This story from folk music legend Pete Seeger is a little long to use as a quick introduction to a discussion about reviving defunct beer styles, so his tale today and beer tomorrow.
In the foreword to “Singing Out: An Oral History of America’s Folk Music Revivals” Seeger expresses his doubts about revivals. he uses the song “Michael Row Your Boat Ashore” to make his point.
“Here was a song I sang only half well. When you think of how truly magnificent it must have been when done by a bunch of sweating black people rowing ashore from Sullivan’s Island,” he writes. “The raw voices in the formal sense — but superbly trained voices in the sense that they’d been singing all their lives. Making up new verses and laughing as they think of a new verse to it.”
Seeger recounts how Charles Pickard Ware chronicled many of the verses in 1867: “He wrote down as much as he could and then afterward he went around to the singers and said, ‘What verse was that you were singing?’ They said, ‘You mean you’re writing this down? Wow, well here’s what I was singing.’”
It was about 90 years later that Tony Saletan chose three verses from the 15 to 20 Ware had transcribed. Saletan taught them to Seeger and Seeger to the Weavers, who sang the song in Carnegie Hall.
“Now it comes back to me from numerous schools and summer camps, such a pale wishy-washy piece of music compared to what it was once,” Seeger writes. “And I realize that my own singing of it is kind of pale and wishy-washy, compared to what it was once. It makes me wonder, is it possible to revive folk music? Well, I finally come to the conclusion: yes, it is possible. We can try. All you can do in this world is try. And a good attempt at trying is sure better than never having tried.
“Do you remember the man, Edward FitzGerland, who did the translation of Omar Khayyám saying ‘Better a live sparrow than a stuffed eagle?’ They said, ‘Your translation is nowhere as good as the original.’ He said, ‘But the original is sitting there on a piece of paper, with no one to read it. It’s dead.’
“So better a live sparrow.”
The really nice thing about the beer up next? It’s no sparrow.