Rainbow Quest: Pete Seeger's Strange, Magical 1960s TV Show

The ultra-collaborative folksinger wasn't quite sure what to make of the television medium. But for a brief period, he made it entirely his own.
A member of the Mamou Cajun Band takes a break from his Rainbow Quest set to show Seeger a photo of his children.

“What’s good about folk music,” wrote Pete Seeger in a 1974 issue of Sing Out! magazine, “is that it is not show business. … It should be the fiddle or guitar, bongo drum or harmonica that’s brought out after supper dishes are cleared away and families make their own music, rather than switching on the magic screen.”

But for a brief period in the mid-1960s, Seeger hosted his own program on the “magic screen.” The show was called Rainbow Quest (named after a line in one of Seeger's songs). Despite the colorful title, it was filmed in black and white, in a New Jersey studio with no audience, and broadcast over a Spanish-language UHF station. Seeger’s wife, Toshi, was listed in the credits as “Chief Cook and Bottle Washer.”

Even with this bare-bones production, Seeger clearly found the new medium disorienting. “You know, I’m like a blind man, looking out through this little magic screen,” he said at the start of the first episode, gazing awkwardly into the camera. “And I—I don’t know if you see me. I know I can’t see you.” Over the next 10 minutes, he alternated between noodling gorgeously on his banjo and explaining his distrust of the “little box” that sat in every American living room, killing ambition, romance, and human interaction.

But then he started talking about Huddie Ledbetter and giving his invisible audience an impromptu 12-string guitar lesson. And then the Clancy Brothers showed up in their big woolly sweaters and performed a rousing set of Irish tunes. At that point, Seeger seemed to settle into his comfort zone—a natural state of admiration and delight.

That joyful expression stayed on Seeger's face through most of the show's 39 episodes. Seeger particularly liked to quiz the musicians on their apparatus. "You've got a strange instrument here. I don't think I can hold my curiosity any longer," he told the indigenous Canadian singer Buffy St. Marie, who happily explained how her traditional mouth bow had evolved out of a hunting weapon.

In another episode, Seeger brought together two unlikely performers: the blind 70-year-old blues musician Reverend Gary Davis and the 19-year-old Scottish flower child Donovan. After a couple of songs, Seeger asked Donovan's accompanist, Shawn Phillips, to show Davis how his sitar worked. "Hold it up closer so he can feel it," Seeger instructed, and then watched the interaction with obvious amusement.

At some point in every episode, Seeger would lean forward, as if unable to restrain himself, and ask whether he could play along. He joined in as respectfully as he sat back—picking out chords as Johnny Cash crooned, harmonizing as Judy Collins took the lead. After Collins performed "Turn, Turn, Turn"—a song Seeger himself had written—he responded with simple appreciation: "Gee, how proud that makes me."

Rainbow Quest didn't last long. Its single season ran again on public television a few years later, and in the 1980s a few thousand copies came out on VHS. But thanks to YouTube, many of the episodes are now available online, and every one of them is well worth watching. The show may have been a fleeting and ambivalent experiment in Seeger's long life. But it represents the very best of both the man and the medium. Through his signature combination of charisma and humility, he managed to turn television into something collaborative. When Pete Seeger was in front of the camera, the "magic screen" became truly magical.

Presented by

Jennie Rothenberg Gritz is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where she edits digital features.

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