Life Inside of the Song of History with Pete Seeger
By Al Giordano
Photo © 1983 by Leslie Desmond.
It is said that when you die, your whole life flashes before your eyes.
For a great many people, that was also the case when Pete Seeger died last month.
Almost everybody I know has a Pete Seeger story as compelling as any I could tell. The guy handed out meaningful exchanges like candy. That’s how he rolled.
I confess that didn’t always love Pete, and was skeptical about him until I got to see and hear him up close. His music was force-fed on me, and others my age, as children. “Go to church on Sunday, eat your vegetables, wash behind your ears, and listen to your Pete Seeger, because it’s good for you!” His most popular recorded tunes were either children’s songs or what, as an emerging adolescent in the seventies, I considered “lite” odes to hippie slogans which had already become over-baked, like “peace,” or “freedom.” Some had been popularized by more saccharine acts (we don’t need to name them, everybody knows who they are).
I figured this Seeger fellow was just a slightly older sixties hippie with a professorial salt-and-pepper beard. Hippies were a dime a dozen back then. Like the police officers and military men they professed to dislike, they sure tended to don the same clothing and hairstyles as each other. They were old news already. Similar to many of my own, younger, generation, I was on the prowl for something more original and authentic.
See, that was the media image of Pete, the aging folksinger with a banjo, washed clean of his radical backstory. The entire population in the 1970s seemed to be suffering a hangover and nobody really wanted to talk about whatever it was that happened the night before. All society was doing the walk of shame. My high school pal Philip Shelley’s father, I had learned, an actor, had been blacklisted during the decades-long nightmare of persecution of communists and their suspected sympathizers. Stories like that were whispered, but not really talked about in any kind of meaningful way. There was still a lot of fear (and a lot of commie-bashing) but I would learn, through Pete and others, that what had preceded it was a hell of a lot worse; a plague upon the land.
Pete Seeger’s music would – like alcohol and cigarettes – prove to be an acquired taste. (Pete, who did not like to drink or smoke, would probably find that funny.) At the age of 17, about a month after I’d been arrested with 1,400 or so others for camping out on the construction site of the Seabrook nuclear plant in New Hampshire, I heard that a lot of those folks with whom I’d lived that coming-of-age story were headed to Amherst, Massachusetts, for something called The Towards Tomorrow Fair, a convention and festival dedicated to alternative energy sources and where thinkers – from Buckminster Fuller to Helen Caldicott to Murray Bookchin – would present their ideas. There would also be a concert by Seeger at the 2,000-seat UMass Fine Arts Center.
Pete, at first glance, seemed older than his 58 years, already a grey eminence. And between each song he sang, he told stories. While introducing “Wasn’t That a Time” as the song he tried to play in the halls of Congress in 1955 when subpoenaed before the US House Unamerican Activities Committee (HUAC), I looked at Connie Hogarth – who had brought some of us youths from New York up to Massachusetts in her station wagon – almost in disbelief. She explained that Pete had been “blacklisted” for refusing to name names at that hearing, and that his music had been banned for the following years on radio and television in the US. And that is probably the moment when I felt like a schmuck for having thought of Seeger as a mere hippie. I let my guard down, and started singing along.
Other stories he told, in the songs and between them, revealed pieces of his already long road saga: singing with Woody Guthrie and others to organize labor unions and strikes in the 1930s, enlisting in the Armed Forces to stop Hitler in the ‘40s (he and a group called The Weavers had a hit single during WWII, titled “Round and Round Hitler’s Grave,” which envisioned a public hanging of the despot), joining with blacks and whites in the Southern Civil Rights desegregation struggles of the ‘50s. I learned that it was a captain of a slave ship who had penned “Amazing Grace” - what I had considered a sappy church song – when in a burst of conscience he had turned the ship around to return the captured to Africa.
Even some of the songs I had considered “lite,” or corny or cloying, like the kid stuff, after some investigation, turned out to be those numbers Pete developed during his blacklisted years (roughly between the 1955 Contempt of Congress violation served upon him and the 1962 appeals court order that reversed it, and then another five years before they let him back on network TV), in which the seemingly innocent lyrics were in fact “code” for more subversive messages. “Follow the Drinking Gourd,” a gospel spiritual, wasn’t taken from Bible verses, as I had wrongly presumed. Those were real instructions for escaping black slaves in the 1800s to learn how to read the constellations in the sky in order to head north toward freedom. To decode Pete was to learn the code of the secret history of the United States of America, of those troubling things that “nice” people only whispered about, if at all.
