MFD Interview with Tao Rodriguez Seeger


Musician Tao Rodriguez Seeger is the eldest grandchild of Pete and Toshi (née Toshi-Aline Ohta) Seeger, and the son of Mika Seeger and Puerto Rican filmmaker Emilio Rodriguez. Rodriguez-Seeger sings in English and Spanish, composes, and plays guitar, banjo, and harmonica. He began performing in his teens with grandfather Pete Seeger and Arlo Guthrie, and later formed a band, RIG, with Guthrie’s daughter (Woody Guthrie’s granddaughter) Sarah Lee. Between 2001 and 2007, he released six albums with his contemporary folk band The Mammals. Since then he has collaborated with Puerto Rican musicians Roy Brown and Tito Auger and released an alt-folk EP with his new solo project: the Tao Rodriguez-Seeger Band. The past year has seen him touring with Pete Seeger and blues artist Guy Davis, raising money for various farming organizations, and also performing for President Obama’s inauguration in January 2009. Tao got his name from his grandmother’s initials, T.A.O.

Alison Notkin: When we met last month at the Beacon, New York Strawberry festival, I saw you and your granddad playing together. You two seem very close and connected. Is that the case?

Tao Rodriguez-Seeger: Yeah… yeah we are very close. I was his first grandchild and I showed some kind of interest in music at an early age. I can remember going on the road with him and my grandma, gosh, very early, like at four or five. I really liked Howard Johnson hotels cause they had swimming pools I remember (laughs). But, we’re very close, yeah. I don’t know why some people are that close, we just shared a lot of music and a lot of time. It’s been a wonderful experience, really, growing up with him.

Notkin: When did you start playing music? Did he teach you, or did someone else teach you?

Rodriguez-Seeger: Well, as best as he knows how to teach. He’s not really a didactic kind of teacher, more of an osmosis kind of teacher (laughs). We started playing together, well; the first time we played a show was in Hiroshima. We were taking a family trip as we often did back then. Grandpa would play a concert to pay for the family trip and we have a lot of family in Japan ‘cause my grandma’s half Japanese. So we coincided in Hiroshima on August 6th and… I was living in Nicaragua at the time… so I was fully fluent in Spanish… and I told my grandpa he should quit singing in Spanish because his Spanish was terrible. So he turned it around on me and said, “Well, if it’s so bad, why don’t you come on stage and help me out?” And next thing you know, there we were, I was fourteen as I recall, and we played in front of a half a million people outside in Hiroshima. I walked off stage, and my grandma said “Well, it’s all downhill from here, kid!” and I didn’t know how right she was, until we played for President Obama’s inauguration and I realized, “Oh my god, this is the first time since then that I’ve played for a crowd that’s possibly somewhere near the same size.” So that was a really interesting arc and nice kind of bookending.

Notkin: Well it’s not over yet!

Rodriguez-Seeger: No, no, not over yet, but you know, in your life, if your life were a bookend at the present (laughs). And so it kind of went from there. I moved back to the States a couple of years after that, I was 16, and I just kind of jumped right into playing with them, with him I guess, but Arlo (Guthrie) and grandpa were on tour that summer and he invited me along and I would sing songs in Spanish and play maracas and then I’d do my three or four songs in a set and then I’d run out and help t-shirt Cathy sell merchandise. You know, I was just… I didn’t really know what I was doing. I didn’t know that I’d got the bug. It wasn’t until a few years after that, we were in Denmark for a wonderful Danish festival called the Tønder festival – and I befriended a whole bunch of great musicians, a guy named Dick Gaughan, populist singer-songwriter in Scotland, and I became fast friends. I turned 18 at the festival and at the end of the week they tore up my TWA ticket home and while laughing they handed me a guitar and a Eurail pass and that was sort of my introduction to the wide world of music.

Notkin: Who’s “they”?

