The late Pete Seeger performs “This Land Is Your Land” with Bruce Springsteen in January 2009 on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.
Freethought San Marcos: A column
by LAMAR HANKINS
Several weeks ago, I began writing a column I intended to publish on the first Wednesday in May to mark the 95th birthday of Pete Seeger. But Pete died this past week before reaching that milestone. Among the handful of public figures in America during my lifetime that I consider heroes, Pete is prominent.
I must have been about sixteen years old when I discovered Pete Seeger. For a boy from Port Arthur by way of Vidor, Pete was a revelation. He has always delighted me, challenged me, entertained me, encouraged me, educated me, and perked me up when I was feeling down. After I married, his music was an integral part of my family’s life: Pete’s “Hobo’s Lullaby” was our daughter’s bedtime song when she was a toddler, and Pete’s music provided the soundtrack for family road trips. Even though, in the early 1990s, Pete began to have problems with his vocal cords, he kept finding ways to make music that I found enjoyable and meaningful.
I’ve been lucky enough to see him sing in person several times, at least twice with Arlo Guthrie. It was a thrill for me to hear him sing on national television on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial with Bruce Springsteen, his grandson Tao Rodriguez-Seeger, and others as part of the pre-inaugural festivities in 2009. That appearance happened only because of a relentless hope that the US and the world might get better under an Obama presidency. While there have been some improvements, I’m sure that Pete became as disappointed in our national government as I have. As Pete said in one of his songs (from 1968), “…better start over separating false from true.”
But true to his values, Pete insisted that he would sing “This Land Is Your Land,” Woody Guthrie’s anthem about America, only if he could sing a couple of verses that are frequently left out:
In the squares of the city, by the shadow of the steeple
In the relief office, I saw my people
As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking
Is this land made for you and me?
A great high wall there, that 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
The verses of many (perhaps most) folk songs get changed up a bit as they are sung over and over, and that is true of these two verses. The second one is often misunderstood. It refers to the signs that tried to keep union organizers from talking to workers on the private property where the factories operated and in the fields where our produce was harvested, particularly during the Depression.
Pete was basically optimistic, but his experience taught him that the human condition might lead to disaster for the human race. He said publicly several times in the last two decades that he gave the world only about a 50-50 chance of surviving the next hundred years because of our ability, and apparent willingness, to destroy ourselves. That’s a sobering thought – one that the rest of us should heed.
If you don’t know much about Pete, you might not know that his banjo carried the words “This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender.” He was a kind and generous man with the courage of his convictions. He helped workers, civil rights activists, anti-war protestors, and environmentalists further their causes through his music, and he was an activist in his own right. He started, with a few others, a well-known project to get the Hudson River cleaned up from the pollution caused largely by factories that used the river as their garbage dump. Pete and many others built a river sloop that sailed up and down the river promoting its cleanup and educating children about the environment.
Pete’s basic philosophy of life was perhaps best summed up in these lyrics, sung to the tune of “Ode to Joy,” the last movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony:
Build the road of peace before us
Build it wide and deep and long
Speed the slow, remind the eager
Help the weak and guide the strong
None shall push aside another
None shall let another fall
Work beside me sisters and brothers,
All for one and one for all
I like the sound of a soprano saxophone playing the melody in Pete’s version so much that I made it the ringtone for my cell phone.
Another trait that attracted me to Pete was his courage. He never failed to have the courage of his convictions. He stood up to the McCarthyites in Congress. He opposed tyranny wherever he found it. And he used music to oppose his government’s policies whenever he thought they were wrong. If I had said this to Pete, though, he would likely have responded with something like, “I’m not courageous. I’m just an American with the freedom to follow my own conscience.”