That night at UMass, he sang a song called “Acres of Clams,” based on an old sea shanty by the same title and rewritten by Charlie King, himself arrested at the Seabrook nuke site some weeks prior. The organization that had convened and trained us occupiers (receiving nonviolence training had been a requirement to be able to participate), was the Clamshell Alliance and its members had taken to calling each other “Clams.” Pete was suddenly singing about another chapter of American History, but a very recent one that I had taken part in. That’s when “the switch” went off in my head. I realized that these people who are mentioned in songs because they did something interesting or even heroic were people just like me. Every other story Pete sang about was suddenly in my reach. It was impossible to be cynical or even skeptical at that moment – looking around the hall, seeing all these folks who had risked arrest along with me, singing their hearts out to a song about them – and “getting” it that, holy shit, I’m in the song, and if I keep living my life that way, I’ll never be left outside of the song. That song was where I wanted to live.
That’s a dangerous thought. It led to a whole chain reaction of events and choices I soon made at early forks in the road of life. I left my teenaged punk rock band the day after we had been offered a record contract. I dropped out of university about as quickly as I entered it. I dedicated the next decade of my life to continued ventures of civil disobedience (27 arrests by age 27) and soon graduated to the harder, more meaningful, work of community organizing. I saw our fledgling movement against nuclear plants grow nationally and internationally, stop a new generation of atomic plants in the US, and even win the shut down of the particular nuke I had most organized against. That’s the song, baby, the one that never ends. And we keep working on the next verse of the story.
Three things about Pete surprised me at first, because they ran counter to his media image.
One, unlike so many of the “activists” who attended his concerts, he was unabashedly patriotic about America and what he considered its true ideals.
Two, he was really into winning (also distinct from many of the aforesaid types). He may have shunned other intoxicants, but, whoa, he was definitely hooked on “the buzz.” In his homage to Woody Guthrie, who had died in 1967, “Precious Friend,” he sang, “And when we sing another victory song, precious friend you will be there.” The whole point of it all – the music, the singing, the traveling, the organizing – for Pete, was to triumph. He didn’t sing and participate merely to be able to think of himself as a “good person.” He did it because those were steps toward concrete changes in society, toward the rush of that victory song, the greatest high there is.
Third – and I found this, as a young guitarist, a bit infuriating – was the astounding refinement of his musicianship. That night, on a twelve-string guitar, he played and sang “The Bells of Rhymney,” set to music from a poem by a Welsh miner-turned-poet, Idris Davies, who had lost one of his fingers in the mine. The “folk music revival” of my childhood had an air of “anybody can do it,” and a lot of those who did had only rudimentary musical skills; a very accessible and populist art form, worthy of its name. The sounds Pete got out of that instrument put the day’s revered rock axe-man guitar legends in their respective places, an entire orchestra and rainforest of cacophony put to order, in escalating and, alternately descending, rhythms. Add to that the perfect pitch of a voice that spanned multiple octaves, with the coordination between the vocal chords, lungs and hands on the instrument – “if, if, if, if, IF!” – and then whistling to hit even higher notes. I could go on, but instead I’ll share this video of a 1964 performance by a 44-year-old Pete, and you, kind reader, can find or write your own description.
A month later, then graduated from high school, I heard anew from Connie Hogarth, the 51-year-old director of the Westchester People’s Action Coalition (WESPAC) in White Plains, New York. She invited me to a benefit fundraising event for WESPAC on July 13, 1977, that would be held on a boat on the Hudson River called the Clearwater Sloop, a project founded by Pete to educate the populations along the 315 miles of riverbank from upstate to New York City about the need to clean it up from the industrial cesspool it had become, and also to train people in how to organize to do just that. We boarded the boat in Beacon in the early evening. Pete and other musicians shared songs and stories about the river and their work to save it. Young, volunteer members of the ship’s crew tended to the sails, and as the sky darkened it began to rain. At 8:37 p.m. the sloop was close enough to the Indian Point nuclear power plant in Buchanan to see it. And suddenly – WHAM! – a frightening lightning bolt zapped from the skies right down upon that nuke. Vox Populi. Vox Dei.
This was not a hallucination. It really happened. Everyone on the boat saw the blast and heard its thunderous roar. Millions of people remember that night from their own experience. At that precise moment all the house and road lights on the banks of the Hudson spookily went dark, and thus began the legendary New York City Blackout of 1977, marked by absolute chaos down in the city, where looting and rioting broke out in the darkness with no pretext of politics or protest at all. A prophecy, perhaps it was, of the eighties and nineties and next century to come.
