While best known for her film Afro-American Work Songs in a Texas Prison, made along with her husband Pete, son Daniel, and folklorist Bruce Jackson, Toshi Seeger was an accomplished photographer and documentarian whose filmography reaches far beyond the Ellis Unit at the Huntsville prison. Rounder Records, along with Stefan Grossman’s Vestapol Productions, released a remarkable compilation of films by the Toshi and the Seeger family well before the documentary mentioned above was made. Toshi and Pete describe these films as “home movies,” but they are a far cry from shaky video of Christmas morning. These films are available for viewing at the Southern Folklife Collection, call no. DVD_332, and are highly recommended.
Obituaries written in honor of Toshi Seeger, who died this week at the age of 91, describe her as being the “perfect compliment to Pete,” describing him as the visionary and her as the “grounded” member of their marriage. These films, however, demonstrate playfulness as well as a clarity of creative vision and attention to detail. Her camerawork captures the intensity of performance and communicates the wonder she must have felt in those moments of filming. From an interview made by Todd Harvey and Peggy Seeger in 2006 for the Library of Congress, Toshi shares the following memories (see more on Folkstreams here:
“Toshi Seeger: Most people, if they are filming have a storyboard or script or something. They know what is happening. I had no idea at any time. The boatsingers film footage we made in Ghana , I saw that happening and I said, “let’s stop and get that.” But in the Texas prison I had no idea what was going to happen. We set up the cameras and began filming. At the point that we set the cameras up I saw that they were going to do work songs, so any of the framing is on the spur of the moment, done just as we saw it.
PS: And at the end of the day of filming, the guard, who was on a horse and who was often talking to a friend, wasn’t even watching us…
TS: Well you were talking to him and I was with all the prisoners with double-edged axes. I thought it was very humorous. I shot the film, with the guard on the horse looking away paying no attention to me. These men were telling me their life stories—why they were in there, about their children and wives, and so forth…”