Pete’s protest songs are legendary. He contributed his arrangement of “We Shall Overcome,” which has been used since the late 1950s in the civil rights struggles in this country, and by struggling people all around the world. One of his most famous creations was the anti-Vietnam War song “Waist Deep In the Big Muddy,” which was censored by CBS from the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour until the brothers’ protests caused CBS to relent in 1968 and allow Pete to sing it for a national audience that numbered 7 million people – probably the largest audience to hear Pete sing by himself at any one time. That song expressed the feelings of many of us who opposed the war from its earliest days. Less than five weeks later, President Johnson announced that he would not seek his party’s nomination for President again. The tide of public opinion had begun to turn against him, and Pete’s song played a part in that.
Another quality that attracted me to Pete for over fifty years was his humanity. He saw this world as a place where we are all in this together and where the best way to live is to help one another when we can. This idea is included in the words of “Ode to Joy,” quoted above. And it’s also found in this remark: “I like to say I’m more conservative than Goldwater. He just wanted to turn the clock back to when there was no income tax. I want to turn the clock back to when people lived in small villages and took care of each other,” Seeger said.
Pete followed his philosophy in matters great and small. In 1999, when the Mayor of New York, Rudy Giuliani, wanted to sell off over a hundred urban garden plots used by people to grow vegetables, Pete was there to help the gardeners, with a new song written just for them, just as he had supported other workers trying to better their lives, whether in the coal mines or in America’s farm fields.
I remember hearing Pete at the Kerrville Folk Festival about twenty-five years ago. He started out singing some of his political/topical songs that offended a few rowdy individuals in the audience who must not have known much about Pete. Pete picked up on their hostility right away and started singing some old songs from the American Revolution condemning King George, and others from political campaigns of 150 or more years before as a way to let people know that music has always been used to convey political ideas, some of which we may agree with and others that might not be so pleasing. He could do this because he knew the words and tunes to probably over a thousand songs of all kinds. The rowdies settled down, and Pete managed to get back to more current topical songs later in his concert.
Pete’s embrace of music was inclusive. His musical repertoire covered everything from Appalachian folk music, toWoody Guthrie, to Huddie Ledbetter, to Cuban music, African popular and traditional music, classical music, and the music of virtually every land. He was accomplished on many instruments, especially the banjo, the 12-string guitar, and the recorder. He could make music with no instrument other than his hands and knees, and he was a great story-teller. Sometimes he interspersed stories with music, which often provided an ironic background for the story. One of my favorites is a story he told between verses of “Seek and You Shall Find”:
I’ve got a story about two little maggots, you know, little worms. They were sitting on the handle of a shovel. The shovel was in a workshop, and early in the morning a workman came and put the shovel on his shoulder and started down the street to work. Well, the two little maggots held on as long as they could, but finally they jiggled off. One fell down into a crack in the sidewalk and the next fell off onto the curb, and from the curb he fell into a cat – a very dead cat. Well, the second maggot just started in eating, and he ate and he ate and he ate for three days. He couldn’t eat any more. He finally said, “(yawn) I think I’ll go hunt up my brother.” The second maggot humped himself up over the curb, humped along the sidewalk, and came to the crack. He leaned and said, “Hello, are you down there brother?” …“Yes, I’m down here all right. I’ve been here for three days without a bite to eat or a drop to drink. I’ve nearly starved to death. But you, you’re so sleek and fat. To what do you attribute your success?” …“Brains and personality, brother, brains and personality.”
For over forty years my wife and I have a shorthand for acknowledging how lucky someone has been. We just remark that the person must have “brains and personality” or must have “fallen into a dead cat.” We know what we mean.
It’s impossible to tell Pete’s story without mentioning his wife of almost 70 years, Toshi Ota Seeger, who died last year. In many ways, she directed his career, handling all the mundane tasks as well as the financial ones, and worked side by side with him in many projects and causes that they championed together. Likewise, Pete’s life marched closely with Woody Guthrie’s life, until Woody was struck down by Huntington’s Disease, which rendered him unable to care for himself the last fifteen years of his life. There is a scene in the movie “Alice’s Restaurant” in which Pete and Arlo sing to Woody in his hospital room.
