Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Pete Seeger: a patriot for all seasons


A couple of weeks ago, a young New Orleans-based musician took a walk down New York's Broadway in support of the Occupy Wall Street movement accompanied by a thousand or so like-minded citizens, including his 92-year-old grandfather. Suddenly, a New York City policeman approached the musician and grabbed him by the elbow. "Are you Tao Seeger? Was this your idea? Did you think of this?" The policeman reached for the young musician's hand and, under the circumstances, handcuffs and arrest were anticipated.

Instead, the policeman shook Tao Rodriguez-Seeger's hand and said, "Thank you, thank you. This is beautiful." A handshake instead of a baton for those who question instead of salute the unacceptable is just one small but significant contribution to American history and culture inspired by Tao Rodriguez-Seeger's grandfather, Pete Seeger.

One AP story of the incident carried the headline "Pete Seeger enters 9th decade as activist." For as long as I have been aware of and involved in social and political issues, freedom and justice, patriotism, opposition to abuse of power, and each individual's responsibility to and for them, Pete Seeger has been part of that awareness. At 92, Pete Seeger must march with two canes. He can no longer play the banjo, march and sing at the same time, but grandson Tao and his guitar carry on the family tradition of using music in the cause of social justice, human understanding and political change.

Rodriguez-Seeger explains his grandfather's activism with these words about music in promoting understanding and change: "Music does something to you. It can cross rivers of meaning that entire books can't get across. You take any one of Bob Dylan's songs and you get to the heart of the matter, where it took Homer volumes and volumes of books to get to the same point."

Not to mention Pete Seeger's songs, including "Bells of Rhymney," "Dear Mr. President," "If I Had a Hammer," "Kisses Sweeter Than Wine," "Talking Union," "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?" and other songs that he didn't write but helped sing into America's culture and consciousness, most notably "We Shall Overcome," "Goodnight Irene" (from whose lyrics came the title of one of America's greatest novels, "Sometimes a Great Notion"), "This Land Is Your Land," "Satisfied Mind" and "Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream," all songs—for those who don't know them—that get to the heart of the matter.

And the OWS movement is directed at and gets to the heart of the matter.


And the heart of the matter is the effect on people without power of the abuses of power by the powerful, whether the abuse be political, economic, social or justice and freedom denied. As a political, social and environmental activist, Pete Seeger has been firmly at the heart of that matter since the 1930s when he spoke and sang out against the rise of fascism and Hitler. In 1955, he faced down with complete integrity the disgraceful House Un-American Activities Committee, refused to answer their questions and was convicted of contempt of Congress, a conviction overturned on appeal after seven years of one man fighting Congress. In his statement to the court after his conviction, Seeger said, "Some of my ancestors were religious dissenters who came to America over 300 years ago. Others were abolitionists in New England in the 1840s and 50s. I believe that in choosing my present course I do no dishonor to them, or to those who may come after me."

In refusing to answer the questions of the HUAC, Seeger did not invoke his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination, but, rather, he cited Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black and Dr. Alexander Meiklejohn's opinions that "the First Amendment gives an American citizen the right to refuse to speak on occasion."

That is, freedom of speech includes the right not to speak.

One of Seeger's best known songs, "If I Had A Hammer," includes these stanzas:

If I had a hammer

I'd hammer in the morning

I'd hammer in the evening,

All over this land.

I'd hammer out danger,

I'd hammer out a warning,

I'd hammer out love between my bothers and my sisters,

All over this land.

Even as a teenager I took those words to imply that everyone has a hammer of some kind. Seeger's happened to be song, but he came from a heritage of religious dissenters, abolitionists and activists on behalf of justice, freedom, equality and the environment. That heritage is alive and well in the OWS movement (and other places) and it is in the finest tradition of American patriotism of hammering out a warning. And if you listen carefully, you can hear it in the tap, tap, tap, tap of Pete Seeger's canes all over this land.

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