Faces of ALBA: Peter Glazer

November 6, 2021

Peter Glazer and Pete Seeger in 2010. Photo Richard Bermack.

Peter Glazer is a world-renowned director and playwright and a professor of Theatre, Dance, and Performance Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. He sits on the ALBA board and is an active leader in ALBA’s Bay Area programs. Peter’s father was the folk singer Tom Glazer.

You have written several plays and musicals about the Spanish Civil War. There are so many books, stories, and movies on the war. What does theater allow you to convey in telling the story of the Spanish Civil War that those other media cannot? Do you try to evoke a certain feeling or impart a message in your works?

Theater makes the past present in a particular way. For a somewhat hidden history like that of the Spanish Civil war, there is something immediately powerful for an audience to experience and share space with a cast of actors who have immersed themselves in this story and material. That’s especially true with a story as powerful as this one. In the moment of performance, everyone experiences it together. This piece was a collaboration with composer Eric Peltoniemi, who I met when he musical-directed Woody Guthrie’s American Song in Minneapolis. Eric and I discovered we had a lot in common, including a love for the passionate music that came out of the Spanish Civil War. As anyone familiar with that music knows, it’s glorious, and irresistible. We were immediately excited at the prospect of placing songs of the Spanish Civil War on a theatrical stage, as performative touchpoints for the story. The project evolved from there. In my two experiences directing the show, once at Northwestern University and once at UC Berkeley, both with student casts, their excitement at learning and then sharing this history was infectious. The fact that they were all roughly the same age as the volunteers whose stories they were telling brought added resonance to the performances. I want audiences to feel involved in the stories I tell, caught up in them. In the case of Heart of Spain, I hope they can connect to the sense of urgency the volunteers felt.

While you are most known for your great musical “Woody Guthrie’s American Song,” you have also written and directed a broad range of plays and performance, including adaptations of novels by J. M. Coetzee and Karen Shepard. What do you think links your plays together?

I am teaching a class on adaptation this semester at Berkeley, reading lots of examples, and it’s not uncommon for playwrights who write adaptations to also be the directors of the works. Artists such as Mary Zimmerman, George C. Wolfe, and Moises Kaufman come to mind. I think this is because the act of reimagining literature for the stage is a celebration of what theater can do. Among many other characteristics of adaptations, they can be celebrations of theatrical vocabulary. Consistent with something all three of these remarkable playwrights have said, in one way or another, I, too, want to create theater that can only be theater. I can enjoy a realistic play as much as anyone, but they don’t interest me as a writer or director. George Wolfe has written that realism is better suited for film and television, and whether you agree or not, he wants theater to do something else, something theater can do best. I believe that what links my work regarding content is the desire to elevate lost, hidden, or subversive stories. Foe, the incredibly intense and lyrical novel by J. M. Coetzee, was a post-colonial and anti-apartheid rewriting of Robinson Crusoe. The famous/infamous source needed a major correction, which Coetzee provided, and I wanted to bring that story forward. Woody Guthrie may be known by many as the writer of This Land is Your Land, but his body of work provides a valuable perspective on the deep flaws in the American project. Unfortunately, that show remains just as relevant as it was when it premiered in 1988, in part because Woody, who wrote in the 1930s, 40s, and early 50s, saw what was wrong with the country, at its core, and those problems persist. Karen’s novel, The Celestials, explores a mostly unknown moment of intercultural reckoning in a small Massachusetts town in the 1870s. Theater offers the opportunity to share that story with a broad audience, who experience it in a shared, common space.

What was it like growing up in the household of the famous folk singer Tom Glazer?

I was exposed to lots of amazing music as a kid. Though as a songwriter and performer, he worked in the folk vein, his listening tastes were almost exclusively classical. Because almost all of his performing work was with children, he worked during the day. His weekly schedule was very similar to many of my friend’s dads who worked in an office. But it was not entirely ‘normal.’ He performed shows most years at my public school, so all my friends knew who he was, and his concerts for kids were amazing, so that made things pretty special. When he recorded albums and singles in the 60s, he often used children to sing on those records, so I spent a fair amount of time in recording studios during elementary school. That was great fun. The chorus parts of his most famous song, “On Top of Spaghetti,” was recorded in a 6th grade classroom at my school with about 30 students. The recording rig took up a small truck. Now, you could probably do the same on your watch.

