Wednesday, January 29, 2014

our signs are more fun: on the philosophy and activism of pete seeger

 Pete last year at an anti fracking rally during the state of the state
The crowd at last year's Clearwater festival as Pete played. 

I always knew this day would come. 

“Ben, I have some news.  Pete died,” Caroline told me this morning. 

My mind flashed through thousands of moments – of people singing, a Times Up! ride on the Clearwater, of a singer who knew social change happened through songs as much as through laws, that music shapes hearts, minds and social mores.  Songs conjure and entice, softening hate.  They inspire people to clean rivers, while reimagining cities.  Recalling Pete, two things come to mind, both a philosophy of activism and a lifetime of memories.

My Dad first played me Pete’s songs three decades ago.  I still have the old LP.  I still remember listening to  “Where have all the flowers gone” and “Little Boxes.”  Dad told me about the message of both songs. “Flowers” was about war; “Little Boxes” was about the fifties and conformity.   He choked up listening to “We Shall Overcome.”  What’s wrong I asked Dad.  The song seemed to take him to a place, from so long past, decades earlier, when as a college student he joined the Beat Movement in the 1950’s. It was the first glimpse of my father’s then dormant lefty sensibilities.  The song reminds us all that music shapes our consciousness in ways that laws never will.

Decades later, my friends in Times Up would go up to the yearly Clearwater festival.   I missed him my first year up to the festival in 2006.  From 2007 forward, I went to see him play there every year, sometimes in the rain, often to a big beautiful sky.  Clearwater is a reminder that sustainable urbanism, that DIY environmentalism, bike valets, Clearwater boat rides can transform spaces, if everyone takes their part.  Its up to all of us, he reminded us, Clearwater reminds us.  “Participation that’s whats going to save the human race,” he explained, summing up his credo.  His unbridled optimism opens up a new way of living and world making. “With the poor people of this world, I want to cast my lot,” he sang.

I loved his optimism, even in the face of stark opposition. "We may be fighting a losing battle but we're having a lot of fun trying to win," he explained.  Who could not agree with that.  This was a recipe to fight opposition and despair.  He reminded all of us that we could all fight, and participate with big gestures and small.  His final crusade was against plastic bags, he would pick up in the street.

Times Up shut down Indian Point action on the Clearwater. 

We listened to Abiyoyo, his childhood song about a boy who vanquishes a foe with a song.  Listening to Pete describe the monster's goofy grin, I smiled, watching my kids smile.  We laughed, and were moved with his his recollections of his rebel friendship with Woody Guthrie.  The concluding paragraphs of our book, the Beach Beneath the Streets is about this relationship.

Guthrie is said to have written “This Land Is Your Land” as he hitchhiked from Texas to New York City in 1940. During a performance at Lincoln Center in the summer of 2008, Guthrie’s friend and former band mate Pete Seeger noted that while most kids learn this song at summer camp, teachers usually omit the these final two verses. This, of course, is no surprise. The lyrics evoke a contested quality to public space and by extension capitalism itself. While the “no tress passin’” sign Guthrie describes indicates enclosure and privatization, he harkens to a liberatory possibility of public space, “on the other side it didn’t say nothing.” The lyrics evoke a “popular patriotism”: land given back to the people, to be shared by everyone, land that is yours and mine (Eyerman and Jamison 1998, 69). Conversely, Guthrie hints at the sense of enclosure, of exclusion experienced by the poor fenced out of this promise, left to wonder and grumble, “If this land’s still made for you and me.” Public space is certainly anything but simple. This book has sought to grapple with the yin-yang–like complexity of this topic. In these notes towards a conclusion, we consider a few of the historic currents influencing this conversation.

Pete playing at a community garden.  Courtesy More Gardens. 

