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Pete Seeger for a Better Tomorrow

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Pete Seeger performing in the 50s

Pete Seeger performing in the 50s

I recently attended the first anniversary of the Ossining Documentary & Discussion Series (on the web: here, FB: here) and watched Pete Seeger: The Power of Song (watch the documentary: here, Pete Seeger on FB: here). The ODDS has been doing great work in Ossining. I’m happy to know some of the people involved (Victoria Gearity, Suzie Ross, Sue Donnely, Sharon Rowe) and hope I’ll have a chance to meet the rest before all is said and done. I was glad that one of my early breakthroughs against social anxiety was introducing myself to Pete Seeger and talking with him one summer day in Beacon

It’s a great movie of a great story, and I learned some things and realized some things and was really glad I showed up.

What did I learn? I learned that Pete Seeger began his career signing for labor unions and farmers, and it was this that lead to his blacklisting. It occurred to me that perhaps the Cold War wasn’t just about need an external enemy, about profits for the military industrial complex, but was also an assault on the labor movement, targeting Un-American Activities like trying to adjust the power balance between capital and labor. A cause for which government and corporate power have been working together right up until the present day (for example, FreedomWorks Putting Its War Chest to Work for ALEC’s Anti-Union Agenda in the States ). We don’t think of labor activism as a life and death struggle these days, but that’s what it was, and for a long time. And Pete Seeger was there.

Expressing distaste for Communism

Expressing distaste for Communism

I learned that Pete Seeger was more persevering and more heroic than I’d suspected. That he was blacklisted and kept touring, playing for school children, even when there was no money left. I’d forgotten about the Peekskill Riots and had never seen pictures of the broken car windows.

What I realized was that my understanding of my mother’s relationship to folk music was very incomplete. Folk music was an important part of my early political education, and I grew up listening to my mom’s record collection. I was particularly taken with Tom Paxton’s What Did You Learn in School Today? (“I learned that war is not so bad. I learned about the great! ones we have had”) (watch Pete Seeger sing it here) and the Chad Mitchell Trio’s John Birch Society (“Join the John Birch Society, help us fill the ranks. To get this movement started we need lots of tools and cranks”) (watch the boys perform it live here). What I didn’t realize was that her involvement in the years before I was born must have been more political than I suspected. People were playing folk music, lefty folk music, because they wanted to spur the creation of a different America. She was serious. She played the guitar, she went into the studio with her friends and played and sang. She wanted to organize Hootenannies, bring people together to play music and stand for something. It made me feel for her that my father wouldn’t allow any hootenannies (the same man who believed artichokes were just “an expensive way to eat mayonnaise”), how she cut off a part of herself for the sake of her marriage and her children. It made me feel for her years later in her little apartment when she was finally free to organize her hootenannies years after the folk music revolution had ceased to be. It made me realize how much I owe my life-long political stance to her, and through her to the folk music movement, and ultimately, to Pete Seeger.

(And go look up the Almanac Singers (here). And if you want to join me in thinking about creating the New Almanac Singers, let’s talk. Or a songwriting contest. We could talk about that too.)

And his political understanding resembles very closely what I’m trying to do now with Northern Westchester for a Better Tomorrow (on the web: here, on FB: here). He said, “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.” And he even references Paul Hawken, whose book Blessed Unrest I’ve recently been reading, coincidentally, and it’s a revelation. “There is something about participating. It is almost my religion. If the world is still here in 100 years, people will know the importance of participating, not just being spectators. That’s what this book, Blessed Unrest, by Paul Hawken is about. Millions of small groups around the world, that don’t necessarily all agree with one another, but they are made up of people who are not just sitting back waiting for someone to do things for them. No one can prove anything, but of course if I didn’t believe it had some kind of power, I wouldn’t be trying to do it.”

Pete Seeger has made an incalculable difference to thousands of people, many of whom will never know his name. He was able to say in his late 80’s, “I am more optimistic today than I’ve ever been in my entire long life.” His legacy – work hard, work with joy, and keep getting more optimistic – is a spur and an inspiration to me, and to many of us. His life, like his banjo, was “a machine that surrounds hate and forces it to surrender.” I know I want to work to make my life a machine with a purpose just as high.

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