Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Where have all the flowers gone?

On chilly day in November 1969, I boarded a chartered bus in St. Paul headed for the "protest to end all protests" in Washington DC.  The ticket represented money I did not have and it meant I wouldn't eat much until after Christmas, but somehow I had been convinced that this was the gathering that really would end USA's involvement in Vietnam.  Little did I know that Washington was designed to shrug off futile gestures like this.

A fellow passenger had packed a guitar and somewhere east of Chicago, decided to organize a sing-a-long.  My only previous experience with chartered busses had come as a result of choir trips so I expected that we would soon be rocking the bus.  It turned out that political types weren't much for singing. Few people knew the lyrics past the first line.  After butchering "Where have all the flowers gone," the guitarist tried, "I've been working on the railroad" and then gave up.

I pretty much gave up on folk music as an organizing / political tool after that.  Shortly thereafter, I heard Tom Lehrer's jibe at folk-singing as politics:
So join in the folk-song army,
Guitars are the weapons we bring,
To the fight against ignorance, war, and injustice,
Ready, Aim, Sing!
Having said all this, I am pretty certain I learned almost all the songs Pete Seeger wrote.  And some of them like "We Shall Overcome" gave courage to people in frightening situations.  RIP Pete!

RIP Pete Seeger

By Charles P. Pierce on January 28, 2014

I have no intention of marking Pete Seeger's passing by relitigating the Cold War. A lot of very good people paid an ghastly and inordinate price for having spent the 1930s and 1940s looking for a solution to an economic catastrophe outside a political spectrum that ran from Herbert Hoover to Huey Long. Seeger spent his life in the most honorable way possible -- he tried to teach America about itself. First, he helped teach it about itself through all the music it had forgotten, a darker and infinitely more fascinating place than the America that was selling itself Brylcreem on the TV, an America of murder ballads, and of the pain wrought in music of all its lost promises, and of the hope that the music itself could redeem those llost promises. There was a through line in the music from "Oh, I Had A Golden Thread" to "Ballad of a Thin Man," even though the story about Seeger's going after the cables with an ax when Dylan plugged in at Newport is arguably apocryphal, just as there was a through line in history line from the Dust Bowl to "We Shall Overcome," and it wound through some very interesting -- and some very scary -- places. Music is the way America always has talked to itself, even on those occasions on which it was whispering because what it was saying was dangerous to say out loud. Music is the way to say things in this country you might otherwise wish not to be overheard. That was the language Pete Seeger spoke, year after year, demonstration after demonstration, cause after cause, war after war, for most of his 94 years, and that was the language he spoke in 2008, when he shared a stage with Bruce Springsteen and insisted -- with Springsteen's full and enthusiastic approval -- that every verse of "This Land Is Your Land" be sung, including these:

As I went walking I saw a sign there
And on the sign it said "No Trespassing."
But on the other side it didn't say nothing,
That side was made for you and me.

In the shadow of the steeple I saw my people,
By the relief office I seen my people;
As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking
Is this land made for you and me?

Then he tried to teach it by his example, by being a gentle presence in the issues of the day, from Civil Rights to Vietnam to nuclear power to environmentalism, to adventurism in Central America, to the Occupy movement, which, as he saw clearly, was an attempt to sing those forgotten verses to a new melody. And he did it with a smile. He loved the wide sky and the blue of the Hudson River. He loved the land and the water and the air. How could anything be more American than that? He loved the country and its people and the idea of it that outlasted so many attempts to hijack it for other purposes. Pete Seeger was a great American because he dared to be thought otherwise. That is the only real qualification. It gets more dear as the years go by. more

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