The longest link in the chain


BARACK Obama had a surprise up his sleeve for those of us who were inclined to distrust his promise of hope and change. Our skepticism received a bit of a setback on the eve of his inauguration last January when, towards the end of the We Are One concert at the Lincoln Memorial, Bruce Springsteen coaxed an elderly figure out of the shadows, describing him as the father of American folk music. “Lead us, Pete,” he implored. And Pete Seeger did as he was asked, turning the celebration into an uplifting singalong of This Land is Your Land.

 

Seeger wanted everyone in the gathering to help out, and they did. Including the president-elect. Seeger, as is his wont, was shouting out the verses. And he included ones that are not customarily sung, including: “Was a big high wall there that tried to stop me/ A sign was painted, said ‘Private Property’/ But on the other side, it didn’t say nothin’/ That side was made for you and me.”

 

This profoundly unfashionable critique of private property was preceded by a stanza that lamented the queues at the relief office during the 1930s Depression, a sentiment that clearly has a resonance in these economically troubled times. The song, written by Seeger’s friend and traveling companion Woody Guthrie,  found its way into school repertoires, but without its most potent verses. “How wonderful to rhyme ‘tried to stop me’ with ‘private property’,” Seeger says. “Only Woody could have thought of that.” Anyhow, “nobody said you couldn’t sing them” at the Lincoln Memorial, so he did.

 

He was impressed by the fact that Obama took the time out to greet each of the performers at We Are One. When he shook hands with Seeger, the president-elect told the folk singer that he’d been listening to his songs since he was four years old. This is clearly not something Pete could possibly have heard from George W. Bush.

 

Not that there was much of a chance of an encounter between the two of them. After all, whenever Seeger found himself in the vicinity of the White House over the decades, it was invariably to picket or protest. He made an exception in 1994, when he dressed up in a tuxedo to receive the National Medal of Arts and the Kennedy Center Award from Bill Clinton, who described him as “an inconvenient artist who dared to sing things as he saw them”.

 

When I spoke to him a couple of years after that event, Seeger was scathing in his opinion about Clinton: as far as the US economy was concerned, he considered him not all that far removed from Reagan and Bush Sr. It may well be the Bush Jr experience – since 2003 he has mounted a picket for peace almost every weekend at a clearing not far from his home in Beacon, New York – has made him more receptive to the Democratic alternative, although there’s good cause to suspect that his attitude towards Obama also has a great deal to do with relief at seeing an African-American enter the White House.

 

It was, after all, at the very spot where Seeger stood on January 18 that, back in 1963, Martin Luther King Jr articulated his dream of an America where people are judged by the content of their character rather than the colour of their skin. That’s still a dream, but it certainly seems considerably closer to fruition than it did in the midst of the struggle for civil rights. It’s also the same spot where Marian Anderson, the formidably talented contralto, sang out 70 years ago when she was denied access to a concert hall in segregated Washington, despite enjoying the imprimatur of the first lady, Eleanor Roosevelt.

 

And the Lincoln Memorial is not all that far from the Washington Monument, where Seeger stood 40 years ago, during an anti-Vietnam War moratorium, frustrated by his inability to reach out to the crowd of half a million through any of the familiar anthems. On the spur of the moment, he decided to experiment with the chorus of a song he had heard for the first time just a few days earlier. “All we are saying,” he sang, “is give peace a chance.”  It didn’t take long for everyone to pick up on it, and the simple sentiment turned into a powerful message as it rolled out across the sea of protesters.

 

On the other side of the Atlantic, John Lennon caught a glimpse of it on TV and was moved to tears. Somewhat ironically, he had written and recorded Give Peace a Chance as a potential substitute for existing popular anthems such as We Shall Overcome, a song indelibly associated with the civil rights movement thanks to Seeger’s success in popularizing it.

 

Late last month, I asked Pete how he felt while performing at the We Are One concert on January 18th. He said he was reluctant to take part. “I’m against big things,” he said; smaller-scale occasions are more his forte. But Bruce Springsteen – “a wonderful man” – eventually persuaded him to go along. The arrangements were impeccable. He did not have to worry about how he would get there and back. There was plenty of time for rehearsals. That’s all very well, I said, but what thoughts were going through your mind as you stood there singing This Land is Your Land ? “I was thinking about remembering the next verse,” he said disarmingly.

