Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Pete Seeger: folk singer, songwriter, and communist (May 3, 1919 – January 27, 2014)

 (Pete Seeger portrait by Robert Shetterly)
Pete Seeger died yesterday. The obituary notice in the New York Times. While he began to formally distance himself from the Communist Party USA in 1949, Seeger remained a lifelong “communist” (i.e., with a lower case ‘c’).
“Although the folk song revival in the thirties and forties never made a big splash in the mainstream of popular culture, it did create a national audience of folk music fans and a sizable collection of songs that were critical in reinforcing left-wing identity in the years that followed. By 1960 the folk music constituency had produced a new generation of singers and songwriters—and, most unexpectedly, commercial record companies took an interest. It did not take long for the work of performers like Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Phil Ochs, Tom Paxton, and other protégés of Seeger and Guthrie to become highly popular, and eventually to help shape the sensibilities of the emerging youth revolt.
The folk song revival turned out to be the most notable instance in which consciously left artists, working within the cultural apparatus of the organized left, ultimately influenced mainstream popular culture. Despite the effects of blacklisting and commercialization on the original project, its political impact was nevertheless substantial. From the thirties to the sixties a widening stream undoubtedly affected the consciousness of audiences that were attentive to it. Indeed, the movements of the sixties are hard to grasp unless one recognizes the ways in which music help crystallize the identities of many ‘alienated’ youth, and provided the occasion and emotional underpinning for numerous collective gatherings. Moreover, in the years since the sixties, protest themes continue to be heard in popular music oriented toward youth, and mass protests continue to be powered by political minded musicians. [….]
(Martin Luther King, Pete Seeger, Charis Horton, Rosa Parks, and Ralph Abernathy at Highlander Institute in 1957.)
In the early sixties music and protest were more deeply intertwined that at any time since the days of the Wobblies. Not only did Dylan and other New York-based folksingers help inspire support and recruit activists for the civil rights movement, but the movement itself, based in the black churches, was producing its own songs, rooted in the rich soil of gospel singing. The interpenetration of these two cultural streams can be illustrated by the story of ‘We Shall Overcome’—the great anthem of the civil rights movement. This was a song first learned by Seeger from the singing of Southern unionists in the early forties. They in turn had adapted it from a traditional gospel hymn, ‘I Will Be All Right.’ ‘We Shall Overcome’ was sung in left-wing circles during the forties and fifties, and was carried to the Highlander Folk School, a left training school for civil rights workers, by a Seeger disciple, Guy Carawan. Carawan taught the song to the first group of student sit-inners in 1960, and it immediately caught on—finally being brought back into the black churches and restored again as a gospel-style hymn. There can be little doubt that the song played a crucial role in binding people together in the face of fearful threats; singing ‘We Shall Overcome’ with thousands of others—its melody permitting rich, spontaneous harmonizing, its lyrics simply and directly addressing fears and announcing hopes—was an emotional experience that surely helped sustain mass involvement in the movement. Indeed, the song is now sung worldwide in an astonishing array of diverse protest contexts. — Richard Flacks in Making History: The Radical Tradition in American Life (Columbia University Press, 1988)
(Roger Johnson and Pete Seeger leading Freedom School students singing ‘We Shall Overcome’ at Palmer’s Crossing Community Center, Freedom Summer, 1964)

“Banks of Marble” by Peter Seeger

I’ve traveled round this country
From shore to shining shore.
It really made me wonder
The things I heard and saw.

I saw the weary farmer,
Plowing sod and loam;
I heard the auction hammer
Just knocking down his home.

But the banks are made of marble,
With a guard at every door,
And the vaults are stuffed with silver,
That the farmer sweated for.

I’ve seen the seaman standing
Idly by the shore.
And I heard their bosses sayin’
Got no work for you no more.

But the banks are made of marble,
With a guard at every door,
And the vaults are stuffed with silver,
That the seaman sweated for.

I’ve seen the weary miner,
Scrubbing coal dust from his back,
And I heard his children cryin’,
Got no coal to heat the shack.

But the banks are made of marble,
With a guard at every door,
And the vaults are stuffed with silver,
That the miner sweated for.

I’ve seen my brothers working
Throughout this mighty land;
I prayed we’d get together,
And together make a stand.

[Final Chorus:]
Then we’d might own those banks of marble,
With a guard at every door;
And we would share those vaults of silver,
That we have sweated for.


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