Real Revolutionaries Carry a Banjo


I spend a lot of time think­ing about Pete Seeger. I was even think­ing of him the night news of his death flashed on my screen. In the course of work­ing on an excru­ci­at­ingly long-term film project on the pol­i­tics of coun­try music, the influ­ence of Pete Seeger arises quite often. Part of the the­sis of the film, called Open Coun­try, is that Pete Seeger should be con­sid­ered a founder of coun­try music. Not folk music, mind you, as that has been around for some time. Coun­try music. Nashville, I believe, owes Pete a statue in the cen­ter of town. But I will return to this seem­ingly absurd point later.

It is not pos­si­ble to sum up the con­tri­bu­tions of Pete Seeger in this com­men­tary, nor in any arti­cle, anthol­ogy or book. His con­nec­tion to the labor rebel­lions of the Great Depres­sion and the post-War years, bat­tles with HUAC and the anti-com­mu­nist witch-hunts, par­tic­i­pa­tion in the Civil Rights move­ment in the South, agi­ta­tion against the wars in Viet­nam, Cen­tral Amer­ica, and the Mid­dle East, build­ing a com­mu­nity effort to clean indus­trial water­ways, act­ing against global warming—these are all rich areas where Pete Seeger would have to be included. To do jus­tice to the legacy of Pete Seeger, indeed, one would have to write about every sig­nif­i­cant move­ment for social jus­tice in the United States, if not the world, within the last 80 years.

With his pass­ing, as I try to take the long view of his life, I am tainted not by what I know from books, record­ings and word-of-mouth legacy, but by the small per­sonal expe­ri­ences I had of him. Grow­ing up in the 1960s, I had heard a few songs of his in school, sung “Where Have all the Flow­ers Gone” in sum­mer camp and saw him as a dis­tant dot on a stage at anti-war ral­lies. Our fam­ily watched the Smoth­ers Broth­ers tele­vi­sion show reli­giously, and was vaguely aware of his cen­sor­ship bat­tle while “waist deep in the big muddy.” But in my tran­si­tion from pro-war patri­otic teenager, to peacenik, to mil­i­tant rev­o­lu­tion­ary, Seeger was too much “kum­baya” and not enough “street fightin’ man.” It wasn’t until the mid sev­en­ties, as I tran­si­tioned into a life in fac­tory jobs and labor activism, that I real­ized how pro­found Seeger’s con­tri­bu­tions were. I dis­cov­ered “Talk­ing Union,” a record album of the Seeger-led Almanac Singers, with the labor songs that sit­down strik­ers and fac­tory-occu­py­ing indus­trial work­ers sang across Amer­ica in the 1930s and 1940s. They called them­selves the Almanacs after Lee Hays remarked that “back home in Arkansas farm­ers had only two books in their houses: the Bible, to guide and pre­pare them for life in the next world, and the Almanac, to tell them about con­di­tions in this one.” I was sur­prised that I knew many of these songs from the Civil Rights move­ment, and dis­cov­ered that they were indeed trans­ported by Seeger and oth­ers from Flint and Pitts­burg to Selma and Mont­gomery. Pete believed singing gave peo­ple the strength and resolve to main­tain courage and dig­nity in the face of clubs, mace, jail and vio­lence. “Like a tree stand­ing by the water” was rel­e­vant wherever your fight. Through­out his life, he brought music to every arena of pop­u­lar strug­gle. He believed in the power of music. He also believed deeply in the power of indi­vid­u­als to rise above their daily lives and join in a strug­gle for the greater good. Quite sim­ply, he believed in two facets of soci­ety no longer men­tioned in polite com­pany. He believed in “the masses” and he also believed in “the work­ing class.”

In the late sev­en­ties, a friend of mine whose father had fought in Spain invited me to a reunion of the Abra­ham Lin­coln Brigade. We entered the dark, wooden lodge-like old union hall in the East Bay of San Fran­cisco, to encoun­ter per­haps 50 older, some­what griz­zled men sit­ting on fold­ing chairs around tables. Sit­ting casu­ally amongst them was a tall, slim Pete Seeger, pluck­ing a banjo, and chat­ting ami­ably with his table of mil­i­tary vet­er­ans, those who chose to fight pre­ma­turely against fas­cism. No gen­er­als, politi­cians or Cham­ber of Com­merce peo­ple to thank these vet­er­ans for their ser­vice, just Pete Seeger, who stood later dur­ing the evening and roused them with the songs of their mil­i­tant youth.