“I think you are going to save your garden. I don’t quite know how. But, I know you will,” promised Pete Seeger, while performing at a Harlem community garden under threat of being bulldozed a few years ago. For decades, Seeger has been a constant fixture in the activist scene. He talked about this at the show. “There are more small groups of people in this country doing good things than any time in history . . . hundreds of thousands of groups. These are people who figure they have to do something, if only for their own piece of mind” (quoted in Tarleton 2002). And certainly Seeger has been one of them. He was there to serenade activists during a rally at Forty-Second Street and Sixth Avenue when the city threatened the gardens, bringing a ethereal quality to the event. “Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony floated out over the traffic,” Seeger mused. He was also there to play a show in a community garden in the East Village when the city threatened to auction off hundreds of gardens in the late 1990s. In between songs, Seeger, who once resided in the Village, mused about the garden struggle in relation to a changing urban landscape. LESC veteran Ron Hayduk, who was at the show, recalled Seeger declaring: “Here in the Lower East Side development is a mixed bag. Obviously, the buildings need to be fixed. We don’t need ‘em falling down.”  But Seeger reasoned we also don’t want to lose the gardens. We don’t want to suffocate the planet with concrete. So we have to fight for the gardens, clean water and so on.

“I used to go to his concerts and he would play kid songs or do folk songs, and then there would be a little message that I would find myself humming on the way home and thinking about later,” explained Hayduk.  Listening to his interviews and songs, watching his activism, many of us started to see a philosophy of living.  The first lines of Play, Creativity and Social Movements considers some of these gestures.

As they pass through the intersection of the Hudson Valley, New York P.O.W.-M.I.A. Highway on Route 9, drivers are serenaded with an anti-war chorus most every Saturday morning.  Standing in front of signs with the words “PEACE” spray painted in bright orange letters, a banjo player and a group of musicians lead the music.  The man on banjo, of course, is none other that the iconic 90-year-old folk singer Pete Seeger.  Most do not even recognize him among the half-dozen activists at the weekly vigil.  And that is fine with him.  If Seeger wanted more publicity, he could hold a press conference.  In between songs, Seeger walks to the other side of the six lane freeway to make common cause with pro-war protesters holding a counter demonstration.  “They always have more flags,” Seeger notes.  “But our signs are more fun” (Gaffney, 2008).  Of course, this is the point.  This light hearted dimension of the anti-war vigil is not lost on most of the participants and it should not be for observers of social movements.  The mix of play and protest, songs and colorful signs only help such moments to gain vitality.  Anthropologist Roger Callois (1961/1979, p. 6) notes: “One plays only if and when one wishes to.  In this sense, play is free activity.”  It certainly is for Seeger and those involved in the ongoing vigil.

In many ways, this spirit has kept Seeger going through decades on the front lines of social struggle.  In the years since his refusal to invoke the Fifth Amendment during questioning at the House on Un American Activities Committee, Seeger’s highly participatory chorus has engaged and enticed generations of audiences, often directly into social action.  “Participation! It’s what all my work has been about,” muses Seeger (Denning, 1997 Eyerman and Jamison, 1998; Isserman 1993).  The “fun” part of participating Seeger describes can be a transformative part of the process of social change. 

During his June 1963 concert at Carnegie Hall Concert just weeks before the March on Washington, Seeger talked about this ethos.  “Nobody whose never actually faced one of those policemen can know exactly much bravery it takes to be just this gay and cheerful in the face of all this…” He was referring to the protestors  who stared down police dogs and riot cops just weeks before in Birmingham, Alabama.  “They have a little dance called the wobble a dance,” Seeger (1963) explained: “’I ain’t afraid of no jail cause I want my freedom, I want my freedom now.” Seeger, a supporter of the movement, recounted that King was adamant that participants must be solemn before an action, especially if they were leaving church to get there.  “’No songs, no slogans until you are arrested,’” he noted King would warn.  But once the arrests started activists sang and danced.  “I ain’t afraid of no jail cause I want my freedom, I want my freedom now,” Seeger sang.  The crowd at Carnegie Hall erupted in laugher as Seeger finished his story.  Seeger would reflect on the image of children dancing in streets while fighting for justice for the next five decades.  Such feelings of joy and justice are hard to contain.  They are subject of the this book.  They are really the subject of my life.

