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REFLECTIONS: Seeger and Me

[EDITORIAL NOTE: Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Saul Friedman (bio) writes the bi-weekly Reflections column for Time Goes By in which he comments on news, politics and social issues from his perspective as one of the younger members of the greatest generation. He also publishes a weekly column, Gray Matters, on aging for Newsday.

Category_bug_reflections I don't personally know Pete Seeger and I don't think he knows me. And I doubt that he remembers the couple of times I sang with him. But it's worth remembering and reflecting upon, for the separate histories of Seeger and me represent a certain mellowing in this country towards our kind of radicalism.

I first saw and heard Seeger in the very early forties, when he was making a modest living playing and singing at school assemblies. I don't recall whether he came to my elementary school, P.S. 225, or Abraham Lincoln High School, in Brooklyn. It could have been either for they were both, shall we say, progressive.

My graduation from 225, for example, featured the songs of the Red Army and the Chinese (Communist) National Anthem plus, of course, the Marine hymn. At the Lincoln graduation, we sang "United Nations on the march with flags unfurled...together fight for victory and a brave new world!"

I should say here that in my last year at Lincoln, my good tenor voice got me into the All City High School Chorus which gave a couple of concerts at Brooklyn Tech where we sang, among other things, a special arrangement of The Battle Hymn of the Republic and The Messiah's Hallelujah Chorus.

Anyway, I remember Seeger at the school assembly as a scrawny guy in shirt sleeves with a red nose and a big and bobbing Adam's apple. His banjo was a new sound. And despite the usual student skepticism, he had us singing songs that later made him famous like Michael Row the Boat Ashore. I didn't know it then but that bobbing Adam's apple planted in me a love for folk music.

Much to my regret, the war, World War II, was over by the time I was old enough to get in it. But in our neighborhoods, mostly Jewish Brighton and Manhattan Beach, even the kids on street corners argued about the war and politics. Everyone was at least a left-wing Democrat. And in 1948, when we were still in mourning for Frankly Roosevelt and charging Truman with encouraging a cold war, even my apolitical mother got political, taking me to Philadelphia to the Progressive Party convention that nominated former vice-president Henry Wallace for president.

That's when I got involved in campaigning for the first time and my efforts included Wallace and the incumbent, left-wing congressman from upper Manhattan, Vito Marcantonio, who won his seat as a Republican and switched to the American Labor Party. And it was during one of the rallies for Marcantonio on the streets of East Harlem that I sang on the back of a flatbed truck with Seeger and others, although I do not remember the songs.

About that time, I was working in lower Manhattan for a camera shop and was a member of Local 65, which represented garment industry wholesale and retail workers and had its headquarters at 13 Astor Place. (There's a Starbucks now on the ground floor.) It was, to put it bluntly, the center of left wing, Socialist and Communist, pro-labor activities. And in the bar on the top floor, I became acquainted with labor songs and sang on occasion with an informal group known as the Almanac Singers.

The group had begun in 1940, says Google, with Lee Hays and Seeger playing for left-wing political rallies and labor union events. In 1941, they were joined by the legend, Woody Guthrie, and his songs seem to give them wider appeal.

Guthrie and his sidekick, Cisco Houston, had popularized the works of the New Deal and the songs of the Depression, like Tom Joad. They were also part of what was called the Popular Front, an alliance of liberals, leftists and communists.

They, including Seeger, opposed Roosevelt and his moves towards war until the Soviet Union was invaded in June. That remained an embarrassment for Seeger, a pacifist. Nevertheless, the Almanac songs, which I came to learn - Union Maid, I Don't Want Your Millions Mister, Which Side Are You On - were and still are labor anthems. But to hurry to my point, the Almanac Singers, including Seeger, Hays and Guthrie were clearly pro-Communist. And they paid for it.

In 1942, according to Wikipedia, the FBI decided the Almanac Singers were seditious threats. And they were forced underground to play for trusted, friendly audiences. But in 1950, as folk music began a renaissance with Burl Ives and Peter, Paul and Mary, the Almanac Singers emerged as The Weavers and this time Seeger and Hays were joined by the great Ronnie Gilbert and guitarist Fred Hellerman.