Woody and Pete sang together often before they both went off to World War II in the early 1940s. They sung in a pre-war group called “The Almanac Singers.” After the war, Pete performed with Lee Hays, Ronnie Gilbert, and Fred Hellerman in a group called “The Weavers,” until they were black-listed during the McCarthy Era. Their most famous hits were Huddie Ledbetter’s song “Goodnight Irene,” “Kisses Sweeter Than Wine” (written mostly by Pete and Lee Hays to an Irish tune adapted by Huddie Ledbetter), “Tzena, Tzena, Tzena” (written by Issachar Miron, a Polish soldier in a regiment of the British Army stationed in what is now Israel, and modified by several others and later translated into many languages, the most recent being Arabic – “and they all harmonize together,” as Pete liked to say), and “If I Had A Hammer” (written by Pete and Lee Hays). Most of these songs were performed on the Hit Parade television show and appeared on the Billboard Magazine charts.
Pete’s “Where Have All the Flowers Gone” was made more famous by others than by Pete, as was his “Turn, Turn, Turn,” based on verses from Ecclesiastes. I like almost everyone’s version of both songs, but I’ve always been partial to Pete’s.
Pete seemed to have inherited his love of music of all sorts from his parents and the family’s musicologist and folklorist friend John Lomax. Charles Seeger established the first musicology curriculum in the U.S. at the University of California, was a founder of the American Musicological Society, and followed the academic discipline of ethnomusicology. Pete’s mother, Constance Edson Seeger, was trained at the Paris Conservatory of Music as a concert violinist and later taught violin at the Julliard School in New York City. She is credited with leaving musical instruments strewn around the house for Pete to experiment with as a child.
In the past decade, Pete often appeared on Democracy Now! to talk about issues that concerned him and the nation. During these discussions, his values were always clear, just as they were in much of his music. Almost ten years ago, Pete told Amy Goodman, “I wish I could live another 20 years just to see things that are happening, because I believe that women working with children will get men to wake up to what a foolish thing it is to seek power and glory and money in your life. What a foolish thing.”
Pete also explained the importance of doing even small things to make this a better world, especially when we join together with others, something he described in an early song by singing, “Drops of water turn a mill, singly none.” Here, in prose, his metaphor is more complicated, but makes the same point:
I honestly believe that the future is going to be millions of little things saving us. I imagine a big seesaw, and at one end of this seesaw is on the ground with a basket half-full of big rocks in it. The other end of the seesaw is up in the air. It’s got a basket one-quarter full of sand. And some of us got teaspoons, and we’re trying to fill up sand. A lot of people are laughing at us, and they say, “Ah, people like you have been trying to do that for thousands of years, and it’s leaking out as fast as you’re putting it in.” But we’re saying, “We’re getting more people with teaspoons all the time.” And we think, “One of these years, you’ll see that whole seesaw go zooop in the other direction.” And people will say, “Gee, how did it happen so suddenly?” Us and all our little teaspoons. Now granted, we’ve got to keep putting it in, because if we don’t keep putting teaspoons in, it will leak out, and the rocks will go back down again.
Finally, Pete made a related point with a story from the New Testament:
[T]here’s a wonderful parable in the New Testament: The sower scatters seeds. Some seeds fall in the pathway and get stamped on, and they don’t grow. Some fall on the rocks, and they don’t grow. But some seeds fall on fallow ground, and they grow and multiply a thousandfold. Who knows where some good little thing that you’ve done may bring results years later that you never dreamed of.
And that’s the Pete Seeger I have known and loved for over fifty years. Nothing I or anyone else can say about him is as powerful as listening to his music and reading how he viewed his own life and encouraged others to make this a better life for all. The world has been diminished by his passing, just as it was enriched by his life. Would that we all could do as well with our lives as Pete Seeger did with his.
LAMAR W. HANKINS, a former San Marcos city attorney, has penned the Freethought San Marcos column for the San Marcos Mercury since 2008. © 2014 | Lamar W. Hankins, Freethought San Marcos