The past decades since the 1940s have brought us a golden age of folk singers. These have included Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Bruce Springsteen, The Kingston Trio, Peter, Paul, and Mary, New Christy Minstrels, and Bernice Johnson Reagon (and her Sweet Honey on the Rock group). But the most influential of all has been Pete Seeger who died this past week on Jan. 27 at the age of 94.
During the past decades Seeger has been traveling around the country with his five-string banjo getting people, especially students on college campuses, to join him in songs on behalf of peace, racial and economic justice, labor unions, opposition to war, and preserving the planet.
Some of these songs had come out of the national and international folk process, such as Leadbelly’s “Good Night Irene” and “Tzena, Tzena, Tzena,” but others were ones Seeger himself had written or liked. He wrote “If I Had a Hammer” in 1949 with Lee Hays. (“It’s the hammer of Justice, it’s the bell of Freedom, it’s the song about Love between my brothers and sisters, all over the land.”) The inspiration for his song “Turn! Turn! Turn! To Everything There is a Season” came directly from Ecclesiastes 3:1-8. Its closing line states: “a time for peace, I swear it’s not too late.” On his banjo Seeger had inscribed the words: “This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender.”
Seeger was also responsible for popularizing the anthem of the civil rights movement, “We Shall Overcome,” and for changing its wording from the original “We Will Overcome” to its more imperative version.
Another one of his songs, “Where Have All the Flowers Gone,” was especially influential in the movement to end the quagmire war in Vietnam. He had come across the following translation of a Russian Cossacks folk song: “Where are the flowers, the girls have plucked them. Where are the girls, they have all taken husbands. Where are the men, they’re all in the army.” Seeger then adapted these words to the tune of another folk song. Later Joe Hickerson added two more verses: Where have all the soldiers gone (to graveyards). Where have all the graveyards gone (to flowers). He then added as a sixth verse a repeat of the first to bring the song full circle: Where have all the flowers gone (the girls have plucked them). Other examples of this ongoing collaborative process can be found all through the folk song’s creative development.
In 1967 Seeger wrote another song about the Vietnam War that also had a strong impact on the anti-war movement, “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy.”
On January 18, 2009 Seeger and Bruce Springsteen performed Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land” on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial at an inaugural concert for Barack Obama. Guthrie had written this song in 1940 in response to Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America” which Guthrie considered unrealistic and complacent, especially hearing it sung so continually by Kate Smith.
One textual revision, however, was requested for the 2009 event. The last verse of an earlier version had stated: “In the squares of the city, in the shadow of a steeple; by the relief office, I’d seen my people. As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking, Is this land made for you and me?” The last two lines were revised, however, and were sung in the following way: “As they stood there hungry, I stood there whistling, This land was made for you and me.”
In later years Seeger had been at the center of the environmental and anti-nuclear movements. He helped found Clearwater, a group working to clean up the Hudson River, sponsoring a ship to sail the river and call attention to its pollution. He also built a home on a ridge above the Hudson River in upstate New York where he and his wife, Toshi, lived for many years. Toshi died last year just a few weeks before their 70th wedding anniversary.
When Seeger was asked his advice for activists, he had an interesting answer: “The key issues are those that are close to you, geographically as well as spiritually. If someone says ‘I want to change the world. Where do I go?’ I answer, ‘Stay right where you are. Don’t run away. Dig in.’”
In a song “To My Old Brown Earth” written in 1958, he spoke about his final gift to us:
To my old brown earth
And to my old blue sky
I’ll now give these last few molecules of “I.”
And you who sing,
And you who stand nearby,
I do charge you not to cry.
Guard well our human chain,
Watch well you keep it strong,
As long as sun will shine.
And this our home,
Keep pure and sweet and green,
For now I’m yours
And you are also mine.
• • •
This column by local writers is dedicated to the theme that the lion and the lamb can and must learn to live together and grow in their relationship toward one another to ensure a better world of peace and justice. Opinions expressed in “Lion and Lamb” columns are not necessarily those of the Crossville Chronicle publisher, editor or staff. For more information, contact Ted Braun, editor, at 277-5135.