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Pete Seeger Carries Us On

Posted on May 5, 2009
AP photo / Evan Agostini

Still singing: Pete Seeger performs at a benefit concert celebrating his 90th birthday at Madison Square Garden in New York on Sunday.

By Amy Goodman

It was some garden party. Eighteen-thousand people packed into Madison Square Garden Sunday night to celebrate the first 90 years of Pete Seeger’s life.

The legendary folk singer is a living history of the 20th century’s grass-roots struggles for worker rights, civil rights, the environment and peace. Powerful, passionate performances and tributes rang out from the stage, highlighting Seeger’s enduring imprint on our society.

Bruce Springsteen opened his set with a tribute to Pete, saying, “As Pete and I traveled to Washington for President Obama’s inaugural celebration, he told me the entire story of ‘We Shall Overcome,’ how it moved from a labor-movement song and, with Pete’s inspiration, had been adopted by the civil rights movement. And that day, as we sang ‘This Land Is Your Land,’ I looked at Pete. The first black president of the United States was seated to his right. I thought of the incredible journey that Pete had taken. ... He was so happy that day. It was like, Pete, you outlasted the bastards, man.”

Springsteen recalled Pete’s only request for the inaugural: “ ‘Well, I know I want to sing all the verses [of ‘This Land Is Your Land’]. You know, I want to sing all the ones that Woody [Guthrie] wrote, especially the two that get left out ... about private property and the relief office.’ ... That’s what Pete’s done his whole life: He sings all the verses all the time, especially the ones that we’d like to leave out of our history as a people.”

The oft-censored verses, for the record:


Square, Site wide

  “In the squares of the city, under shadow of the steeple,
        at the relief office, I saw my people.
        As they stood there hungry, I stood there whistling,
        this land was made for you and me.
  A great high wall there tried to stop me.
        A great big sign there said private property,
        but on the other side it didn’t say nothing.
        That side was made for you and me.”

Seeger’s unflinching commitment to social justice landed him before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1955. He told HUAC, “I resent very much and very deeply the implication of being called before this committee that in some way because my opinions may be different from yours, that I am any less of an American than anyone else.” Seeger was blacklisted and didn’t appear on television for close to 15 years until he sang on “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour.”

Seeger told me: “The Smothers Brothers were a big, big success on the CBS television. And ... in the spring of ’67, CBS says, ‘What can we do to make you happier?’ And they said, ‘Let us have Seeger on.’ And CBS said, ‘Well, we’ll think about it.’ Finally, in October they said, ‘OK, you can have him on.’ And I sang this song ‘Waist deep in the Big Muddy, the big fool says to push on.’ ... In New York, they scissored the song out. The Smothers Brothers took to the print media and said, ‘CBS ... censored Seeger’s best song.’  ... Finally, in late January of ’68, CBS said, ‘OK, OK, he can sing the song.’ ” The song tells of an Army captain who drowned while ordering his troops deeper and deeper into a river—an obvious metaphor for U.S. involvement in Vietnam.

In 1949, Pete Seeger and the great “whitelisted” black opera singer and actor Paul Robeson held a concert in Peekskill, N.Y., an upstate village with an active Ku Klux Klan. A vigilante mob stoned the crowd. Hundreds were injured. Pete took rocks from that assault and incorporated them into his fireplace—so that the stones meant to maim now just protect the flame.

Dear to Pete for his life has been the Hudson River, said to be one of the most polluted bodies of water in the world. In 1966, Pete co-founded the environmental organization Hudson River Sloop Clearwater, which uses a beautiful wooden boat and an annual celebration to engage and educate people on the need to clean the Hudson and protect the environment. There is a movement to nominate Pete Seeger for the Nobel Peace Prize.

At Madison Square Garden, Pete was center stage, playing his banjo. His singing voice is faint now, after 70 years of singing truth to power. He mouthed the words to the songs, but what came out were the voices of the 18,000 people in the audience, singing out. That’s Pete’s legacy. That’s what will carry on.

  Denis Moynihan contributed research to this column.
  Amy Goodman is the host of “Democracy Now!,” a daily international TV/radio news hour airing on more than 750 stations in North America. She is the co-author of “Standing Up to the Madness: Ordinary Heroes in Extraordinary Times,” recently released in paperback.

  © 2009 Amy Goodman

  Distributed by King Features Syndicate

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By ChapinFan, May 8, 2009 at 8:19 am Link to this comment

Before Harry Chapin was killed in an auto accident in 1981, he wrote a song called “Old Folkie” which was a tribute to Pete. 

Check out youtube for it.

Chapin Fan

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By everynobody, May 7, 2009 at 9:39 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I was 12 years old when I first heard Pete (1957) and he’s been my hero ever since. I also saw him live in 1967 in Boise, Id of all places; he’s just the best of what America should be.

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By Jaded Prole, May 7, 2009 at 3:23 am Link to this comment

Pete Seeger is a living legacy—our legacy. He is a jewel and his influence has enriched us all.

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By cadredmed, May 6, 2009 at 9:11 pm Link to this comment

Here’s a link to a transcript of Pete’s entire testimony before HUAC. It is an inspiration, and shows that he not only talks the talk. It was a triumphant evening for progressives….and I saw you Amy Goodman!

