[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.
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.