Years later, while on a visit to the squat­ted com­mu­nity gar­dens of the “Loi­saida,” the rem­nants of a once work­ing-class and Nuy­or­i­can Alpha­bet City on the Lower East Side of Man­hat­tan, I spied the man ahead of me walk­ing with an instru­ment case. As I approached from behind, I could see it was not a gui­tar, but a banjo. The man turned into a small pocket park, and shortly ahead was a group of per­haps 25 school chil­dren, sit­ting in the park in a semi-cir­cle. It was Pete Seeger, of course, who ser­e­naded the kids of the neigh­bor­hood with children’s songs. I spoke with him after his casual per­for­mance, sit­ting in a wooden gazebo in the park, while he packed up his banjo. “I try to get out here as often as I can, to play for the chil­dren, and to visit the neigh­bor­hood.” He left unac­com­pa­nied, on foot, just an old man and a banjo.

Years later I found myself begin­ning research on the pol­i­tics and his­tory of coun­try music, which I believe is right­fully the pro­gres­sive voice of the rural and work­ing poor, not the right wing, cow­boy hat, pickup truck lis­ten­ers of Nashville pop. Prepar­ing to exam­ine the long his­tory of coun­try music, I was stopped short in the late 1940s-early 1950s. That was pretty much as far back as music called “coun­try” went. Before that, it was called “folk.” All the music we would call “coun­try” today was listed on the charts as “folk.” Hank Williams, the stan­dard by which every self-respect­ing coun­try musi­cian holds them­selves (What would Hank do?) con­sid­ered him­self a folk musi­cian. Coun­try music only showed up in the midst of the McCarthyite and HUAC assault on pop­u­lar cul­ture, whose impact is widely known on the film indus­try, some­what known on the tele­vi­sion and radio indus­try, but fairly unex­am­ined in the music indus­try. As Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, the Weavers and oth­ers who would dare sing about the strug­gles of poor and work­ing peo­ple were dragged before HUAC and other un-Amer­i­can inves­tiga­tive com­mit­tees, the indus­try read the lyrics on the wall. Their self-preser­va­tion stance was: We don’t do “folk” music, we do “coun­try” music: God, guns and beer, not coal min­ers, share­crop­pers and strik­ers. Almost overnight, the indus­try charts and lists sep­a­rated “folk” from “coun­try,” with Nashville as the home­land of coun­try. Folk music with sus­pect lyrics were mar­gin­al­ized and pulled from the air, while the now safe coun­try music hit the charts. So, coun­try music—that’s Pete’s fault.

As I spent more time on research into coun­try music, I kept being dragged back to folk music, and to the role of Pete Seeger. For the film, I dreamed of inter­view­ing him. But how? After months of ask­ing around, all I could come up with was a PO Box in upstate NY. But he did not know who I was, or any­thing about my inten­tions. Why would he speak with the likes of me? One night I wrote him a let­ter and sent it off to the PO Box, not expect­ing any response. No response came and I quickly wrote off the pos­si­bil­ity. Then, nine months later I had a voice­mail. “This is Pete Seeger, finally got around to open­ing your let­ter. Looks like an inter­est­ing project. Why don’t you give me a call and we’ll set some­thing up.” Then he left his phone num­ber. I imme­di­ately called back and booked a plane for NY.

