John Nichols: 94 year-old Pete Seeger’s music was stronger than the forces that sought to silence him
JESSICA DESVARIEUX, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jessica Desvarieux in Baltimore.
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The legendary folk singer and activist Pete Seeger passed away on Monday at the age of 94. Over the course of five decades, Seeger used his musical talents to draw attention to many causes, including the civil rights movement, workers’ rights, and environmental conservation. Most remember him for his hits like “Good Night, Irene”, “If I Had a Hammer”, and, of course, he helped popularize the African-American civil rights anthem “We Shall Overcome”. A strong opponent of McCarthyism in the ’50s, Seeger was subpoenaed by the House Un-American Activities Committee. He refused to cooperate and was convicted of contempt of Congress. In more recent times, Seeger, along with Bruce Springsteen, performed the song “This Land Is Your Land” at President Obama’s first inauguration. He participated in and sang at the Occupy Wall Street’s New York City camp. And Seeger’s passion for folk music and social justice made him a hybrid of both musician and activist, which was quite extraordinary.
Now joining us to look at his life and legacy is John Nichols. He’s the Washington correspondent for The Nation magazine.
Thanks for joining us, John.
JOHN NICHOLS, WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT, THE NATION: It’s great to be with you, great to talk about this good man.
DESVARIEUX: Yeah, John, you wrote a piece recently in The Nation about Pete Seeger’s work. He was really such a prolific artist. But what are some of the lyrics that really stand out to you that embody his legacy?
NICHOLS: Well, he was a very poetic character and a guy who really had deep, deep roots in American literary as well as musical traditions. And so he was quite a craftsman as regards lyrics. In the song “Where Have All the Flowers Gone”, he captured a very simple, almost childlike notion of loss and associated it with environmental degradation and even nuclear fallout. And so people could listen to his songs and hear them on many, many different levels.
And, of course, that’s the genius of great folk songwriter: you are able to connect with children (and he was a very, very popular artist with four- and five-year-olds) and also to connect with intellectuals and to speak to very complex issues. And that was Seeger’s genius.
He had an amazing song, “Waist Deep in Big Muddy”, that was a story of a group of soldiers who were being led astray by a very misguided commander, a very misguided sergeant. And he turned that into a critique of the Vietnam War. And instead of just a bad corporal or sergeant misleading a small troop of soldiers, you came to understand, in listening to the lyrics, that he was talking about Lyndon Johnson and the missteps that led us into the quagmire of Vietnam.
DESVARIEUX: Let’s take a listen to that song.
DESVARIEUX: John, What about “This Land Is Your Land”?
NICHOLS: Yeah, it’s really important to talk about it in that context, and it’s quite a remarkable story. Pete Seeger was around and associated with Woody Guthrie in the era when Woody Guthrie was crafting the song “This Land Is Your Land”. You know, a lot of younger people may think of “This Land Is Your Land” as something that’s always been there, you know, almost an iconic American song, pretty close to a national anthem, but in the 1940s it was a relatively radical song, a critique of some of the elitism that had crept into America, and a suggestion that, no, this land doesn’t just belong to the wealthy person who can fence off their property; it belongs to everyone. And Pete Seeger remembered singing that song with Woody Guthrie, remembered all the verses.
And so he really did an incredible thing. As history passed, a shorter version of “This Land Is Your Land” became popular. It was a much less politicized version. And yet Seeger always remembered the original version, often saying all of the choruses, all of the lyrics. And when he went to perform at the 2009 inauguration, instead of performing the very narrow kind of constrained version of the song, he said to Bruce Springsteen, I want to sing all the verses, I want to sing the verses as Woody wrote them. And so you had this remarkable moment where, you know, decades after Woody Guthrie passed on, he reanimated that song in its true version, in its true space. And amazingly enough, you had the new president of the United States, Barack Obama, singing along and clapping, you know, not far from the stage. It was a pretty incredible moment, and it speaks to the length and the breadth of Seeger’s personal story.
DESVARIEUX: Let’s actually take a listen to that performance that he gave at President Obama’s first inauguration.
DESVARIEUX: John, in your opinion, what might made Pete Seeger so extraordinary?
Here was a guy who lived more than 90 years and was active most of that time. And so he was able to connect people with the events of the Great Depression, of World War II, of the McCarthy era, of the civil rights era, of the Vietnam antiwar marches, of the rise of an environmental movement and of broader social movements like the LGBT liberation movements of the 1970s and 1980s. Through it all, Pete Seeger was there, and he kept reintroducing songs, writing new songs.
One of the most amazing things in his story–it’s often lost to history: when you had the horrible shootings a couple of years ago in Norway, where a madman shot dozens of young political activists, they had a mass memorial for those activists, and to push back against the violence, they sang a Pete Seeger song. In fact, the cultural ministers of Norway and a number of other countries joined with tens of thousands of people to sing this very sweet Pete Seeger song about loving one another, caring for your neighbor. And they took a song that was in many ways a children’s song, a song that many of those who had been killed had learned as children, and gave it deep political meeting. This is how he touched us across decades, really the better part of a century.
DESVARIEUX: But, John, despite the many fans that Pete Seeger had, he actually had a strong group of people that were against him as well. Can you tell us a little bit more about this opposition that was against Pete Seeger?
NICHOLS: Sure. Pete Seeger was a radical, and a proud radical. As a young man, he had been very deeply involved in socialist and labor and civil rights movements at a time when there was great opposition to those causes. He sang for the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, the Americans who went to fight fascism in Spain before World War II. He sang with the first civil rights marchers and activists in the 1940s. He sang with Henry Wallace when Wallace ran a radical third-party campaign for the presidency in 1948. So, again and again Pete Seeger associated himself with radical causes.
When the McCarthy era came in the 1950s, it wasn’t that big a surprise that he was one of those people who got targeted. He was brought before the House Un-American Affairs Committee. He was charged with contempt by Congress. And there really was a great effort in that era to silence him, to push him to the sidelines of American music and of American entertainment.
But he just didn’t stop singing. The amazing thing was he would always find somebody that wanted him to sing in a church basement or a union hall. And slowly but surely, as the McCarthy era faded, after an appeals court threw out the contempt of Congress decision, and after the rise of the folk music movement in the early 1960s, when people like a young Bob Dylan paid homage to Pete Seeger, when a young Joan Baez sang his songs, Seeger was drawn back into the mainstream.
But even as he returned to television after having been banned from it for long time, even after his songs started to get played on the radio some, he still had people who would attack, condemn him, call him a communist, call him a socialist, call him whatever they wanted. And the interesting thing was that instead of getting angry about that, Pete Seeger used it as an educational tool. He would acknowledge he was a radical, say that he was proudly that and talk about his radicalism in the context of the American journey, to suggest that what people considered radical in the 1930s had become very mainstream by the 1960s. What people considered radical in the 1960s had become very mainstream by the 2010s. And so he had a long view, and, I think, a very healthy long view. He took the praise as well as the criticism and tried to use it all as a teaching moment.
DESVARIEUX: Well, John Nichols, thank you so much for really encapsulating the life of Pete Seeger. Thank you for joining us.
NICHOLS: It’s an honor to be with you. Thanks for these good questions.
DESVARIEUX: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.
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