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Pete Seeger: a Life of Struggle and Song
Pete Seeger was one of the most important artistic figures of popular revolt in the 20th century; Gearóid Ó Loingsigh provides our own tribute.
5 February 2014
The last great troubadour of the 20th century has passed away. Pete Seeger died on January 27th after a short illness at the age of 94. He became, during his lifetime, a living legend and like most legends, even their enemies lay claim to them in death.
Seeger was born into a well to do family, far removed economically from the working class or small farmers he would immortalise in music and song and whose causes he made his own. His father studied at Harvard University and Pete Seeger also attended Harvard for a while, where he studied alongside JFK. Seeger dropped out of Harvard after a short period. However, whilst there he joined the Communist Party’s youth wing. He remained a member up till the late 1940s. He would later break with Stalinism, even going as far as to take part in an event in support of Solidarnosc in 1981.
Seeger, developed a number of musical contacts at the time, amongst them Alan Lomax, who had travelled the US recording popular music and had even gone from one jail to another in the south recording prisoners singing. It was there Lomax came across Huddie Leadbetter, a.k.a. Leadbelly whose songs Seeger would record and turn into hits. Seeger also became friends with Woody Guthrie at the time. Like Guthrie he would travel around the country singing for union workers, migrant labourers and others lending his music to their struggles and picking up and popularising songs along the way. Many of the great musicians of the 20th century, did the same, not just Seeger and Guthrie, but singers like Victor Jara, would also bring the people’s songs to wider audiences.
Seeger helped set up the Almanac Singers group. He was heavily influenced by the Stalinists at the time. The group released an anti-war album Songs for John Doe. They quickly shelved the album in the face of two events: the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union, led the CP to change their line on the second world war. Overnight it changed from being an imperialist war to an anti-fascist war. The later bombing of Pearl Harbour by the Japanese gave added weight to this change. Seeger and the others swallowed and regurgitated the CP line hook, line and sinker. They released an album called Dear Mr President, which echoed the CP line of suspending the class struggle when they made alliances with the bourgeoisie:
Now, Mr. President,
Even today, the myth of WWII as an anti-fascist war persists in the face of all the evidence. Many CP members expected the Allies to invade Spain after the war. They didn’t, as Fascism was not ever their real concern. However, the episode is not mentioned here to criticise Seeger but to point out that artists do not exist in a vacuum, they are part of a political and social milieu. Given the nature of the CP and the US left, it was highly unlikely that leading anti war artists would emerge. Whilst artists do feed into society, they do not lead it politically, they reflect it and to a degree nurture it. This can be seen in relation to the role Seeger played in the Anti-Vietnam movement, which showed what can be done culturally when artists put themselves at the service of and in Seeger’s case take an active part in mass movements.
A vast mass movement gave ample room to Seeger to develop his music and his politics and he did so with great fervour. Unlike many of his peers, Seeger did not limit himself to mere pacifism, though of course there were obviously elements of this in his songs. He was not afraid to denounce what the US was doing and put names to it. His Last Train to Nuremberg, was a brave song and the type of song that would put the modern anti-war movement to shame. He named the guilty and put them on a par with the Nazis who stood trial at Nuremberg, something, a strange mix of left and reactionary PC surrounding the holocaust industry would push to the sidelines with hysterical denunciations were it said today.
Do I see Lieutenant Calley?
The references to Calley and Koster and Medina deal with the perpetrators of the My Lai massacre in 1969, when the US army murdered almost 500 innocent unarmed civilians. Calley was the only person convicted of the war crime. Medina, gave the orders and Koster engaged in the cover up. Seeger pointed the finger at them, but also directly at the President. It must be borne in mind that back then, Nixon did not sit in front of a plasma screen personally overseeing massacres, the way Obama proudly and semi-publicly does nowadays. In fact, chain of command responsibility was specifically thrown out in the court cases that arose from the trial. But Seeger still pointed the finger at them.