Pick­ing up a friend and his daugh­ter for tech­ni­cal sup­port, we drove from Brook­lyn up to his house in upstate NY in sub-zero weather, nego­ti­at­ing around dirt roads and frozen land­scape. We approached a com­plex of cab­ins at the top of a hill, not know­ing if we’ve reached our des­ti­na­tion or not, when we saw an elderly man with a knit cap split­ting wood on the side of the house. Pete, of course. He invited us into his house, where his wife Toshi insisted that Pete “build that fire higher, as it’s freez­ing in here,” so our crew pitched in split­ting and car­ry­ing wood to get the house warmer. We got to roll cam­era and talk for hours, about coun­try music, tra­di­tional music, rev­o­lu­tion­ary change. We heard the great sto­ries about writ­ing “Union Maids” with Woody Guthrie in the back room of a union hall in Okla­homa, about shar­ing “We Shall Over­come” with SNCC and other civil rights activists, about his involve­ment in orga­niz­ing a com­mu­nity push to clean up the Hud­son, about his opti­mism for the future.

Pete Seeger and Jesse Drew up the Hudson.
Pete Seeger and Jesse Drew up the Hud­son.

It struck me in the months after­wards that Pete Seeger embod­ied two of the most impor­tant char­ac­ter­is­tics I value in a rev­o­lu­tion­ary. He truly believed in the power of ordi­nary peo­ple to act for social change on a mass level. Many today give lip ser­vice to that idea, but Pete really believed it. And why not? In his life­time he was wit­ness to rank-and-file work­ers stand­ing together and occu­py­ing their fac­tory, of com­mu­ni­ties sit­ting in and stand­ing up to bru­tally racist attacks, of stu­dents who put down their books and took over admin­is­tra­tion build­ings, of young peo­ple who blocked trains of muni­tions head­ing for war, of thou­sands of young and old who occu­pied Wall Street. He’s advo­cated for “the lit­tle drops that add up to buck­ets, that become a tidal wave of change.” And he sang for them all. The other valu­able attrib­ute I found in him: his polit­i­cal ideas were lived in his daily life. His gen­eros­ity and respect to indi­vid­u­als was gen­uine, not rhetor­i­cal. While inter­view­ing him, I found there was a major film crew from Europe com­ing by the next day. Yet, it was clear my lit­tle pro­duc­tion was as impor­tant to him as that pro­duc­tion was. He remarked that just a few days before, “that fel­low Bruce Spring­steen” was sit­ting in the same chair, ask­ing him sim­i­lar ques­tions. I still had the impres­sion that my sit­ting there was just as impor­tant to him. Pete lived the pol­i­tics he believed in, he built his own house, grew a gar­den, chopped his own wood, was kind to peo­ple, and yet on top of it all still man­aged to change the world. And in the true tra­di­tion of punk rock, “he booked his own damn life” although he may have been many months behind!

In the weeks to come, there will be many eulo­gies to Pete Seeger. Many will down­play and san­i­tize who he was, strip­ping his pol­i­tics away and leav­ing a kindly man who played banjo songs about Amer­ica. Oth­ers will ques­tion and poi­son his motives, bring­ing in the spec­tre of the Com­mu­nist Party, USA and when he broke from its Stal­in­ist past. One thing is for sure. A pro­found link with the long tra­jec­tory of rev­o­lu­tion­ary change in the US has been lost. Some­one who under­stood the links between labor, race, ecol­ogy, peace, cul­ture and music. One who under­stood the impor­tance of bring­ing masses of peo­ple into the strug­gle, to be respect­ful, inclu­sive and invit­ing. These are all qual­i­ties we are in des­per­ate need of today. May his pass­ing inspire the ranks of many new Pete Seegers.

Author of the article

met Pete Seeger during the making of his documentary on the politics of country music. A rough mix of Open Country was screened and presented by Jesse and Glenda Drew at last January's Retort, during which they learned that the new Billboard category "Country and Western" was a McCarthy-era (December 1949) coinage intended to break the lineage with political "folk" (e.g. Guthrie, the Almanacs and the Weavers). Jesse himself worked as a sound engineer at Dolby Labs in San Francisco and recently as director of Technocultural Studies at UC Davis, where he specializes in digital arts, media archaeology, documentary studies and the history of labor. He contributed "The Commune as Badlands as Utopia as Autonomous Zone" to West of Eden (PM Press, 2012) where he described himself as "a young teenage runaway, who roamed the United States and thrived thanks to a strong network of urban and rural communes and collectives, spending many years as a labor activist in traditional smokestack industries before becoming involved in grassroots video production and the nascent digital arts movement."