Pete Seeger Turns 90

by: Paul Rosenberg

Sat May 09, 2009 at 20:45

Legenday folk singer and activist Pete Seeger turned 90 last Sunday, and Democracy Now! had quite a show in celebration.  I want to quote some excerpts of it, but I recommend you listen online-not just for the must, but also for the feeling in people's voices.  I'm writing a lot about hegemony this weekend, and Pete's life and work strikes a very clear, very stark contrast with the workings of hegemonic discourse.

I'm just going to present clips of what different people had to say.  I've chosen them to speak for me as well.

AMY GOODMAN: Bruce Springsteen, who sang Woody Guthrie's original version of "This Land Is Your Land" with Pete Seeger at President Obama's inauguration this year, headlined Sunday night's concert and began with a moving tribute to Seeger.
    BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN: As Pete and I traveled to Washington for President Obama's inaugural celebration, he told me the-he told me the entire story of "We Shall Overcome," how it moved from a labor movement song and, with Pete's inspiration, had been adopted by the civil rights movement.

    And that day, as we sang "This Land Is Your Land," I looked at Pete. The first black president of the United States was seated to his right. And I thought of-I thought of the incredible journey that Pete had taken. You know, my own growing up in the '60s, a town scarred by race rioting, made that moment nearly unbelievable. And Pete had thirty extra years of struggle and real activism on his belt. He was so happy that day. It was like, Pete, you outlasted the bastards, man. You just outlasted them. It was so nice. It was so nice.

    At rehearsals the day before, it was freezing. It was like fifteen degrees. And Pete was there, he had his flannel shirt on. I said, "Man, you better wear something besides that flannel shirt!" He says, "Yeah, I've got my long johns on under this thing." I said-and I asked him, I said, "How do you want to approach 'This Land Is Your Land'?" as it'd be near the end of the show. And all he said was, "Well, I know I want to sing all the verses. You know, I want to sing all the ones that Woody wrote, especially the two that get left out, you know, about private property and the relief office." And I thought, of course, you know, that's what Pete's done his whole life: he sings all the verses all the time, especially the ones that we'd like to leave out of our history as a people, you know?
Paul Rosenberg :: Pete Seeger Turns 90
Speaking of which, they played a clip from the inaguration:

PETE SEEGER: [singing with Bruce Springsteen and Tao Rodriguez-Seeger] I've roamed and rambled and I followed my footsteps
     To the sparkling sands of her diamond deserts
     And all around me a voice was sounding
     This land was made for you and me.

     This land is your land, this land is my land
     From California to the New York Island
     From the Redwood Forest to the Gulf Stream waters
     This land was made for you and me.

     In the squares of the city, under shadow of the steeple
     At the relief office, I saw my people
     As they stood there hungry, I stood there whistling
     This land was made for you and me.

     A great high wall there tried to stop me
     A great big sign there said private property
     But on the other side it didn't say nothing
     That side was made for you and me.

     This land is your land, this land is my land
     From California to the New York Island...

A behind-the-stage interview snippet, I just happen to like:

AMY GOODMAN: Hi, Pete. What are you proudest of accomplishing in these first ninety years? And can you start by saying your name?

     PETE SEEGER: My name, I think, is Pete Seeger, but I'm losing my memory. I think the best thing I've ever done is stay married to an extraordinary person, who had three wonderful young people that we've raised and six wonderful grandchildren.

     REPORTER: Hi, Pete. Back here.

     PETE SEEGER: Who?

     REPORTER: Hi, Pete. Back here. How are you doing? Happy birthday. Describe, if you will, what this night is like for you, to have all these great artists here honoring you.

     PETE SEEGER: Well, normally I'm against big things. I think the world is going to be saved by millions of small things. Too many things can go wrong when they get big. Look at the scalpers that got into the act with this particular evening, doubling the price of tickets. But it, needless to say, was a great honor, and these absolutely fantastic musicians.

Dr. Bernice Johnson Reagon, founder of Sweet Honey In The Rock:

DR. BERNICE JOHNSON REAGON: I'm Bernice Johnson Reagon. I was born in Southwest Georgia in the country. And the first time I heard Pete Seeger was on TV with the Weavers doing the Hootenanny. But I didn't know him as Pete Seeger.

I met him as a human being because of the Albany, Georgia civil rights movement in the 1960s. And he actually thought the singing in Southwest Georgia was so powerful that they should organize a singing group. And he talked about the Almanac Singers and the Weavers and said to Jim Forman of SNCC, "If you organized a group, you would have a group that could travel all over the country singing songs about the movement, and they might also bring financial support to the movement." And so, Cordell Reagon, who was a SNCC field secretary, organized the first group of Freedom Singers. I was an alto, Rutha Harris was soprano, and Charles Neblett was bass. And Pete was really the person who actually identified that body of work. And in '63, we traveled all over the country, and it-sometimes they called us the singing newspaper.