Rodriguez-Seeger: Well, Dick Gaughan was there. Let’s see, who else was there? Tommy Sands, all the McCalmans, the Tannahill Weavers, Boiled in Lead… It was a big bunch of, you know, drunken men (laughs). They thought they’d induct me into the real world, and in a real sense I owe them that. They gave me the key. My grandpa taught me to be open minded but those guys gave me the key. So, it’s been like that ever since really, I’ve been traveling the world, I’ve worked on sailboats doing environmental education, I’ve programmed computers and I’ve tended bar, but there’s always been this music that I’ve always kind of played throughout and it just got to a point where I thought well, maybe I ought to just do the music instead, it seems to be the most fun and satisfying thing of all.

Notkin: When you were fourteen and playing with your grandpa at that big show in Hiroshima, at that point, did you really understand who he was and what his impact was?

Rodriguez-Seeger: Oh, I don’t know that I understand it now (laughs)! To me, no, he’s always just been my grandpa. I understand that he’s very meaningful, and he’s inspirational to people, and he’s been a leader in a certain way of thinking for decades and decades, but we’ve never really made a big deal about that in my family, so, to answer your question, I guess I was peripherally aware, but I didn’t really care (laughs). Because it’s not really the most important thing to him or any of us, his kind of stature in the world, I do think that the way he lives his life does inform everything he does and it’s affected the way I was raised. And so in that sense, yeah, I was aware, absolutely. He’s a guy who lives his life in a very aware manner. And so he inspires that in others, and it certainly inspired it in me, to try and live my life aware and looking up, keeping my eyes opened to the truths, be they pleasant or unpleasant.

Notkin: And do you think of yourself as political in your own music?

Rodriguez-Seeger: Well, yeah, but that’s only because when you sing about people’s stories, real people and their real stories, that is politics. I know that may sound a bit disingenuous, but it’s not actually. I think that in a very real sense, the folk music of people, whether it’s with a guitar or banjo or mandolin, or whether it’s kids rapping on a street corner, that is the realest politics you’re ever going to find. So yeah, I consider myself, I guess, in a sense a political musician. But you have to temper that with a sense that people don’t want to be preached at, even people that agree with you generally don’t like to be preached at. So, you have to find a way to work whatever message that you’re interested in bringing across to folks, you’ve got to work that into the art and artistry and ultimately remember that we’re entertainers, that we can’t get a message across, be it, you know, a message of love or one of political outrage or whatever, unless people are having a good time, and are entertained by what you do.
I once asked my grandpa how many political songs, you know, with a heavy big capital “P” one should sing in a concert and he thought for about half a second and he said “one!” So, it’s gotta be the right one. And so it changes, gig to gig. Last week’s political song might not suit this week’s political song for any number of great reasons: you’re in a different town… something new has happened… and I guess you have to let your set lists be defined by the world around you, and your songwriting consequently. If there are disasters happening all the time, if the government is completely screwing up, and destroying the communities of New Orleans, then I’m going to write about it, and a lot of other people are going to write about it too, or if they don’t write about it it’s going to inform their performance in some way, even if those people don’t really think of themselves as political musicians per se. But the world around you informs your art, and if it doesn’t, then you’ve got no business being an artist (laughs).

Notkin: No, I think that’s a really important point. And I think it’s shortsighted to just define political songs as ones that are really overt, lyrically…

Rodriguez-Seeger: Oh, I think the best political songs are the ones are the ones that are covert… covert the whole way! I mean, the Star Spangled Banner early on used to be a drinking song, a song that people went to bars and sang, you know, drunkenly (laughs). Somehow it became our national anthem. For sure, or a song like This Land Is Your Land has no really overt populist message until you start to get into some of the more unknown verses.

Notkin: Do you think that there’s a danger though of people not getting the message if it’s not obvious enough?

Rodriguez-Seeger: Well, then I guess that sort of leads to “lowest common denominator” thinking. No, I prefer to think highly of my audience (laughs). And then I make an assumption that they’re adults and they’re thinking people and that they can see deeper then the surface. And if they don’t, that’s their outlook and that doesn’t bother me. Like I say people can come to our show and dance for two hours and not listen to a single thing we’re talking about. But if they take a moment to listen and let the words register, all of the sudden, they realize, “wow, these songs are about something”, as opposed to just “baby, baby…” which is good too. Certainly any number of great AC/DC songs are completely puerile on that level and I love them (laughs). So there’s room for that in this world too. I’m not as intolerant as some might accuse my grandpa of being. Although he’s much less intolerant than people think he is too. He’s just very opinionated (laughs).

