Bring Em Home – A tribute to Pete Seeger on his 92nd birthday
Once upon a time, Pete Seeger was a journalism student at Harvard University.
Despite the fact that he came from a musical family – his father one of the 20th Century’s great celebrated musicologists – he felt so compelled by the human struggle, the story of humanity, its plight for justice, amidst nature, against itself, that he chose to study journalism.
Life had other plans for Pete Seeger, though.
According to a remarkable biography by David King Dunaway titled How Can I Keep From Singing?: The Ballad of Pete Seeger, the young journalist spent some time traveling while in college. He worked his way from place to place, sketching. He had a love for visual art and thought perhaps that would be the diversionary path down which his life would ultimately proceed.
The banjo thing just kind of happened.
He dropped out of Harvard, disinterested in academic pursuits, and took the artist’s path. The journalist has never really left him, though. His compulsion about the human struggle toward understanding has, it turns out, been the driving force of his music career. It’s much easier to understand this sort of thing when looking back on a person’s life than I reckon it is to be inside that particular life, following one’s own conscience, trying to explain to those around you exactly what it is you’re doing, and why.
And so Pete Seeger’s life has thus far played out. He became quite good on the banjo. He started on the 4-string, but a trip to Asheville, NC (go figure) introduced him to the 5-stringer. He became so skilled at it, his instructional banjo book continues to be a touchstone guide for learning the instrument to this day. He’s rarely celebrated as an instrumentalist, but his unmatchable skill on that thing bears mention. (It almost bears bolding, italics, and underlining, but that sort of thing frustrates my eyes, so I’ll just use the words which would make it so.)
But it was the labor movement which came to so captivate the young banjo player. He and his friends started a collective in New York City in the 1930s called the Almanac Singers, which was a pretty radical outfit for the time. Running with the torch of Joe Hill, they played at union halls and on picket lines, re-purposing folk songs for the purpose of encouraging community involvement, empowerment, faith-keeping. The Almanacs had a short run – just a couple of years – before disbanding when the US was pulled into WWII.
Later, he’d team up with Lee Hays (a fellow Almanac) to form the Weavers (including Fred Hellerman and Ronnie Gilbert). They would have a short run, too, as their radicalism would come into question by the House UnAmerican Activities Comittee. Under scrutiny for involvement with the Communist Party, much of the accused either spilled the beans or pleaded the 5th. Seeger decided instead to go with the less-utilized plea of the 1st Amendment. He wasn’t the only one to take this radical route, but he certainly gets plenty of credit for it. He showed up at the trial with banjo in hand, intent on proving that the songs he sang weren’t dangerous at all, but were just songs about universal ideas. The HUAC wasn’t amused. He was blacklisted.
I’m getting away from myself. There are better folks than I who have biographized Seeger. (I’d recommend that Dunaway book.)
But, it’s 4pm on the East Coast and I’ve yet to see anyone else mention his birthday in this community, so I feel compelled to comment.
It’s also a day which has come amid a couple of days in a row where our country’s eyes have been turned again toward the War on Terror. Where our collective memory has yet again revisited the awful – but for so many, now so distant – memory of September 2001. Where our military is being congratulated and our leadership is smiling from their accomplishments.
And yet the wars continue; the revolutions in the Middle East march on. (About as many freedom activists were slaughtered by their own government in Syria last week as were killed by tornadoes in America.) Also, mentionable, but only loosely related, the labor union struggle in Wisconsin, Ohio, and elsewhere also continues.
And today Pete Seeger turns 92.
This all connects in my odd brain.
Working on what I’m working on (this biography about Zilphia Horton), I’ve come to appreciate the world as a holistic experience. Much like the bloodflow to your toes has something to do with what your heart is doing, the assassination of a movement leader, the plights of several nations toward freedom, the American labor movement, the birthday of a man who has dedicated his life to the preservation and dissemination of peace, community, understanding, justice, nonviolence…all this is connected. All this has something to do with the other.
Seeger has, since the 1960s, dedicated much of his social energy to cleaning and preserving the Hudson River. When he started, you wouldn’t sail a boat down the thing. Now his Clearwater sloop club can boast decades of membership and success.
From what I understand, his obsession with the river isn’t just about his homestate of New York. It’s not just about the city or its suburbs, its tributaries, or even the bay into which it empties. It’s not even entirely just about cleaning up a local bit of the world environment. It’s rooted in the fact of what a river does. There’s a poetry in it.
A river moves. Always. It’s always flowing, carrying things downstream. If you dump a cup in a river, you can follow its journey all the way to the ocean. If you create an environment around the river wherein the river can clean itself, it’s now moving cleaner water all the way to the ocean. It takes a long time to clean a river, and it takes more than one person’s vision and dedication. It takes every person who lives against the river to change their minds and get involved one at a time, until the people whose lives are touched by the river can take for granted that – of course – we want to make sure the river runs clean. Until the notion of polluting the river is looked upon as absurd and out of date.
Next month, the folks at the Clearwater organization will celebrate their 45th year of working toward a cleaner Hudson River. That’s nearly a half a century. That’s a long time. But it’s also an amount of time most of us will live beyond. And yet, in that time, since 1966, Pete Seeger has not only seen the Hudson River become cleaner under his commitment and vision; he’s also seen the civil rights he worked toward realized all the way to the presidency. He’s also seen the labor issues he sang to three decades before his commitment to the Hudson, become so realized they’re taken for granted (and even, in some cases, forgotten).
Considering all those things, it seems silly, almost, for me to talk about ten years ago when I ran for my life on 9/11, and the changes which have happened since. Those ten years are a drop in the pan in the course of a life the size of Pete Seeger’s.
We haven’t seen nothing yet.
And yet, I find myself disappointed and shuddering in response to the celebration around Bin Laden’s assassination. A life lost is a life lost. Retribution…does what it does. And, I daresay, it’s the exact opposite of peace. A message was indeed sent the other day, but was it the one most in line with our pursuit of peace, our dedication to freedom and justice, and did it really follow what was in the hearts of all those people who were killed on 9/11? When we pursue our enemies with bloodthirst, does that really make us an ethical nation? (Go ahead and bring it in the comments. I think this is an important conversation.)
Until we have that peace, until we’ve achieved that understanding, I reckon Pete Seeger and others like him will be singing “We Shall Overcome,” “If I Had a Hammer,” “Take It From Dr. King,” and all the other songs his voice has been so exceptional in sharing and teaching to the world.
But, until then, his greatest statement, in my opinion remains:
The world needs teachers, books, and schools
Bring em home, bring em home
And learning a few universal rules
Bring em home, bring em home
So if you love your Uncle Sam
Bring em home, bring em home…
Happy birthday, Pete!