They made it to the top with Good Night, Irene among others. But Mcarthyism caught up with them and they disbanded in 1953, after Seeger refused to testify and declined to join the Weavers program in sponsoring a tobacco ad. But the Weavers had set the stage for Joan Baez and the folk music revival of the '50s. More important, Seeger had made Communist Guthrie's ballad, This Land Is Your Land, the unofficial national anthem.

Seeger, of course, retired to his Hudson River home and began a crusade the clean up the river. But he was called out of retirement again and again for the civil rights struggles and the anti-Vietnam war movement. On the road from Selma to Montgomery, in 1965, he made up new verses for We Shall Overcome. Thousand gathered in Washington in 1970, to sing with him, Give Peace A Chance. Today, his great anti-war song, Waist Deep in the Big Muddy - And The Big Fool Says Push on, is still relevant.

I have not sung with him since those early days, but I've sung with him at peace and civil rights events even while carrying my reporter's notebook. And when I was able to play a guitar, before my stroke, I gave folk songs to my kids. But remembering those early days and Seeger's and my politics then, it came to me how we've all grown up, he and I and this country. Maybe we are no longer afraid of radical thought.

Guthrie's anthem was sung at Barack Obama's inauguration by Seeger, who was honored on his 90th birthday by the president he had hoped for. Seeger has never lost his radicalism, and Bruce Springsteen said at the inauguration, "Pete, you outlasted the bastards."

After an interruption of eight years of narrow fear-mongering and the worship of war and power, I remember and take pride in my radical past and join in honoring Pete Seeger, the man with the bobbing Adam's apple who I met more than 60 years ago.

At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Norm Jenson has a wry tale of modern-day, personal politics in Working Class.

Comments

What a wonderful story Saul, and what a wonderful subject! I envy you that you sang with him.

How fascinating! Thank you so much for sharing. A bit of nostalgia on this continuing to rain in Maryland morning.

Thank you - I wonder, though (contrarian that I am!) if it's true that we're no longer afraid of being radical. These songs sound quaint these days, not radical. I can't even imagine a labor movement in this country any more. And unions--it's hard to imagine more irrelevant and impotent organizations. Which pains me, as I belong to one.

Thank you for all that you did!

Thanks for reminding us of where we've been. Seeger, Guthrie, and before them, Joe Hill. Ronni, those of you who sang their songs with them encouraged changes and exposed issues to the public. It our history. I was priviledged to sing and picket with Chavez' farmworkers in my home state. My grandfather was a striking shingle mill worker present at the 1916 Everett Massacre here in Washington. I hope this long history isn't lost. I don't see much difference between the finance industry today and the greedy mill owners in 1916. Their methods have just changed.

Saul,
Thank you for these great memories. It brought to my mind the summer of 1961 when I went to an NCCJ Brotherhood camp in the Catskills and Pete Seeger was there! The whole experience was quite a trip for a WASP from Long Island. And when I heard him at the Innaugural activities, I cried.

That was really a pleasure to read. My partner's mother (Suzanne Noble) also ran in those circles -- New York labor and the Almanac singers in the late 40s. She passed on a faith in the potential of people's collective action for improvement to her daughter. I'm kind of glad SN missed the horror of the last eight years.

Saul, As the others, your post was a delight to read. As Celia says, "reminding us where we've been."

My spouse, a bit younger than you, also grew up in Brighton Beach, went to Brooklyn Tech, where he too sang in the chorus. If I remember correctly back in the 1940 and 50s, there was more openness to choral singing in public schools. These days kids need to have more "talent" so that many miss the pleasures of this communal activity.

What a remarkable past you have and I'm so glad that people like you are sharing these insights into that part of our history (and how it relates to the last eight miserable years). Your descriptions of Seeger and the times brings it all to life. I saw a PBS special recently (a rerun) with interviews with P,P&M and the woman who sang with The Weavers. She was still quite bitter about everything and praised P,P&M for the way they transcended the suspicion and hatred. Then Mary sang her lovely "For Baby" to her granddaughter, who looked at her with such loving eyes and I thought Yes! a new generation knows......

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