Freethought San Marcos: A column
by LAMAR W. HANKINS
Pete Seeger turned 90 years old on May 3. He remains one of the most optimistic persons I know of, and not in any sentimental, maudlin sense. He believes that if enough people do enough small things to make this world better, sooner or later change will come. He explains his philosophy this way: imagine a seesaw with a big, heavy rock on one end and a box with sand on the other. The seesaw is tilted to the end where the rock is. If each of us keeps putting a teaspoon of sand in that box, eventually the box will weigh more than the big rock, and the seesaw will move.
For those of us aware of our surroundings in the 1960s, it was hard not to know who Pete was. I first became aware of his music several years before I knew about him. The old radio program- Your Hit Parade – was also a television program in the 1950s and featured each week’s top hits. In the summer of 1950, Pete sang with the group The Weavers. Their version of Huddie Ledbetter’s song “Goodnight Irene” became a number one hit.
In 1951, the Weavers – Lee Hays, Fred Hellerman, Ronnie Gilbert, and Pete – wrote “Kisses Sweeter Than Wine,” which became a hit for most of the decade. The recording by Jimmie Rodgers and one by Frankie Vaughn in the late 50s became hits here and in Britain. I first heard both songs on Your Hit Parade.
In the late 40s, a version of an old spiritual became “We shall overcome” and was a staple of union organizers. In the 50s, Pete adapted it into a version that became the anthem of the civil rights movement of the 50s and 60s, and has become known all around the world since then.
For me, the best part of the inaugural celebration of Barack Obama’s ascendancy to the presidency was the musical tribute on the Sunday before the inauguration. It featured Bruce Springsteen, Arlo Guthrie, and others, along with Pete. Their rendition of Woodie Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land” included the verses usually left out:
In the squares of the city – By the shadow of the steeple
At the relief office – I saw my people
As they stood there hungry – I stood there with them
This land was made for you and me.
A great high wall there – It tried to stop me
A great big sign there – said private property
On the other side – it didn’t say nothing!
That side was made for you and me!
Of course, there are variations of these two verses, but Woodie Guthrie thought that changing up songs to fit your mood or preference was natural, and he not only encouraged it, he did it regularly himself.
Pete’s song, “Waist Deep In the Big Muddy,” created what became for me the quintessential metaphor for the War in Vietnam (“we’re waist deep in the Big Muddy and the big fool says to push on”). Pete sang it on the television variety show, “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour.” It was probably just a coincidence, but the next month Lyndon Johnson withdrew his name as a candidate for president. Pete’s song was another teaspoon of sand into the box that helped change the status quo.
During Pete’s birthday concert (also a benefit for the Hudson River Sloop Clearwater, Inc., a nonprofit group that Pete founded to clean up the Hudson River), Bruce Springsteen had the following to say about Pete:
“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?
“At some point—at some point, Pete Seeger decided he’d be a walking, singing reminder of all of America’s history. He’d be a living archive of America’s music and conscience, a testament of the power of song and culture to nudge history along, to push American events towards more humane and justified ends. He would have the audacity and the courage to sing in the voice of the people.
“Now, despite Pete’s somewhat benign grandfatherly appearance, you know, he is a creature of a stubborn, defiant and nasty optimism. He carries—inside him, he carries a steely toughness that belies that grandfatherly facade, and it won’t let him take a step back from the things he believes in.
“At ninety, he remains a stealth dagger through the heart of our country’s illusions about itself. Pete Seeger still sings all the verses all the time, and he reminds us of our immense failures, as well as shining a light towards our better angels on the horizon, where the country we’ve imagined and hold dear, we hope, awaits us. And on top of it, he never wears it on his sleeve. He’s become comfortable and casual in this immense role.”
A few years ago, Pete sang at the Kerrville Music Festival. Some in the crowd became hostile at an antiwar song – it may have been Pete’s song “Where have all the flowers gone.” Without missing a beat, Pete sang some songs dating back to the Revolutionary War and then focused on more traditional folk music. Some believe that he knew at least a thousand songs from memory during the height of his musical career. One of the things I’ve always admired about Pete is that he didn’t focus on building his career, he just did what he thought was important. And what was important a great deal of the time was supporting people who were fighting for their rights, seeking justice, or trying to make this world a better place.
If I’ve ever had a hero, it is Pete Seeger. And he would be mighty unhappy to hear me or anyone else say so. He is a modest man who has shared his talents and dreams with us for nearly 70 years. I hope that those of you who haven’t discovered him will do so. His discography begins in 1941 (interrupted only by his Army service during World War II) and continues with over 100 albums into this decade. There are albums that focus on children, some on the environment, and others on traditional folk music. But all of his music reflects our lives and gives us hope for a better future. Among his most memorable songs, and one that is often used at funerals and memorial services is based on some verses from Ecclesiastes: “To Everything There is a Season (Turn, Turn, Turn).”
Whenever I’m in a pessimistic mood, I think of Pete Seeger, put one of his albums in the CD player, and soon I’m feeling optimistic once again.
© Freethought San Marcos, Lamar W. Hankins