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By Sepharad, May 6, 2009 at 8:22 pm Link to this comment

Inherit—Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie both deserve some Nobel-level recognition. Guthrie and his guitar visited hundreds of migrant labor camps up and down California during the depression. The young woman who photographed Woody and the people, now a very old woman living in Santa Cruz, years ago shared her photos and recollections for our history mag. Between Guthrie and Steinbeck and Dorothea Lange and Ed Murrow and James Agee, there is an eloquent record of a time of even greater hardship than many Americans confront today. If we are very lucky, such people might emerge with that power to not only record and sing about what is happening but also to ease the suffering a bit.

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By Inherit The Wind, May 6, 2009 at 3:56 pm Link to this comment

Pete Seeger has done more to make America a better place than most politicians, and EVERY Republican president after TR.

Seeger’s roots go back to the Mayflower, on both his mother’s and father’s side.

His love for America and patriotism for it and American freedom are second to no one’s.

Woody Guthrie’s roots were just as deep, and his love for America just as great.

But Pete and Woody grew up in the 20’s and 30’s and lived through the depression in such a first hand way that they saw, like the collapse of today, ALL the economic problems of America being due to greed.

Which it was.

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By trudy, May 6, 2009 at 2:27 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

In l955, Christmas eve, New York City, after my
wedding ceremony, we went to see Pete sing at Carnegie Hall - that wasn’t the first time I heard
him. It would be wonderful if we all had his spirit
and optimism but there is only one Pete, long may he

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By NYCartist, May 6, 2009 at 1:31 pm Link to this comment

I saw Pete Seeger at a small outdoor public theater in NYC around 1964.  He had the whole audience singing. People felt good.

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By Max Shields, May 6, 2009 at 10:46 am Link to this comment

With all due respect for an incredible legacy like Pete Seeger, it appears critical and heroic thinking stopped when a “black” president was elected to do pretty much everything Mr. Seeger has opposed, fought against and given so much to rectify.

Vietnam has not proven to be a lesson of what NOT to do; and Mr. Obama is venturing with impunity as Mr. Seeger sings about the days of yore and the Hudson River, an important contribution, but seemingly safe and relatively trite given the killing of innocents under our “new” commander in chief.

Truly disappointing. My memories of yore bring back a wonderful sense of authentic protest gone a bit senile.

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By hidflect, May 6, 2009 at 10:26 am Link to this comment

He’s in amazing shape. I’ve heard Pete Seeger described as being pretty regimented, or being compared to a headmaster-type in personality. It seems anecdotaly connective that such people manage to live a long time with good health. I think people will themselves into old age by worrying about it. When you start to say “Oh boy, I must be getting old” just because you can’t run a marathon instead of saying “Oh boy, I haven’t exercised in 5 years” then your dooming yourself. Attitude, attitude, attitude.

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By Thomas, May 6, 2009 at 6:33 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

A follow-up:

4. Which inalienable rights were listed in the Declaration of Independence?

The Declaration of Independence lists the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

5. What did the Founders mean by the “pursuit of happiness?”

This is a collective phrase designed to cover all of the other inalienable rights.

6. Give an example of an inalienable right which is essential to the pursuit of happiness.

The Founders believed, for example, that human happiness requires that each of us enjoy the right to acquire, develop and dispose of property. They believed that without the protection of property rights, all other rights are placed in serious jeopardy.

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By Thomas, May 6, 2009 at 6:14 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Private property rights are human rights. That Seeger would be against private property and yet consider himself American is something that cannot be reconciled. It also shows an ignorance of the founding of this country, especially the true story of the first Thanksgiving and the lesson learned.

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By Inherit The Wind, May 6, 2009 at 5:06 am Link to this comment

Pete has been one of my few heroes and has been a constant in my life, since I first saw him at a picnic in 1960 and I was 5 years old.  He was tall and skinny, with the plaid shirt, rolled-up sleeves, and extra-long banjo over his shoulder. I guess he was 41 at the time, and was 3 years before his magical Carnegie Hall concert that made We Shall Overcome an anthem, and made Guantanamera an international hit.

He played outside that day. I KNOW he plays inside from time to time but I only think I saw him do it once-vs outside.  I even heard him play once at the side of a road near Hudson Institute, the reaactionary “futurist” think tank Herman Kahn set up that used to develop fantastic justifications for the Viet Nam war.

A Nobel Prize?  I LIKE the idea!  But will the Nobel Committee?

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By HSU Journalism Club 1, May 5, 2009 at 10:58 pm Link to this comment

Thank you Amy Goodman and Truthdig for actually capturing the story here versus the entertainment-fluff the HuffPost posted.  Look, I love the oracle of the web, but when you run the headline “Springsteen Leads Star-Studded 90th Birthday Concert For Pete Seeger,” and then post a picture of The Boss just for hits, you loose consumer confidence.

Foremost, thank you Pete Seeger. Thank you a thousand times.

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By Xntrk, May 5, 2009 at 9:25 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

After all these years battling the government and proselytizing for Power to the People. it is fantastic to see Pete Seeger feted by the public.

I do wonder tho, how he feels about the BHO Administration denying a visa to the Cuban singer and musician, Silvio Rodríguez. Silvio was invited to attend the festivities and perform, but we all know how dangerous Cuban music is for the masses.

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