 

Pete Seeger’s commitment to folk music as a vehicle for raising political consciousness dates back to the 1940s, when he was a member of The Almanac Singers (as well as the Communist Party). He had drifted out of the Party by the time he founded The Weavers, a folk quartet that enjoyed an unexpected degree of commercial success before it earned the distinction of becoming the only band in American history to be investigated for sedition and subversion. The blacklist haunted Seeger until well into the 1960s, and even now the occasional McCarthyist pops out of the woodwork to question the distant past of a performer who was at one time derided by detractors as “Khrushchev’s songbird”.

 

During the years that he was persona non grata in his homeland, Seeger became something of a cultural guerrilla, turning up to perform at schools and colleges throughout the country, sowing the seeds for the folk music boom of the 1960s. Last Sunday, dozens of performers from all manner of musical genres gathered at Madison Square Garden in New York to serenade Seeger on his 90th birthday. Pete must have enjoyed the celebration – which featured the likes of Springsteen, Joan Baez, Tom Paxton, Arlo Guthrie, the McGarrigle Sisters, Ani DiFranco, John Mellencamp, Roger McGuinn, Tom Morello, Steve Earle and Billy Bragg (who reportedly received an ovation for playing his version – rewritten at Seeger’s behest – of The Internationale, a song that is unlikely to have been heard very many times before at Madison Square Garden) – but chances are he was even more pleased by the innumerable smaller singalongs that marked his birthday in communities throughout the US and Australia, as well as in parts of Europe. The idea for these gatherings (under the rubric For Pete’s Sake – Sing!) came from a Melbourne activist, Marie Goonan. Disseminated via the internet, it rapidly captured the imagination of likeminded folk in all sorts of places.

 

Coincidentally, footage of a 1963 Seeger concert in Melbourne’s Town Hall, rescued from the ABC’s vaults and painstakingly restored, went on sale as a DVD late last month. It is a fascinating document of Seeger in his prime, at the beginning of a 22-country tour that he undertook with his family shortly after the end of a seven-year tussle with the American authorities.  It had been sparked by a summons from the House Un-American Activities Committee. Seeger barely escaped prison after refusing to name names or discuss his political convictions. Asked whether he remembers coming here 46 years ago, Seeger responds: “I can never forget it. It was an eye-opener.”

 

 One of the DVD extras is a 30-minute presentation by Seeger for Australian public television about the blues and folk singer Lead Belly: it features Seeger chopping wood as accompaniment to a work song, as well as some of the only existing footage of Lead Belly in performance. It’s the sort of thing he would have liked to do on American TV, but he was banned by all the networks. He couldn’t even appear on a show that took its name from a word popularised by Seeger and Guthrie: the producers of Hootenanny facetiously said that they couldn’t have him on because Seeger “couldn’t hold an audience”. The risible excuse didn’t fool anyone, of course, and the most popular folk stars of the day – notably Baez and Bob Dylan – boycotted the show in solidarity with Seeger. Eventually the network invited him on, provided he would sign a loyalty oath. Pete politely told them what they could do with their oath and quietly slipped out of the country.

 

Mark Gregory, who was publicity officer with the Sydney University Folk Music Society in 1963, recalls that Seeger’s visit to Australia  “had a galvanising effect on the local folk song revival”, not least in terms of popularising the 12-string guitar and the five-string banjo. Gregory and singer Jeannie Lewis, who was also involved with the SUFMS, say Seeger was at the same time instrumental in introducing Australian audiences to then unfamiliar songwriters such as Paxton, Dylan and Malvina Reynolds.

 

The noted singer Margret RoadKnight, who saw Seeger perform at Melbourne‘s Town Hall, concurs with that opinion: he combined entertainment with education, she says, and demonstrated that it was acceptable “to adapt songs from various cultures”. The writer and broadcaster Phillip Adams, who also saw Seeger in Melbourne back then,  was impressed by Seeger’s “riveting performance” and his “remarkable ability to manipulate the audience”.  “Australian audiences at the time were very shy,” he says, “but he was able to get everyone to sing along.” That’s something Pete that has come easily to Pete, even when faced with audiences whose lingua franca wasn’t English. (One of the only exceptions was a frustrating tour of China in the early 1970s.)