But he was really transformative in my life. And one of the important things about Pete is that he was married to a woman named Toshi. And the first time I did not go home for Christmas, I spent Christmas at the Seegers'. And Toshi booked the Freedom Singers, and I was the contact, so my foundation for the business part of music comes from Toshi Seeger. So, of course, when I had my first baby, and my baby was a girl, that girl's name is Toshi Reagon. And so, the Seegers are powerful forces in my life and in my work.

The other thing that Seeger taught me was the idea of a working singer, that you did not have to be a star. You had to know you were a singer. You had to know what your music was. And you had to be willing to do it for the rest of your life, as long as you had voice. And people would keep up with you. They would catch up with you if you did not go away. And it was a very important model for a young singer. And as a Freedom Singer, we made $10 a week. It was the perfect way to start my career as a musician, but it was looking at Pete Seeger and his years and years of doing music as a part of struggle that really inspired me. He was a very important model.

And what's incredible is that he has not-he has not broken stride in any way. So, now he is a ninety-year-old. If you live to be ninety, you could just take the whole thing to your grave, you know?

And the story of "We Shall Overcome":

MIKE BURKE: Can you talk about Pete Seeger's connection to the song "We Shall Overcome"?

DR. BERNICE JOHNSON REAGON: Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie went to Highlander Folk School during the 1940s. Zilphia Horton, the wife of Myles Horton, who was one of the founders of Highlander, was the music director. She taught Pete a song that had come to Highlander from people who went on strike from Charleston to the American Tobacco Company. And so, Pete took this song, and he said that he took it back home, and he was doing a lot of concerts for union organizing. And he said the song really didn't do much.

But he made some changes. He changed "I" to "we." And instead of "I'll" or "I will," which is the way we sing it as a church song, he said he changed it to "I shall," because it sounded better. And he also added the verse, "We'll walk hand-in-hand."

And this song was taught at Highlander to the students who came there on Easter weekend 1960 after their sit-in work in Nashville, Tennessee. They took the song back home. And at an organizing meeting, the students who were sit-in leaders actually started to sing the freedom songs they had been doing. And Guy Carawan led this particular song, and they stood, and they joined hands. And from that point, this became the theme song of a movement.

And it is Pete Seeger who is the link. If you start with black people striking in Charleston, go into the one place in the South during the '30s and '40s where black and white people could organize together, Pete learning the song there, taking it north, including teaching it to Guy, who ended up back at Highlander. Myles Horton said that Highlander sort of incubated the song until it could be returned to black people organizing against racism. So Pete is a crucial and very important link, having things pass through him no matter where he was.

Ani DiFranco:

AMY GOODMAN: Do you remember when you first heard Pete Seeger or a Pete Seeger song?

ANI DiFRANCO: Well, yeah. I'm not sure when I first heard a Pete Seeger song. I was probably really little, the folk canon was very much a part of my upbringing. So, almost before memory, I'm sure I heard his music. And then I met him at the Clearwater Festival that he and Toshi have been running for forever and contributing to the cleaning up of our Hudson River, and I shared the stage with him first there and on his home turf.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you have a favorite song of his?

ANI DiFRANCO: I don't think so. You know, I think that, like any folksinger, it's not about one song or one moment, you know, in a more of a pop model of music. It's about a lifetime of-you know, it's almost like every song that he's offered is another verse, you know, in the great song of his life and of our society.

Dar Williams:

AMY GOODMAN: When do you remember first hearing Pete?

DAR WILLIAMS: Let's see. Well, you know, as Peter said, you know, there are certain things that are just in your DNA. So, who knows when any of us first heard Pete? But I do remember a friend of mine working at a camp for disabled kids. And I was just out of college, and I was, you know, trying to figure out what my contribution to society would be. And he showed up and was-he sang "She'll Be Coming Around the Mountain."

And nobody really knew he was coming. It was a camp for disabled kids. You know, there was nothing-it was just he was there to sing music that would include people. And kids in wheelchairs were singing; kids were singing in sign language; kids with disabilities, with very limited abilities to, you know, participate, were participating.

All the counselors were in tears. I was in tears, because he was just-and I just thought, you know, that spirit of inclusiveness, that spirit of unity. Of all these different abilities, these kids who have this, you know, desire to express and be a part of it, he's completely succeeded. You know? And everyone was going, "Whoo-hoo!"

