Pete Seeger Will Keep on Singing
R Arun Kumar
THAT was November 1977. One of the worst natural disasters – a typhoon and a tidal wave swept across the coastal Andhra Pradesh and in Krishna district alone more than 10,000 people lost their lives. Even before the government could wake up and organise relief measures, the Communist Party of India (Marxist), led by Comrade P Sundarayya personally visited the affected areas and organised relief efforts. As a part of the relief that was mobilised, a team from West Bengal visited the areas and distributed essential materials and also organised medical camps. Along with them was Pete Seeger, not the man, but the song. It was the first time that the song 'We Shall Overcome' was heard in those regions, a song of hope in times of adversity. We Shall Overcome – just three words – but what an impact they had and still continues to have. The song became an organising chant during the Civil Rights Movement led by Martin Luther King Jr. The song continues to inspire hundreds of thousands of students, many of whose congregations conclude with this song. Pete Seeger, who prefers to identify himself as one who had popularised the song, rather than as one who owns the song, termed the song as “It's the genius of simplicity. Any damn fool can get complicated”. This song reflects his way of writing that resounds throughout his work to give them timelessness and endurance. As he himself states: “I swiped things here and there and wrote new verses”. We Shall Overcome was based on old gospel songs, primarily “I’ll Overcome,” a hymn that striking tobacco workers had sung on a picket line in South Carolina. A slower version, “We Will Overcome,” was collected from one of the workers, Lucille Simmons, by Zilphia Horton, the musical director of the Highlander Folk School in Monteagle, Tennessee, which trained union organisers. The copyright for the song is not held by Pete Seeger but he shares it with all those from whom he had learned the song and he even humbly acknowledges, “At that time we didn’t know Lucille Simmons’s name”. He had established a Fund in the name of the song to which all the song’s royalties go, which in turn are used to provide grants to African-Americans organising in the Southern states of the US. How unlike some of the modern day music composers, who copy deftly but without any acknowledgement, forget about remorse. A case in point is the famous anti-war Italian song, 'Bella Ciao' that was turned into a romantic song by our 'talented' music directors of our film industry. Pete Seeger was never commercial and was never after stardom. He always wanted people to remember the song rather than the singer. Indeed Seeger always used to say with a lot of humility, “they are not my songs, they are old songs, I just happened to sing them”. That is the reason why, again, quite unlike the present day 'kings, queens and stars' of music who win legions of fans through careful 'packaging', Pete Seeger is remembered more in the songs that he sang. He carved out a space for himself in history, quietly with rarer set of qualities: nobility, generosity, humility and more importantly when things got rough, breathtaking courage. Pete Seeger was one of the musicians (Paul Robeson was another such famous singer as was Charlie Chaplin, the famous actor) who was harassed during the McCarthy period. He was blacklisted for being a member of the Communist Party and was indicted for contempt of Congress. In 1955, he was subpoenaed by the House Un-American Activities Committee, where he testified, “I feel that in my whole life I have never done anything of any conspiratorial nature. I am not going to answer any questions as to my association, my philosophical or religious beliefs or my political beliefs, or how I voted in any election, or any of these private affairs. I think these are very improper questions for any American to be asked, especially under such compulsion as this”. True to his character and just as he alone can do, he had offered to sing his songs before the Committee, an offer which was declined! As a result of his attitude, the House of Representatives tried Seeger and six others for contempt. Seeger defended himself with the words: “Some of my ancestors were religious dissenters who came to America over three hundred years ago. Others were abolitionists in New England in the eighteen forties and fifties. I believe that by choosing my present course I do no dishonour to them, or to those who may come after me”. It was for this conviction in his views that he was found guilty and sentenced to 12 months in prison. He was removed from the TV and his songs were blacklisted from the radio. The organisers of his concerts were harassed, forcing some of them to cancel his shows. All these did not deter him, but in fact further steeled him. Right wing groups protested at his concert venues, to which he remarked in jest: “All those protests did was sell tickets and get me free publicity, the more they protested, the bigger the audiences became”. Seeger never regretted even for once his political positions: “Historically, I believe I was correct in refusing to answer their questions. Down through the centuries, this trick has been tried by various establishments throughout the world. They force people to get involved in the kind of examination that has only one aim and that is to stamp out dissent. One of the things I'm most proud of about my country is the fact that we did lick McCarthyism back in the fifties. Many Americans knew their lives and their souls were being struggled for, and they fought for it. And I felt I should carry on. Through the sixties I still had to occasionally free picket lines and bomb threats. But I simply went ahead, doing my thing, throughout the whole period”. Till his end, Seeger remained firm in his convictions. Calling himself socialist and communist, but with a 'small c', he said: “still a socialist, just as bombs still come down and kill innocent women and children”. His banjo used to sport the message: “This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender”. It is with this courage that he led the artists in the protests against the Vietnam war. Two of his famous songs, 'Where Have all the Flowers Gone', and the 'Waist Deep in the Big Muddy, and the Big Fool said to Push on', expressed the popular anguish and protest against the war. In 1974, he was the first to record Estadio Chile, the last song written by Victor Jara, another revolutionary singer and poet who was publicly executed by the dictatorial regime in Chile, which came to power after overthrowing the Communist government of Salvador Allende. Seeger continued singing till his very last and was publicly seen singing as late as during the Occupy Wall Street protests in 2011. He championed the interests of the working class, poor and downtrodden sections of the society. He was out and out against the corporates. He led a protracted struggle against the environmental contamination of the Hudson river. Four decades of relentless and dogged struggle forced the General Electrics, responsible for the pollution, to come down and pay half a billion dollars for the cleaning of the river system. This is again an indicator for Pete Seeger, the person he is! Over the years, Pete Seeger was conferred with many awards and even the government was forced to recognise the volumes of work he had done, particularly for the revival of folk tradition. He was conferred with a National Medal of Arts, the highest US honour for an artist by the then President Bill Clinton. Pete Seeger accepted the award, but without losing the irony: “The whole situation is hilarious, I've usually come down to Washington to picket the White House and now I'm coming to get a medal”! He was awarded a Grammy for lifetime achievement as well for his contributions and inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Song Writers Hall of Fame. Similarly, he received the Order of Félix Varela, Cuba’s highest cultural award, for his “humanistic and artistic work in defence of the environment and against racism”. All these did not in any way tone down the peoples' artist in Seeger. Throughout his life, his principles never wavered and his optimism never faltered. He wanted the people to come out of their ‘Little Boxes’ of indoctrination and challenge the system. “Every establishment in the world needs a good opposition, in order to be healthy”. And he tried his best to maintain the health of the world. For Pete Seeger song is a weapon, a tool to better the society. He used to say: “My job, is to show folks there’s a lot of good music in this world, and if used right it may help to save the planet. The key to the future of the world, is finding the optimistic stories and letting them be known”. As the reviewer in New York Times wrote, “For him, folk music and a sense of community were inseparable, and where he saw a community, he saw the possibility of political action”. “The real revolution will come when people realise the danger we're in”. Our real tribute to him can only be through making people realise the danger we are in.