January 26, 2015
Richard Flacks on Pete Seeger
Posted on Aug 7, 2009
Music of course has been a central feature of African-American culture from its very origins. In the early ’60s, as marchers gathered in churches to prepare to challenge segregation with their very bodies, traditional songs and song styles used in these churches were turned into hymns of solidarity and shared risk-taking (with lyrics adapted for the occasion). Pete Seeger contributed to the development of this freedom singing; it was he who had first made “We Shall Overcome” known to civil rights activists in the 1950s, and his concerts in the early ’60s taught the new freedom songs to mass audiences in the North. Seeger encouraged Bernice Reagon to found the Freedom Singers quartet, modeled on the Almanacs, and he and Toshi managed the group’s touring across the country to raise support for SNCC. The music of the Southern movement was an important factor in forging a moral identification with it among Northern students—an identification that led to a flood of volunteers to Southern organizing campaigns and manifold support efforts. In that period, Seeger’s project was finding its fulfillment in his work on stage and as an organizer. You can get a feel for that moment by listening to a recording of his June 8, 1963, concert in Carnegie Hall, available on the Columbia label under the title “We Shall Overcome.” My wife and I were there, and remember it vividly as an experience in which those present were transformed from an audience into a community of active participants in history.
“To Everything There is a Season”: Pete Seeger and the Power of Song
By Allan M. Winkler
Oxford University Press, 256 pages
The Protest Singer: An Intimate Portrait of Pete Seeger
By Alec Wilkinson
Knopf, 176 pages
How Can I Keep from Singing?: The Ballad of Pete Seeger
By David King Dunaway
Villard, 544 pages
If Seeger is often portrayed as a victim of blacklist and censorship, it is clear that his long marginalization from the mainstream was necessary for the fulfillment of his project. When he refused to discuss his political allegiances before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1955 (basing his noncooperation on his First Amendment rights rather than on the Fifth Amendment right not to incriminate oneself), Seeger’s stance took courage: It led the committee to charge him with 10 counts of contempt of Congress, each punishable by a year in jail. Trial and appeal of these charges took some seven years, and Seeger’s blacklisting was reinforced by the legal cloud he was under during that period. In the end, a federal court of appeal overturned his conviction. It was in many ways a costly time for the Seegers, yet as a result he came, says Wilkinson, to “typify the principles of all the brave people he sang about.”
In our time, in a number of countries, troubadours have become icons of resistance. Joe Hill, the Wobbly bard whose funeral after his execution for a murder conviction was attended by thousands, was one of the sources for the Almanacs. Woody Guthrie’s legendary stature in American culture derives in part from Seeger’s efforts to make him known. And then, in the ’60s and ’70s, iconic troubadours were born all over the place: Bob Marley in Jamaica, Victor Jara in Chile, Vladimir Vysotsky in the Soviet Union, Wolf Biermann in East Germany, Cui Jian in China, Miriam Makeba in South Africa. Some of these, like Jara, explicitly used Seeger and Guthrie as models. All were able to achieve stature and profound popular affection despite, and because of, persecution, censorship, martyrdom.
The honors showered on Seeger in recent years include the Medal of Freedom and the Kennedy Center Award. A cynic might say that in America, political troublemakers are marginalized and suppressed, but when they are safely old or dead they are canonized. That’s how we periodically persuade ourselves that we really are a free country. But Seeger’s actual story as told in these books is more complex and more instructive. Wilkinson’s essay stresses Seeger as the epitome of America’s highest values: Beneath his one-time Communist Party affiliations, he was always more like Thoreau—a thoroughly principled individualist, determined to show that each of us could make his or her own life. Winkler emphasizes Seeger’s historical importance in relation to all of the major social movements of his time (the book includes a handy CD compilation of Seeger performances). Dunaway’s updated biography is far more detailed than the others, based on extensive interviews with Seeger and associates and extensive use of his papers. Dunaway gives us a close-up understanding of Seeger’s life choices in their political context. The book details the number of occasions when he entertained serious doubts about his project or his own capacities, doubts familiar to any political activist—the rising frustration when periods of mass action ebb, the sense of obsolescence that comes from personal aging and historical rupture.
We imagine Pete Seeger, at 90, feeling enormous personal fulfillment. How rewarding to get to sing Woody Guthrie’s radical verses to “This Land Is Your Land” at the inauguration concert for our first black president, side by side with one of the biggest stars of popular music! But we can also hear him saying: “Yes, but will the human race survive the 21st century? There’s a 50/50 chance. We’ve got a lot of work to do.”
Richard Flacks is professor of sociology emeritus at the University of California, Santa Barbara, where he has taught since 1969. He is the author of “Making History: The American Left and the American Mind,” published by Columbia University Press. His weekly radio show, “Culture of Protest,” can be heard from 6 to 7 p.m. PST at www.kcsb.org.
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