Seeger, unlike many of his contemporaries was not just against the horrors of war. He was in solidarity with the Vietnamese and visited the country with his family in 1972. In his song Teacher Uncle Ho, he had the following to say of the leader of the Vietnamese forces.
He educated all the people.
I'll have to say in my own way,
After the end of the war and the downturn in class struggle in the 1970s, Seeger continued to lend his voice and banjo to struggles around the world, unlike some of those who benefitted from the folk song revival he helped create. Bob Dylan, for example, went on to..., well, makes lots more money, become a Jesus Freak and also a Zionist. Clearly on the wrong side of oppression. Joan Baez, was another case in point. After Vietnam invaded Cambodia and overthrew the Khmer Rouge, Baez organised the March for Survival. She was clear that the humanitarian aid should not be channelled through the Vietnamese and that refugee camps should not be set up inside Cambodia but along the Thai border. That decision had disastrous consequences, the camps set up by the UN were run by the Khmer Rouge who used the aid to continue to recruit and prolonged the war, leading to many thousands more deaths: not a minor point for a pacifist. As part of her campaign she appeared on stage with and received a bouquet of flowers from Field Marshall Thanom Kittikachorn one of the former military leaders of Thailand who had supported the US war effort in Vietnam. She may not have known who he was, but that is irrelevant, she was in a joint campaign with him. She washed her hands of the sorry mess, a few years later she wrote a song about Cambodia, and put it behind her. Seeger, on the other hand turned up all over the place. He even travelled to Nicaragua and brought back and tried to popularise some Sandinista songs during the Reagan years. This was not a cause which would endear him to the State. Even at the age of ninety he was campaigning for the release of indigenous political prisoner Leonard Peltier, framed in the 1970s for the murder of federal agents. Unlike, the Dylans, and Baezes of the world Pete picked his causes because he believed in them and he stuck with them.
His commitment came at great cost. For most of his life he was spied on by the security agencies of the US, he was blacklisted during the MacCarthy reign of terror and was even sentenced to jail for contempt of the hearings. In the 1950s he had few outlets for his music, yet he kept going. The 1960s, despite the mass movement, were only slightly better as far as television appearances were concerned. It is fitting that it was his version of We Shall Overcome that defined the struggles of the 1960s and is the one that is best remembered as a song of struggle, rather than any of the stuff produced by Dylan, Baez and others. Few if any remember that it was Dylan who sang before Martin Luther King gave his I have a dream speech. It is Seeger who captivates and sums up the period. He chose his politics because he believed in them and he was into the music for the music and not the pursuit of wealth and fame. He put his money where his mouth was. He didn’t just sing about the protests or even sing at them, he took part in them, even up into his later years when he could be seen at Occupy Wall Street protests.
He will be remembered for his activism but also for his music. He was a troubadour, he rescued songs that had been forgotten he exalted popular culture, as opposed to whatever the record labels were promoting. He once said that his father used to say that plagiarism was basic to all culture. His father was, of course, right, the lyrics of a song are not penned in isolation from the rest of society, not even Boyzone type groups do that, they write in a commercial context defined by others. The music that is composed builds on centuries of musical culture. It defined his attitude, he picked up tunes played with them, changed the lyrics of songs to make them more relevant, or used versions of songs where other people had done just that, such as the old hymn How Can I Keep From Singing. A family friend of Seeger’s changed the lyrics removing most of the religious references and replacing them with the following.
When tyrants tremble, sick with fear,
In prison cell and dungeon vile,
It is Seegers’ version that lives on. Neither did he have a problem with singing religious songs such as Swing Low Sweet Chariot, which may seem odd for a radical singer. In Marx’s much partially cited, opium of the people quote he remarks that:
“Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.”