Notkin: Oh yeah? In terms of what? What do you mean?

Rodriguez-Seeger: Oh, that whole Dylan electric guitar thing. It still comes up and it cracks me up every time it does…

Notkin: …Where he says that he hadn’t really wanted to shut the show down (the 1965 Bob Dylan with the Paul Butterfield Blues Band performance); he just wanted (people) to be able to hear the words, right? Is that it how it goes?

Rodriguez-Seeger: Right, that’s pretty much how it went down. And although there was a time I think when my grandpa was a bit more of an… I don’t know… musical fascist (laughs). But that wasn’t my time. I came along after he maybe grew up a bit and realized that he could lighten up. He’s even played my electric guitars once or twice. He’s like… he doesn’t get it, he doesn’t really understand all the technology, the volume knobs and the amp, it all sort of seems like too many bells and whistles just to play music, but he enjoys the act of playing an electric guitar. He says he likes the sustain. He says that he feels like he sounds like B.B. King. I could hardly contain my laughter when he said that (laughs). It was a beautiful thing; it was really cute. Yeah, I just thought, “wow, the fact that he even knows who B.B. King is”, you know? I think it’s great.

Notkin: You’re well versed in old time stuff, and some of your recent work has involved combining the old and the new, like folk melodies and instrumentation, with electronic stuff. How do you feel about that kind of thing? Can you explain a little about what the combining means for you?

Rodriguez-Seeger: Well, it’s tricky. You have to pay respect and do deference to multiple genres any time you do that. And the only way you can do it is by trying to educate yourself as a musician in that field. I messed around a little bit once with some techno beats and banjo trying to make trippy old time music and I felt like, I kind of don’t do it anymore, ‘cause I felt like I was only scratching the surface of the techno and the house. Where I really know what I’m doing when it comes to old time music, I don’t really know what I’m doing when it comes to electronica. So, I gave that experiment up for a while. I’ll get back to it but I feel like in order to really embrace multiple genres, the only thing that’s really required is just a deep understanding of the genres you’re playing with. In other words, don’t be rude and phone it in (laughs). I guess that would be my only thought on the subject.
I don’t really think too much about you know consciously mixing genres and I guess to the extent that I like all these different kinds of music, I like jazz, from you know, Ella Fitzgerald… and I like 60s and 70s rock, and I like Manu Chao, and I like Michael Franti, and I like Dr. Dre. But I also like to listen to a lot of field recordings from the Harry Smith collection, or Smithsonian anthologies, I like old ska…
I guess I like so many different kinds of music, when I hear something in an old folk tune that maybe not too many people know, whether it’s melodic or rhythmic, that reminds me of something else, then I think, you can draw on that, like a song like Pretty Polly. It’s a beautiful old North Carolina murder ballad, which came from Scotland originally, that’s now pretty much entrenched in American folk music as an American folk music standard, but not too many people know it. I discovered that the melody sounds distinctly Chinese when you play it on the banjo in a specific way. And I thought, well that’s fascinating! You know, they’re both pentatonic scales. And how then do you draw from that line of sound, in order to make the connection a little more overt. So that’s kind of the way I approach it. I try not to say: On this song I want to have a horn break that’s like, you know “second line”. That strikes me as a little disingenuous, like forcing the issue. If you hear it and it just works, then it’s meant to be. I’ve heard a lot of experimenting that maybe didn’t work, and I’ve tried to figure out why some of my experiments didn’t work. I guess all I can think of is the ones that did work worked because there was a sense of respect and really some attempt at a deeper understanding of the multiple genres being played with.
I’m lucky that I get to play with such good musicians, when I ask them to try going out on a limb with me, they’ll say, “cool, how far are we going?” And you know, rather than saying, “well, gee, I don’t know if I can do that” there is a certain risk taking characteristic to anybody who’s going to push the envelope like that. I think my grandpa to the degree that he really pushed musical boundaries, he certainly did the same by playing South African lullabies on the banjo, you know, like Wimoweh, or like playing Bach and Beethoven on the banjo. He really got into some very interesting experimental stuff for his time.