There on the river, we didn’t know what happened, but the first obvious fear was that we were caught on the water, closer than anybody should be to the nuke if a nuclear accident were happening. The fear on the boat was palpable. So what did Pete do? Well, what do you think he did? He broke into song, and we all just started singing along. And I figured, hey, there would be worse ways to die young than to do so with experienced warriors like Pete and Connie and this boat’s crew, and to die singing. Right? The fear dissipated and when we got back to dock we set about investigating whether that lightning bolt had triggered a more serious accident at the nuke, which, thankfully, it had not.
Four or five years passed before I found myself in close proximity to Pete again, this time on the banks of another river, the Delaware, in Point Pleasant, Pennsylvania. It’s a longer story but in abridged form I had been there for less than two weeks, having arrived on Christmas Day 1982 with another such warrior of organizing, Abbie Hoffman. The residents of that valley were desperate, because construction was scheduled to begin on January 7 on a pumping station to divert millions of gallons of river water to the Limerick River, 40 miles away, to provide cooling water for a nuclear plant there. These were conservative people, mostly members of the Republican Party, who had fought the pump in court and lost, and were so desperate that they hired the notorious Abbie – formerly on the FBI’s Top Ten Fugitives list – as their one-dollar-a-year “consultant” to organize them into a campaign to dump that pump. I was 22, had just managed a successful statewide anti-nuclear referendum in Massachusetts, and was brought in by Abbie to be the hands-on organizer while he drummed up regional and national attention to the cause.
One of the first things we did after meeting with the local folks and hearing their story was to go off and come up with a strategy that might work with this conservative population. Abbie borrowed somebody’s car and drove me to Washington’s Crossing State Park, a few miles down the river, and we threw stones into the water while planning what would be a winter encampment and blockade of construction of the pump. I commented to Abbie that the imagery of a winter camp came straight out of the story from the American Revolution of another place in Pennsylvania called Valley Forge. (The song that Pete Seeger had tried to sing to the HUAC committee in 1955, but was prohibited from doing so, began, “Our fathers bled at Valley Forge/The snow was red with blood/Their faith was warm at Valley Forge/Their faith was brotherhood/Wasn’t that a time…/A time to try the soul of man/Wasn’t that a terrible time.”
Abbie replied, “Nobody in the rest of the country knows exactly where Valley Forge is! It’s in Pennsylvania, that’s all they know. We’ll tell ‘em that a national landmark is about to be destroyed and they’ll believe it!” We decided then and there to call the planned encampment “Valley Forge II,” and giggled a lot as we tore through the Washington’s Crossing State Park gift shop buying hundreds of small American flags and other revolutionary war era paraphernalia to dress up the protest in red, white and blue. “I think I’ll call Pete up,” Abbie said, putting the newly acquired weapons on his credit card, “and ask him to come to Valley Forge II and sing that song!”
And he did.
The plan by the Philadelphia Electric Company (PECO) and its lackey county government to have a glorious groundbreaking ceremony for the pump on January 7 quickly went awry. Abbie went on radio programs to announce a $1,000 cash reward “for anybody who steals the silver shovel” and thousands of local citizens showed up to block construction. Pete came and sang and absolutely loved all the American flags and patriotic imagery that we had laid out as backdrop to the protest. Although he had a long drive home ahead of him, he then came out to the Applejack Tavern and Rustic Cellar with the organizers after the event, sipping water while most of us drank to our first victory among many that would come.
America was still, even in the early ‘80s, stuck in the hangover of blacklists and the polarization of the sixties that followed, and had just elected a notorious anti-communist, Ronald Reagan, as president. Protesters against or for anything were still seen as anti-American by much of the public, and protesters rarely did anything to deter from that idea, and yet this was the first big protest in an environmental struggle that had wrapped itself so blatantly in the American flag. And it worked. Pete was beside himself laughing and enjoying the moment, which some perhaps thought surreal, but some of us saw as a new move in designing social movements with a strategy that Abbie and I called “capture the flag.” That was the first time Pete noticed that I existed. And for the next 27 years, through the last time I saw him at his 90th birthday party in Beacon, New York, whenever our paths would cross he always made a point of coming over to me and asking a lot of questions about whatever it was I was up to at that moment. (I’ve never been the sort to rush upon someone else’s fame; if you stand off to the side or back in a corner and do interesting things, the quality folks will eventually come to you.) And he usually had some organizing stories of his own to share that would shed light on the current problems I’d be trying to solve.