That's when I realized what his power was and that the power is-what Spalding Gray called like "horizontal." You know, it wasn't vertical, from on top of a mountain speaking down. It was radiating outwards. And that's when I realized that that's the kind of power, that if I ever had it, that's the way I would do it. So, my cognizance of his power was around then.

Also on the program: Joan Baez, Steve Earle, Tom Morello, Tim Robbins, Michael Franti, Billy Bragg, and of course, lots more Pete.

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Just a thought (0.00 / 0)
you might want to spell his name correctly in the title :)

I probably have better things to do with my time than this.

So, You've Discovered I'm Sleep Deprived (4.00 / 1)
less than 4 hours last night.

It's not so much that I mis-spelled it.  I mis-typed it and just didn't look closely enough.  All those vowels start to look the same after a certain point.

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3

[ Parent ]
:-) (0.00 / 0)
I know the sleep deprived thing.

I probably have better things to do with my time than this.

[ Parent ]
It's pretty amazing Seeger even went .. (0.00 / 0)
considering he doesn't go very many places these days that he can't walk to .. and sadly ... Pete Seeger doing Bring 'em Home on the Mike Douglas Show(I think .. but not sure) was on YouTube for a while .. but it got taken down(fuckin' copyright violation nonsense I gather) .. Seeger is a real American original

Speaking of the YouTube clip .. (0.00 / 0)
it is here:

seems like someone else uploaded it recently .. though there are 20 or so seconds less in this one then the original

[ Parent ]
Hippies and Hardhats united (4.00 / 3)
Have a look at this clip from the Johnny Cash show:

During Worried Man Blues the camera pans to the audience to show an audience of beehive hairdos, holy rollers and rednecks in the Sunday finest singing along with Americas number one pinko commie hippie.

This moment, far more than the Smothers Brothers/Big Muddy appearance shows what made the sixties so terrifying for elites-the prospect of unified front formulating a positive, populist agenda in opposition to the national security state.

It started to happen then and is what we need to reconstruct now..

[ Parent ]
Very encouraging story - the work of a single man CAN make a difference! (0.00 / 0)
And I think it's a good omen that Seeger is still with us in the 21st century. Because his voice and what he has to say is still as important as 60 years ago!

Congratulations, Pete Seeger, and all the best for the next 90!

Pete Seeger was the first person to teach me an adult concept (4.00 / 1)
of right and wrong. My mom played his music for us as children, and that was when I first began to understand a larger logic of human decency, beyond don't pull the dog's tail, etc. I'm sure that's true of many, many people; it's an amazing, amazing achievement, though, to do that- to put social justice advocacy in terms that are immediately resonant to even a child too young to read a newspaper.  

Very Astute (0.00 / 0)
In fact, looking back, I can see quite clearly that I was raised in an environment where adult concepts of right and wrong were all around me--and that that certainly wasn't the case for everyone I knew.

Pete Seeger was central to that, but he was by no means alone.  I've had plenty of parental issues in my life, just like everyone else, but one thing's for certain, they sure knew how to create a rich moral environment to grow up in that was fun and inspiring, too.

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3

[ Parent ]
Highlight of the Inauguration Festivities (0.00 / 0)
Was absolutely Seeger. Aside of course from the new president bit.

John McCain opposes the GI Bill.

When you have principles in common, six degrees of separtion is less (0.00 / 0)
The first time I heard all the verses of This Land is Your Land, including the one about no trespassin on private property was during the making of a documentary about the Hollywood Blacklist called Hollywood on Trial that was done by my ex husband, me and his film partner.

It took 3 years. In the decades after the Blacklist ended it was not commonly known  that it had even existed. So the documentary created quite a stir.  It was trashed in 3 pages by the right winger Hilton Kramer in the NY Times and nominated for an Asademy Award.  Hollywood was still esperimental and lefty at the end of the 70's.  Lillian Hellman handed out the award that year.  But Rocky won best picture and it was the end of left, experimental, interesting filmmaking. The other films nominated for Best Picture were "All the President's Men", "Bound for Glory"(about Woody Guthrie), "Network",  "Taxi Driver".  Each one was better than that cartoon that won, in story, politics and art.  

Doing the film we found an Emmy winning writer, who when he won his award,  just blurted out that he had been blacklisted for 10 years.  It was great footage. His name was Millard Lampell.  He sang us the song which we have in the film because he had been one of the original Almanac Singers along with Pete and Woody.  

People with the same values only have a couple of degrees of separation....even in different spheres of endeavor.

Below a photo of the young Almanac singers

"Incrementalism isn't a different path to the same place, it could be a different path to a different place"


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