This profane, worldly aspect to religion is to be found in many popular religious songs of the US, though in the second part of the 20th century the evangelical you are going to rot in hell variety came to the fore. Pete sung songs about people’s lives and other religious songs he sang because, he liked them, they were catchy, they worked musically. His repertoire built up over years is basically a potted history of the US working class and their struggles. Seeger picked up songs as he travelled round the US, when he started travelling around the world, he did the same performing songs in languages that he recognised he would never ever speak, such as Japanese, Hindi, Spanish, Swahili amongst others. Some of his attempts at this were unintentionally comical (Manyura Manyash, apparently the name of a Scottish folk song which he sang with a very fake accent.) others went on to inspire. One of his best remembered foreign songs and one which shows the generous character of the man was Wimoweh. He introduced it to the world and different groups have done their own versions since, even pop versions. The song, however, is Pete Seegers phonetical rendition of a South African song composed and recorded by Solomon Linda called Mbube. The versions are somewhat different. Linda was paid a pittance for the song in the 1930s and received no royalties. When Pete Seeger heard about this, he immediately calculated how much in royalties he owed Linda and sent the cheque to his family. Plagiarism maybe basic to all culture, but for Seeger, theft wasn’t and he wrote the cheque out of a sense of fair play and perhaps solidarity, a trait not seen in that many performers.
Seeger’s protest music was different to that of other performers. He celebrated life, workers lives, their victories in language they could relate to. And he was like his friend Woody Guthrie an optimist. Many of his own compositions reflect this, such as Rainbow Race. In 2012 he appeared on the Colbert Report at the age of 93 and the song he chose to perform was an old one and despite the passage of time since he wrote it, Seeger had not lost his optimism. He sang Quite Early Morning, an optimistic song if ever there was one.
Don't you know it's darkest before the
Some say that humankind won't long endure
He must have been conscious of how short a time he had left on the planet and yet he was still optimistic about humanity’s future. He had lived through the Depression, WWII, the MacCarthy era, he had seen the collapse of the mass movement following the Vietnam war, the dark years of Reagan and Bush, the political stagnation of the 1990s and the defeat of three revolutions in Central America and yet he was still optimistic.
Now that Seeger is dead, his legacy will be the subject of yet more books, documentaries and false praise from his enemies. Even Barack Obama praised him after he died. Seeger had performed at his inauguration, caught up by the enthusiasm of liberals and the outright betrayal and prostration by the left not only in the US but around the world, he would have been better served to recall the lyrics of one of Woody Guthrie’s songs, The Greenback Dollar which was also performed by the Almanac Singers.
Take the two old parties, mister,
However, he did play for him, another of his few bad political judgements. But as I pointed out before, artists don’t live in a vacuum and his mistake has to seen in the context of the surrender of the left. It was also strangely fitting that the man who made We Shall Overcome a popular international song was there to see the first black president sworn in. This would certainly have played a role in his decision.
Obama said of him that. “Over the years, Pete used his voice and his hammer to strike blows for workers' rights and civil rights; world peace and environmental conservation, and he always invited us to sing along. For reminding us where we come from and showing us where we need to go, we will always be grateful to Pete Seeger.” The hypocrisy of the man is breath-taking. A man waging two wars, attacking workers rights, spying on just about everybody should try to co-opt Seeger in death.
Pete Seeger’s musical legacy is beyond dispute, no serious musicologist could ignore the man. His political legacy is another matter, the Obamas of the world will try to distort history. Pete Seeger was hounded, harassed, vilified, spied on, blacklisted and shunned. At every turn the US establishment tried to block and sabotage him. They were not reminded of where they had come from, they feared him, they feared where he pointed to. That alone makes Seeger an interesting figure. Younger people who may not have heard his music should check him out if for no other reason than the fact that they feared him for almost eight decades of music and activism. He of course did not fear them, his was a life of struggle and he kept on and persevered till he was 94, rising time and again to join in one struggle after another. Brecht said that it was those who struggled an entire lifetime were the one that were needed. Seeger was one of those.
Old devil fear, you with your icy hands
No storm nor fire can ever beat us down
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