The point, of course, is that everyone should be able to play the game of movement action.  Play invites people to participate in a public conversation, especially when everyone sings. Pete Seeger insisted on this. 

Over the years, we saw him play shows at Clearwater, Carnegie Hall, Woodstock, a church in the West Village, Joe’s Pub, Madison Square Garden, in Bryant Park.  At that show at Bryant Park, he scolded a photographer for getting in the way of spectators watching the show.  Love him. 

One of my favorite shows was his 2011 show for Occupy.  We had brought a bike valet, but he walked down from 92nd street to Columbus Circle, playing a full show deep into the evening with Arlo Guthrie.  

Last summer, I joined the Times Up! gang for the last show I would see with Seeger, at the  Clearwater festival.  His new songs were stronger than the older tunes. And we all sung along, joining the chorus. That was the point. I will never forget the feeling of hearing him play the first chords for, and then singing "This Land" with Pete. 

Towards the end of a 2008 feature story, a New York Times reporter noted: 
“ But before the 89-year-old folk singer flashed his antiwar signs to passing drivers from this no-man’s land — a patch of green about an hour north of New York City on the Hudson River — he bent over again and again, picking up litter." 

 “This is my religion now,” said Mr. Seeger. “Picking up trash. You do a little bit wherever you are.”

He pointed to the importance of rejecting cynicism in favor of joyful participation, song after song, day after day, movement after movement, gesture after gesture, decade after decade.  His life points to a way of living activism and song, merging the two.  It is a path I can only hope to emulate. 

This us this afternoon at 5:30 pm Washington Square we will recall his memory, riding our bikes, playing his songs together.  Join us for the ride, some songs, and all  of us in participating in the chorus of social activism and song.   In Pete's name, lets keep singing and participating together.  

We'll sing "So Long Its Been Good to Know You" to our old friend. 

I've sung this song, but I'll sing it again,
Of the place that I lived on the wild windy plains,
In the month called April, county called Gray,
And here's what all of the people there say:
CHORUS: So long, it's been good to know yuh;
So long, it's been good to know yuh;
So long, it's been good to know yuh.
This dusty old dust is a-gettin' my home,
And I got to be driftin' along.
A dust storm hit, an' it hit like thunder;
It dusted us over, an' it covered us under;
Blocked out the traffic an' blocked out the sun,
Straight for home all the people did run,
We talked of the end of the world, and then
We'd sing a song an' then sing it again.
We'd sit for an hour an' not say a word,
And then these words would be heard:
Sweethearts sat in the dark and sparked,
They hugged and kissed in that dusty old dark.
They sighed and cried, hugged and kissed,
Instead of marriage, they talked like this:
Now, the telephone rang, an' it jumped off the wall,
That was the preacher, a-makin' his call.
He said, "Kind friend, this may the end;
An' you got your last chance of salvation of sin!"
The churches was jammed, and the churches was packed,
An' that dusty old dust storm blowed so black.
Preacher could not read a word of his text,
An' he folded his specs, an' he took up collection,
So long, it's been good to know yuh;
So long, it's been good to know yuh;
So long, it's been good to know yuh.
This dusty old dust is a-gettin' my home,
And I got to be driftin' along.

1 comment:

  1. OH BEN SHEPARD WONDERFUL WONDERFUL WONDERFUL. YES YES YES Pete was one of us, Ben. We are the joyful participants you and I and our friends who sing, dance and fight for justice. JOY AND JUSTICE!! I will bring some copies of This Land is your Land 2 (Clean Water is a Human Right). I think Pete would love the clean water re-working of the original. So glad I know you Ben! YOU ROCK!