 

In 1968 Seeger briefly came this way again, and among the devotees he gained was a teenage Maurie Mulheron, who was among audience members accommodated on the stage at a Sydney performance. More than two decades later, Mulheron  devised a musical theatre production based on Seeger’s songs, life and times. One Word … We!  has been performed intermittently since 1995, and is being revived by popular demand in Sydney next month. Mulheron, who visited Seeger at his rustic home in Beacon, New York, in 2003, rewrote the script after the notoriously self-effacing singer suggested several changes.

 

The production takes its title from Seeger’s well-known tendency to substitute the plural for the singular first-person pronoun – a treatment extended in recent years even to Over the Rainbow, with a semi-apology to his old friend Yip Harburg – and Mulheron thought of it as a means of preserving Seeger’s legacy. Not only was Seeger the most boycotted and blacklisted performer in America, but he has also consistently been notorious for “talking about other people”, almost never “putting himself at the centre”.

 

The tendency to effectively write Seeger out of America’s political and cultural history – precisely the kind of treatment that was meted out to Paul Robeson – has gradually been redressed since the 1990s, and may have reached its apogee this year. Mulheron chuckles at the idea of “right-wing cultural warriors turning in their graves” at the thought of Seeger performing at a presidential inauguration concert. At Madison Square Garden on Sunday, Springsteen noted that watching the transfer of power in Seeger’s company “was like, ‘Pete, you outlasted the bastards, man.’ It was so nice.”

 

M.J. Rosenberg, blogging about the event, writes: “Two incredible things there. One, a president salutes a life-long radical… Two, an audience of ageing hippies and 20-somethings goes nuts every time the president is mentioned. I can’t believe I’ve lived to see this day.”

 

The event capped a series of accolades that have “blown my cover”, as Seeger puts it, in recent years. Apart from the various honors from an establishment that was for decades allergic to his name, there has been the series of compact discs celebrating his songs released by Jim Musselman of Appleseed Recordings, including last year’s Grammy-winning (“The reward for longevity,” according to Pete) At 89. Appleseed’s endeavours, in turn, sparked Springsteen’s interest and led to The Seeger Sessions. Then, a couple of years ago, came the premiere of Jim Brown’s excellent (albeit largely uncritical) documentary, The Power of Song. Last year, David King Dunaway published a magisterially updated version of his Seeger biography from nearly three decades ago. At least two more books were published a week or so ago. And in the fall, W.W. Norton will publish a revised edition of Pete’s thoroughly engaging Where Have All the Flowers Gone: A Singalong Memoir. “He is getting more publicity this year than he did in all his previous 89 years,” says Jim Capaldi, who maintains a Seeger appreciation website at www.peteseeger.net.

 

One can be certain, though, that what Seeger finds incomparably more rewarding than any of the above is the realisation that the seeds of musical, social and political consciousness that he has sowed over the decades did not go waste. When the McCarthyist witch-hunt of the ’40s and ’50s soured the pitch for the Almanac Singers and later the Weavers, some of the only audiences available to Seeger were at schools and colleges. That phase as a “cultural guerilla” facilitated the folk music boom of the ’60s, not least by insinuating into the popular consciousness many songs that most Americans now take for granted.

 

If the human race is to survive this century, goes one of Pete Seeger’s favourite mantras, “we’ll have to learn to communicate with each other”, regardless of our outlooks and beliefs. As he turns 90, no one can seriously doubt that he’s more than done his bit in this regard. 

 

It would be impossible to list all that for which deep gratitude is owed to Seeger – from his role in the labor, civil rights and anti-Vietnam War movements to his environmental endeavours that have helped to ensure that his “golden stream”, the Hudson River, is considerably cleaner than before – but the sentiment expressed in a verse from Bring Them Home sums up one crucial principle from which he has never wavered: “I may be right or I may be wrong/ But I got the right to sing this song.”

 

Pete did not have the conflicts in Iraq or Afghanistan, let alone the phenomenon known as the global financial crisis (although the cancer of capitalism would perhaps be a more accurate tag), in mind when he first sang: “Though nations are warring and business is vexed/ I’ll still stick around to see what happens next”. But let’s hope he does.

 

Email: mahir.worldview@gmail.com

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