In 1987, at a gathering then called Songs of Freedom and Struggle (later the People’s Music Network), I had performed a little ditty I called “The American Revolution,” an acoustic rock and roll number with a poppy chorus, telling a people’s history of the war of independence and the community organizing that historic figures like Sam Adams, Thomas Paine, Ben Franklin and Betsy Ross had done to win public support for the revolt. Songwriting, then and now, has not been a career. It’s just something to do for fun and because some things can only be said with rhyme, melody and humor because if one says them any other way one will probably be chased down by a pitchfork mob and hung in the village square. The chorus’ tag-line was, “It was a revolution/But it ain’t over yet.” Pete was there and came up to me afterward asking if he could publish it in Sing Out magazine.
A few weeks later I received a letter from Pete, asking again for the tune. “Do you have a tape of it or a record I could buy, or even a lead sheet with the words? I think it is one of the greatest songs I ever heard in my life.”
Some musician friends to whom I showed his letter urged me to take those words by America’s premier folk god and parlay them into a music career. But I was busy organizing at the time, to shut down a nuclear power plant. Even after Pete sent a follow up postcard thanking me for sending him the lyrics but insisting I send him the tune, I never got it together to record it. I guess I’ve always been more comfortable doing the work that makes the histories that songs get sung about than being their constant performer on stage.
In any kind of entertainment business, one has to suffer a lot of fools. I saw it time and time again whenever accompanying Pete at a protest or backstage at a concert or during the funeral of a friend. Everybody seemed to want and demand his personal attention all the time. I’d just stand there and marvel at his patience with them, and a lot of people concluded he was the nicest guy in the world and an absolute saint for the way he gave that dose of personalized attention to virtually everybody he met. Then they’d walk away, with an autograph or a story to tell, and Pete would shoot me a look, sometimes roll his eyes or shrug his shoulders, as if to say that this was the price he paid for chasing the buzz of “one more victory song” day after day, night after night.
I’ve long had the sense that underneath Pete’s everyman persona lurked a misanthrope who had to spend exhaustive energy repressing his inner big green rage machine in order to be able to do the work he loved. He lived at the end of a dirt road, and spent considerable periods of down time there with his family, because, I think, he needed lots of solitude to gird up for the public forays that were so much part of his life’s work. I think that paradox is the thing I most admire about him, still.
My friend Greg Berger remembers when one day, as a child, his father took him for a drive up the Hudson from Manhattan and stopped in Beacon, sixty miles north, to look at the river. Greg asked his dad why the river was coated with an ugly green substance. A lone man who had been walking along the riverside, picking up trash, overheard the child’s question and stopped to explain that the green gook was algae caused by pollution, but that people were organizing to clean up the river. Then the man continued walking, alone, and picking up garbage and Greg’s dad said, excitedly, “Son, that was Pete Seeger!” It was like an episode of The Simpsons. Thousands upon thousands of people have similar stories to tell, stories that changed their lives. We’ve heard many of them in these weeks since Pete passed.
Another paradox comes in a story that my friend Stephan Said, a singer-songwriter, tells, when he had written, in 2002, a song against the Iraq War called The Bell, which Pete liked enough to record the spoken word part to it. Pete had invited Stephen up to his home in Beacon to share more music and Stephan left original scores of sheet music of his compositions there for Pete to read. When Stephan returned for the next visit, Pete had taken the liberty to hand-scrawl a copyright symbol with Stephan’s name atop of each page of his music, explaining that musicians and industry people are notorious thieves and as an artist and worker Stephan needed to protect his work. Stephan had lived for years in a squat on New York’s Lower East Side, a subculture where copyright was considered “bad” along with every other kind of private property. Pete’s different conclusion was parallel with a lot of his views, those of someone who cut his teeth in the labor movement: that an artist is a worker and has the right to the fruits of his labor.
Many people who liked Pete and his music were probably not aware of some of his impulses like that which were contrarian to the usual activist fare because, unlike "activists," Pete had an intense dislike for political debates, and if one popped up anywhere near him he'd go chop some wood, play his banjo, or tinker with the mast of the boat to avoid getting swept up into it. A master at persuading people by sneaking up behind their hearts with a story or a song, he had the wisdom to know that the usual political arguments rarely serve to convince anybody of anything.
One of the inspirations for the School of Authentic Journalism was a place in Tennessee called The Highlander Center. It’s where many nonviolence training sessions were held during the southern civil rights movement. Rosa Parks didn’t spontaneously step on a Montgomery bus in 1955 and refuse to sit in the back. She had traveled from Alabama to Tennessee first to be trained in how to do it. The Highlander Center was also where Pete reworked the old spiritual “We Will Overcome” into “We Shall Overcome,” what became the anthem of that movement. He did it precisely during the years that he had been blacklisted and banned from the US airwaves. His then-pariah status in white America gave him credibility and common footing with so much of black America then rising up for equal rights, and his experiences in earlier labor movement victories made him a valuable resource to that and also to other later struggles.