I first heard you, long before we met, reading a passage by Woody Guthrie on the album “‘Til We Outnumber ‘Em.” How did you get involved in that project and why do think that the music of the legends of folk music like Guthrie, Pete Seeger, and your father still resonate? 

That CD was recorded in Cleveland in 1996, at a huge event celebrating Woody Guthrie sponsored by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. It included an academic conference at Case Western Reserve, a bunch of shows at local clubs and venues, and a closing concert on Sunday night in Severance Hall, the first time that popular music had ever been heard at the heralded home of the Cleveland Symphony. The line-up was amazing: Billy Bragg, Ani DiFranco, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Arlo Guthrie, Indigo Girls, Dave Pirner, Tim Robbins, and Bruce Springsteen. I spoke on one of the panels at Case about Woody’s writing. The promoters recorded everything, and when Ani DiFranco produced the album, I was pleased to find some of my words included. I also directed a concert performance of Woody Guthrie’s American Song that weekend, in the small chamber music hall at Severance. I missed the big Sunday show, which I will always regret, because my first day of graduate school at Northwestern was the next day, and I needed to attend orientation at 9 AM. I think I was way too responsible.

How were you able to get the Smithsonian Folkways to issue the wonderful two-volume collection of songs of the Spanish Civil War?

For my first sabbatical from teaching at UC Berkeley, I was working on a project about national anthems. I was granted a research fellowship from the Rockefeller Foundation at the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, which is closely affiliated with Smithsonian Folkways. I got to know the Folkways people, and they mentioned that the two volumes of “Songs of the Spanish Civil War” were among their most requested titles. Since Tom sang on Volume 1, and I was affiliated with ALBA, I guess I was a logical person to talk to about a re-release. One thing led to another. My growing friendship with Atesh Sonneborn and Dan Sheehy also laid the groundwork for their release of a collection of my father’s live recordings for children, “Tom Glazer Sings Honk-Hiss-Tweet-GGGGGGGGGG…And Other Children’s Favorites.”

As a child, did you have a favorite children’s song of your father’s? Our family still sings many of his songs.

Well, I think the songs that made the biggest impression on me as a youngster were some of the old folk songs he sang. I was a pretty anxious kid and I remember one night I was desperate for him to sing “The Streets of Laredo.” I don’t think I was able to get to sleep until he did. I loved the way he sang that song – I didn’t have words for it then, but his voice was just magnificent. There is a recording of “The Sheeling Song,” also called “Mo Mary,” on his very first album Olden Ballads. I never tire of hearing it. This was before he started doing music for children. In my book Radical Nostalgia, I tell the story of hearing him sing Spanish Civil War songs for our friends and neighbors when I was a teenager. I can still hear his version of “The Four Insurgent Generals.” I found that song just as haunting then as I do now. He also did a beautiful setting of Dylan Thomas’s poem, “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night” on an album for adults, long out of print.

Did you or your father ever run into the “other” famous folk singer named Glazer, labor’s troubadour Joe Glazer?

He always thought it was funny that there were two Glazers in the small world of folk music of that era. He knew Joe, but I don’t think I ever met him. Needless to say, they often got confused. I do remember meeting Josh White, who performed at a nearby high school, and of course Pete Seeger. He and my father were long estranged over politics, of all things. Pete and Woody were further left, for sure, and more comfortable with the Communist Party. My dad was more of a liberal. When the CIO purged Party members from their locals, as I have heard it told, people like Pete and Woody refused to continue singing for them; my father, and some others did not. Pete and my dad reconciled when they were both old men, and Pete spoke very fondly of Tom whenever I saw him.

Aaron B. Retish, who teaches at Wayne State University, serves as Treasurer on ALBA’s Board of Governors.