Notkin: Yeah, that’s true. I originally asked you that question because there’s been sort of a trend, if you think of Steve Earle’s later stuff and maybe Paul Simon, a lot of these guys who’ve been around for a while, they start trying out modern sounds, and I wonder if they’re trying to catch up and appeal to a younger generation or something. And I was wondering if you were maybe doing that kind of thing to try to bring old time folk music to the “kids these days” or something.

Rodriguez-Seeger: (Laughs) Yeah, I mean, guess I’m arrogant enough to think that if I like it then other people should like it too. We’re all just trying to make a living though, really, at the end of the day. Yeah, you’re always trying to bring things to the kids these days, in quotes, because they haven’t heard it yet. They’re the one audience who doesn’t know what it’s about. You can always go back to the guys who’ve been with you for decades and they know you, they love you… but there’s something really beautiful about taking a risk and trying to reach out to an audience that’s new. And fresh ears are really exciting ears. And it’s really satisfying to bring new music, turn someone on to something.
I remember one time this kid came up to us after a show. Mike and I were packing up, and he goes: “Man, I just want to tell you, thanks so much, because of you I discovered Bob Dylan” (laughs). We were just… he walked away… and we just high fived each other and were just like “oh my god, that was so cool”.

Notkin: Were you playing Bob Dylan (music) at that point?

Rodriguez-Seeger: No, no, no, not at all. It was just that his musical journey from us somehow led to Bob Dylan, because we are in our own way disciples of Bob Dylan of course. And Mikey tries to write like Bob a lot and… it’s just you would have imagined that he would have discovered Bob Dylan before us (laughs). But the pride of the moment was that he discovered Bob Dylan because of us. I just thought, “Man! We’re part of the link in that chain?” It just feels really good to be connected in the musical DNA of the world like that to people. It’s all circular, and so that really put things in perspective. You know, when the days are long and the drives are miserable, you can always think to yourself: “well, at least that kid found Bob Dylan because of us” (laughs).

Notkin: To change the subject a tiny bit, I read a recent interview with Pete Seeger where he says that he’s more optimistic now than he was sixty years ago. He’s had a really complicated relationship with the United States government over the past years; can you talk a little bit about what it was like to perform at the inauguration in January, and the general Seeger response to your grandfather being invited to perform at this event?

Rodriguez-Seeger: Well, needless to say it was a colossal honor and pleasure. The event itself was produced impeccably. I thought it was the one of the best, probably the best concert of its type ever put together, considering the scale and the scope of it. It’s just, my grandpa didn’t want to do it, because he doesn’t like big things, and we talked about it for a while and I said, “you know, you marched with King, and I think even if you don’t do this for yourself, I think you owe it to people to be a part of it, because this is a vindication of a lifetime of work”, which really was in question whether it would ever happen. And he after talking about it from that perspective for about 5 or 10 minutes he agreed that it was the right thing to do. And of course Bruce Springsteen is just such a gentleman. We were talking as we were heading down, about the song, and grandpa was bringing up all these verses that often don’t get sung, you know (recites/sings):
In the squares of the city, by the shadow of the steeple,
By the relief office I saw my people
As they stood there hungry, I stood there whistling
This land was made for you and me
It was a great high wall there that tried to stop me
It was a great big sign there said private property
But on the other side it didn’t say nothing
That side was made for you and me

And of course the last line is:
Nobody living can make me turn back
As I go walking my freedom highway…
And you know, Bruce was the guy who was invited to sing, and Bruce I guess invited grandpa so I ended up there because of… the circumstance… that I always go with grandpa (laughs). But you know Bruce just said, “we’ll sing whatever verses you want, Pete” (laughs). And the censors never got a chance, I don’t even know if there were censors, but you know, you assume that there would be censors (laughs) because it’s a government sponsored event. No one ever interfered with the verses we chose to sing, I mean, we didn’t really run them by anybody - we ran them by the person who was typing them into the teleprompter… So it was really satisfying to sing a song written by the most “people of people”, for our people, and to be proud of our government for a change is really something. It’s certainly not happened in my lifetime.
Of course, you’ve got to remember that it’s our responsibility to keep our government honest and healthy and functional. Our government is us, we are our government. You know, to think that Obama will solve all our problems is absurd, but it’s a step in the right direction and I’m pleased as punch, proud as hell to have been there.