The most important day of Pete’s long story was when, at the age of 35, he was subpoenaed before a congressional committee and asked to provide names of alleged communists. Many well-known artists and others did indeed provide names, which were then used to blacklist so many talents out of being able to make a living. So many lives, ruined, along with those of their friends and family members. Some brave folks had also refused to snitch at those hearings. They invoked the Fifth Amendment of the US Constitution against self-incrimination. But Pete took a third and different path. He didn’t invoke The Fifth. He insisted he had no crime to hide. He politely told the committee, over and over again, that he didn’t respect their questions and would refuse to answer them. The members of Congress, the press, and so much of the public were shocked at that brazen move by a young man, who even at the moment when his own life was being ruined potentially by that witch hunt, insisted aloud that he was doing it out of patriotism and love for the true ideals of his country. That took big ones. I frankly wonder that if Pete had not have done so, whether the red scare would ever have come to a close. It was a fateful day for his life but an even bigger one for that of the country.
It was that moment when he gained the moral authority that he deployed so splendidly for the rest of his life – for another 59 years! – and that made the songs he sang and the stories he told more than just mere entertainment. Pete had been through hell and back again, and had lived to tell the story.
And just as the clouds lifted and he started receiving invitations to play on TV or in larger concert halls, when a younger generation of singers and rock and folk groups began interpreting his songs and making them popular, what he chose to do then also marked a key turning point. Instead of parlaying that moment into music industry stardom, he dedicated so many more of his days to an idea so simple that a lot of his friends thought it was crazy. At minimum, they thought it overly romantic, feeble and much too simple. “There’s a war going on,” another folksinger told him at the time. “That boat is a distraction.”
That damn boat! Yes, Pete wanted to build a boat. He wanted to put it into the Hudson River, and use it as an organizing tool to build a movement to clean up that river. He used his own resources and talents to organize others to help him do that. And once the boat set sail, it became his own version of The Highlander Center. Like many truly great organizers, Pete understood that to be able to teach and train people to do it well, they have to be pulled outside of the other pressures and distractions of their daily lives and be given something else to do with their hands and minds to encounter the space to evolve. How many thousands of young people spent a week or a month on that boat, learning songs and stories and about the river and the tools and skills to save it, I don’t know. But I’m certain that it is larger in number than the standing armies of many countries. More than half a million school children have boarded the boat on class trips.
And the river is cleaner now. Today, one can swim in it. One could not do that in my youth.
I marvel even more at what he accomplished with those people. He made it fun to learn about organizing. And he established that organizing, by definition, is done in a geographic place at the most local level, where "that one big victory song" is constructed one small victory at a time. Many of those former Sloop hands were among the 20,000 of us that gathered at Madison Square Garden in 2009 for the concert celebrating his ninety years on earth. The sails of the Clearwater boat were displayed by strings of lights above the stage as legend after legend interpreted the songs that Pete made popular in darker times. Pete had gone from being blacklisted at the age of 35 to performing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial for a new US president’s inauguration earlier that year. That doesn’t happen for everybody who makes the brave and right decisions at the tough moments of life. But I sure am glad I lived to see it happen for Pete.
Last May, I visited Connie Hogarth in Beacon, where she was Pete and Toshi Seeger’s neighbor and best friend, to record her own significant life story for an oral history of the No Nukes movement. After various hours she invited Laura Garcia, my right hand on that book project, and I out to dinner at a local Asian restaurant. Connie dialed up Pete and Toshi to invite them to come, too. Pete reported that Toshi wasn’t feeling well enough for it, and two months later Toshi passed away. Six months after that, Pete went.
Earlier this year, Connie had contacted me about coming up in May for Pete’s 95th birthday. “I think he can go to 100!” she said. He’d been reportedly out chopping wood just days prior.
As for the rest of us, the ones who Pete put into the song of history, we’re still writing it, together, with our deeds. It’s our daily actions that determine whether these verses and choruses rise to the ecstatic high that Pete always sought, the full elation of the victory song. I choose to live inside a permanent victory song because, thanks to Pete, I would find it utterly impossible and unpleasant to live anywhere else. And that song is a lot like his boat: One can wave to it from the riverbank. Or one can come aboard.