Mark Hellman paying tribute to Pete Seeger. Photo by Cheri Jackson/Bejewels Photography

Activist and folk singer Pete Seeger was at the core of the key social movements in American in the mid-20th century. He used his music to promote civil rights and racial equality, and rallied for the working class. Seeger, a banjo playing radical who died in 2014 at age 94, was active in the Communist party, got caught up in the McCarthy hearings and was convicted of contempt of Congress, though the conviction was later overturned.

Canadian performer Mark Hellman pays tribute to Seeger in words and music with “The Incompleat Folksinger,” a one-man show, at 3 p.m. Sunday at the Maine Irish Heritage Center in Portland. It’s the first stop on Hellman’s first U.S. tour with this show, and he’ll bring it back to Maine at 2:30 p.m. Nov. 17 at the Saco River Theatre in Buxton.

He calls “The Incompleat Folksinger” a musical memoir in two acts. It is based entirely on Seeger’s writings and includes all or parts of 29 songs, compressing 35 years into about two hours. Seeger is best known for writing or co-writing “Turn! Turn! Turn!” and “If I Had a Hammer” and for helping to make “We Shall Overcome” a Civil Rights anthem. He toured with Woody Guthrie, performed in Lebanon at a time when few performers from the West traveled to the Middle East, sang “Give Peace a Chance” at Vietnam protests, and hosted the Newport Folk Festival when Bob Dylan went electric.

Hellman said Seeger’s work and messages are timely.

Hellman performs “The Incompleat Folksinger” on Sunday in Portland. Photo courtesy of Mark Hellman

“All the themes in the show are being thrown into higher relief,” he said by phone from his home in western Canada. “A lot of the things Pete was saying well over 50 to 60 years ago need to be heard again. The sense of urgency that was being expressed in those times is still true. We are living in urgent times.”

Hellman is an actor, singer, instrumentalist, choir director and teacher. His performance is a tribute to Seeger, not an impersonation.

He considers Seeger a musical and cultural hero. “I grew up with him. My mom was a great fan of Pete, and she saw him perform in the 1960s. He spent a lot of time in Canada, and we like to think, in a way, he was very much an inspiration for the circuit of folk festivals we have across Canada, and he was the direct inspiration for the Winnipeg Folk Festival.”

Although his mother heard Seeger perform in concert quite a bit, Hellman saw him perform just once, with Arlo Guthrie in 1980s.

“I learned from him a lot about other people. Reading Pete led me to reading more about Woody Guthrie and this sense of how he had used the music to engage people. As he would say later in life, when you get people together to sing, you are engaging the body politic.”

Seeger had ties to Maine. His environmentalism brought him to the state in the 1960s. He founded an organization known as the Hudson River Sloop Clearwater, a nonprofit dedicated to cleaning the Hudson River. As a symbol, Seeger and the organization commissioned the sailing vessel Clearwater, a 100-foot sloop that was built in a boatyard in South Bristol and launched in 1969.

When Hellman got his first guitar at age 16, he used a guitar guide by Seeger to learn to play. To pull off “The Incompleat Folksinger,” Hellman had to learn to play the banjo, Seeger’s primary instrument. Seeger played a long-neck banjo, with three extra inches and three additional frets.

“I had a banjo in my possession back in the 1980s. I learned a little bit about it, and it stayed in the case for about seven years. Finally, I thought, ‘I can’t let this lovely banjo go unplayed,’ so I sold it,” Hellman said.

When he was offered this show in 2014, Hellman insisted on performing with a long-neck banjo. He had seven months to learn to play it. He’s been touring this show since early 2015. “I was a guitar player before I started, so I had a good sense of how stringed instruments work,” he said. “But I was hyper nervous when I picked up the banjo again. I am pleased to not feel that same sense of nervous anymore.”

After the Portland performance, Hellman is taking “The Incompleat Folksinger” to New York for showcases. He is shopping the show to various producers, because of the timeliness of the message. “This is our first time to the States with this show,” he said. “We really want to show this piece to American audiences.”

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