Notkin: In your view, what is the future for music and politics? How do you feel about the idea, well this might sound a bit crazy, of carrying the Seeger torch, and is that something that you talk about with your grandfather.

Rodriguez-Seeger: We don’t talk about it. It’s not a subject that interests him in the slightest (laughs). I carry the Seeger torch because I’m in love with him (laughs). No, that’s a bad joke… I think the Seeger torch thing is mostly a product of other peoples’ minds. We don’t really think about it all that much. I do end up doing a lot of similar things as he does, because I was raised musically on his knee. When I play banjo I just end up sounding like him, when I play that big old twelve string (guitar) I sound just like him. So, I deliberately play electric guitars (laughs), just to sound a little different sometimes. But, he’s really supportive of it. He was the first ever guest on Sesame Street, back in the early 70s, and I just got to be on the Spanish Plaza Sesamo performing a couple songs I wrote for them, with Muppets, and so, I guess we are coming full circle, you know I’m in his path whether I like it or not, but I get to drive the car the way I want to drive it, obviously. And he’s incredibly supportive of that; he has no expectations that I would try to be some kind of carbon copy of him.

Notkin: Your old band, The Mammals, is on hiatus now, right?

Rodriguez-Seeger: Yeah, I have a new band, with the same bass player but a totally different line up, different drum, different fiddler, keyboard player, and sometimes pedal steel. And we made a new record, and that’s really fun, we put a couple of my grandpa’s tunes on there and amped them up and played them really raucously.

Notkin: What’s that band called?

Rodriguez-Seeger: It’s called the Tao Rodriguez-Seeger Band for now, for lack of a better name.

Notkin: What’s The Anarchist Orchestra?

Rodriguez-Seeger: That’s it, that’s what it is. The Anarchist Orchestra is really the name of an EP. And I just thought it was a funny name because it’s an acronym for my name, Tao. And I also thought it would be funny, what if you really had an anarchic orchestra and everyone just did what they wanted to do (laughs)? For some reason, the idea of it was hysterical to me and I thought it would be a really funny name for a band. It all started as a bit of a joke cause we made an EP while The Mammals were heavily on tour and somehow I found two days in June of 2005 or 2006 to record with these guys and I just put it out on a lark, but we enjoyed it so much that when it came time to make another record for me I called upon the same lineup.

Notkin: And the Que Vaya Bien album? Are you still working with those guys or was that just a one off?

Rodriguez-Seeger: No, that was kind of like a one off thing, we came together, did a show in New Haven with Roy and Tito and I got the opportunity to make a collaborative record with them a few months later. That was sort of a weird dream come true for me. Roy Brown has always been one of my heroes of Latin American song and Tito Auger is one of the great Puerto Rican rock and rollers. So, it just ended up kind of being this weird fevered dream. I mean it really was like, for Latin America, Roy Brown is seriously a big deal, and for me to get to bring some of my work to them and work so closely on a project like that was a real honor. But we probably won’t really perform as a group just because it’s hard to get everybody together. It’s like a 9-piece band we ended up putting together. We really only played one show, in San Juan Puerto Rico, it was a lot of fun, but we had to rehearse for two days to pull it off.

Notkin: What’s next? What are you working on now?

Rodriguez-Seeger: Well, just trying to get my band on the road. We’re going to play the Newport Folk Festival this weekend, and I’ll be in Denmark again at the Tønder Folk Festival all by myself later this summer, and if all things work out, we’ll do a week and a half or so on the West coast in late September and then do another month or so on the East coast in October - more of the same, just better (laughs).

Notkin: That sounds great. Well, thanks, I really appreciate you talking to me today.

Rodriguez-Seeger: It was my pleasure.

©2009 Alison Notkin is a musician and musicologist based in Montreal, Canada. Her blog, “Pop and Politics”, features reference material and articles on the subject of music and its intersection with political activity. See it for yourself at: