highlights an otherwise marginalized response to the old tale--that of the despondent railroad worker who refuses to suffer the same fate:

You just take this hammer and carry it to my captain
Yes tell him I’m gone
Won’t you tell him I’m gone?
This is the hammer that killed John Henry, but it won’t kill me
No it won’t kill me


39. June Carter and Johnny Cash

Perhaps no single group had as profound an influence on all subsequent American country/folk traditions than did the Carter Family, from their instrumental and vocal styles to the many widely repurposed songs that they wrote. “Me, I was just one of millions that thought it was the most wonderful music I heard,” Seeger says in the course of introducing their decades of presence on country music programs around the nation (beginning at 4:45). He continues to discuss the family’s legacy throughout the episode with second generation band member June Carter, who shares her own firsthand accounts of its commercial effect on things like the Grand Ole Opry. At 22:00, she quotes the Opry’s prominent tour manager J.L. Frank as saying that “without the Carter Family, we might have gone under...We’d have a whole week of good dates if we could just get the Carter Family.” You can hear a couple of the old Carter songs in the episode, including the “Worried Man Blues” (15:02) that the Stanley Brothers and the Clinch Mountain Boys performed in episode 18.

Along with Carter, of course, Seeger hosted “another fella,” her then-touring partner (later husband) Johnny Cash. “He’s kinda interesting.” It’s admittedly a bit awkward to watch the the visibly inebriated Cash--then in the midst of an addiction to painkillers--fidget his way through the episode. Still, he’s well lucid enough to give Seeger (at 26:08) the short history of his songwriting, from the age of 12 on up through the purchase of his first $5 guitar while serving in the Air Force in post-war Germany. The story culminates in a rendition of the song he wrote to capture his experience of the 1937 flood of the Mississippi River, “Five Feet High and Rising.” At 35:20, Seeger and Cash discuss their shared interest in American Indian plight, protest songs, and especially the creation of the first written Cherokee alphabet, all of which culminate in a performance by all three of "As Long as the Grass Shall Grow," one of folk revivalist songwriter Peter LaFarge’s contributions to Cash’s 1957 album, Bitter Tears: Ballads of the American Indian.

Short as it is though, my favorite moment throughout the episode still has to be Seeger’s performance of ”Cripple Creek” on the 1855 model fretless banjo given him earlier by Cash. A little unwieldy to play, the instrument nonetheless has an altogether different, and I would say richer, sound than the banjo that we hear Seeger pluck throughout the the series.


[1] Update, February 28, 2017: As the original masters appear to be lost and I have not researched the chain of custody for any of the digital surrogates licensed for re-use by any third parties, I cannot confidently characterize the copyright status of this work.