Tonight—a program mostly responding to Memorial Day, featuring songs dating from the Civil war (when Memorial Day was first established for women to decorate the graves of their fallen sons and husbands) to the present (when the costs rather than the glories of war have become most salient in people’s minds and in the songs). We’ll honor the war veterans who publicly tossed their medals in Chicago last week. The program will include a shout out to Wisconsin on the eve of the recall, and a moment for Doc Watson, whose guitar and voice made a bridge between traditional Southern song and the musickers of the sixties.
culture of protest thurs 5/31/12 6-7pm pdt kcsb 91.9fm www.kcsb.org
Tags: memorial day, anti-war songs, veterans protest, doc wisconsin recall
This week a remarkable convergence of mas uprisings: hundreds of thousands of students protest higher tuition and repressive new laws, in Spain, mass uprisings against austerity, in Chicago, big marches against war and for 'Robin Hood' taxation. And this week marks celebration of the 50th anniversary of the founding of the United Farm Workers, and this spring marks the founding of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade 75 years ago to enable Americans to join the struggle to defend the Spanish Republic against Franco. All of these happenings have musical accompaniments--and that's what we'll be offering on the radio Thursday evening.
culture of protest thurs 5/24/12 6-7pm pdt kcsb 91.9fm www.kcsb.org
Tags: Montreal protests, chicago protests, Spanish civil war, United Farm Workers
I'm increasingly perplexed by some evident divisions in the ranks of Democratic Party leaders in our region. The most obvious division is the race for state senate in the 19th district. Hannah Beth Jackson, who established a record of principle and outspokenness on behalf of gender equality, environmental values and resistance to corporate control as a member of the assembly, is running for the senate seat in the newly redrawn district. HBJ lost a race in the old, preponderantly Republican district by a few hundred votes.
So the perplexing thing is that she has a Democratic Party opponent named Jason Hodge, a onetime firefighter, and operative for the Ventura fire fighters union. Jason has every right to run, of course, but we might want to know why he’s doing it. The main answer one can find in his campaign ads: He says he’s the “Democrat who doesn’t think you need higher taxes” As a cheap campaign slogan against Hannah Beth, this makes sense: When she ran against Tony Strickland, he called her “Taxin’ Jackson”, making use of earlier SB New-Press efforts to define (and demean) her.They were branding her this way simply because she voted with her fellow Democrats in the Assembly for certain budgetary measures. Presumably making the link between Jackson and taxin’ might give Jason an edge among independent and conservative voters (an important strategic goal should the two Democrats both survive the June primary). But it’s terrible politics for a Democratic candidate for the legislature, given the tax raising referendum that Jerry Brown, labor and the Democratic state party are mounting—a referendum that has to pass to save the education budgets but, like all proposals to raise taxes, its fate is precarious.
Jason has already garnered support for his candidacy from a PAC called Senior Advocates League whose primary funder is the Republican Party of California and an outfit called JOBSPAC which is funded by leading oil, tobacco and other big corporations. So, based on all the above, we can assume that Jason Hodge is a corporate or ‘blue dog’ Democrat, trying to block the election of an outspoken progressive.
What’s perplexing is that the story is a bit more complicated. Incredibly, Hodge is endorsed by the Tricounty Labor Council—even though Jackson has a stellar record of supporting labor issues.
The plot thickens: a few months before announcing his candidacy, Jason Hodge married Fiona Ma, currently speaker pro tempore of the assembly and a decidedly ambitious Bay Area politician. Fiona has been actively lining up endorsements for Jason, calling in the many political chips she’s distributed over the years.
Maybe a measure of her ambition (and ruthlessness?) is that she pushed hard to get Republican Mike Stoker appointed to the State Air Resource’s Board. Stoker, a perennial local GOP candidate, is running for the senate against Hodge and Jackson; his appointment to the ARB would have taken him out of the equation. That appointment was blocked at the last minute when various influentials got wind of the possibility that Gov. Brown would be naming a pro-business Republican to this environmentally important body. Apparently Jason’s electoral game made such a deal worthwhile to Fiona Ma.
Progressive Democratic activists in Ventura have been much troubled by the behavior of the Labor Council. According to David Atkins, former chair of the Ventura County Democratic Party, the Labor Council has fielded an opposition slate that seeks to take over control of the Party’ Central Committee there. Atkins says that their candidates include: “folks who were previously kicked off long ago for endorsing Republicans, folks who worked with local Tea Party members to oppose local progressive positions, and various others in that general line. And they will be using their considerable resources to do whatever it takes to defeat me and my allies in June, in order prevent the local Party from doing what is needed to win races for progressive Democrats across the county.”http://www.dailykos.com/story/2012/03/10/1073184/-Meet-Democrat-Jason-Hodge-?showAll=yes)
That Labor Council doesn’t speak for a lot of major unions. Indeed, in the current campaign, Jackson has been endorsed by very politically significant unions, including SEIU, teachers, nurses, farmworkers, etc.
The effort by progressive Democrats in Ventura to create a coherent Party organization that can work effectively in local elections (including non-partisan ones) is similar to the process that has been evolving here in Santa Barbara County. Historically, Democratic Party organizations in California have tended to be largely passive, with very little grassroots participation in governance and policy making, coming to some life during election seasons but otherwise remaining dormant. Here in Santa Barbara, a contingent of young activists has been successful in remaking the County Central Committee into an activist structure. The elements of their effort include:formulating a party platform, endorsing and working for candidates and ballot initiatives that are nominally non-partisan, and trying to establish a degree of organizational discipline by expecting that the elected member s of the Central Committee will publicly abide by DCC endorsements and not work publicly for candidates or ballot positions opposed to the Committee’s endorsements.
Some people’s feelings have been hurt in this process because they’ve not abided by endorsement policies, or because they have been displaced from positions of control that they long felt entitled to have. As a result there’s been a good deal of tension within the Central Committee. A focus of the distress has been on Daraka Larimore Hall. Daraka is chair of the CCentral Committee and a prime mover of the remaking process I’m alluding to. On your primary election ballot, if you live in the first supervisorial district, you’ll find Daraka running for re-election to the Democratic Party Central Committee. There are five open seats in the district, and seven candidates—so this rather obscure slot is now a site of the Democrat teapot tempest.. Feeding the flames has been the activity of former State Assemblymember Pedro Nava, whose wife Susan Jordan, ran for his seat after Nava termed out. Santa Barbara City Councilmember Das Williams decided to oppose Jordan and eventually won the seat. Rather than do the normal (and graceful) thing, Jordan and Nava refused to endorse Das, and have continued to try to work against “official” Party endorsements. They’ve been vociferous in supporting Jason Hodge—in part at least because Hannah Beth Jackson is close with Das Williams.
Now, Susan Jordan on her Facebook page (http://www.facebook.com/?ref=logo#!/susan.jordan.94) has taken to attacking Daraka Larimore Hall and urging people not to vote for him. Her posting has drawn out several other people who have grievances against Daraka.
I’m a close friend of Daraka Larimore Hall. I chair his doctoral committee (he’s a PhD student in sociology at UCSB). We talk a lot about politics big and small. So I’m biased in his favor, of course. But I think I can say with confidence these things: Daraka is an exceptionally talented political activist. Everyone knows that he is one of the best public speakers they’ve ever seen. But his speaking effectiveness isn’t just about style, it’s about his thoughtfulness about the issues and how to define them that also stands out. I know from direct experience that these qualities carry over to the classrooms where he works. Along with his talents for public expression is his capacity for creative political vision. His experience in Scandinavia as a young activist and his extensive study of American party politics is the basis for his leadership of the local party. He hopes, and he’s persuaded other party activists to hope, for a party organization that can be a political force. Being a political force means being locally engaged and effective—taking stands and working for issues important for the shared values of local Democrats. It means being able to hold politicians accountable, understanding that electing good people to office is only the beginning of the story. It means, hopefully, that the party organization can attract previously unengaged people, not only to volunteer for particular campaigns, but to become active citizens. It means, in short, trying to sustain a party organization that is alive and real all year round –and that can make a difference in the ongoing politics of the county,
It’s not a simple matter to try making this vision work for it challenges established habits of veteran party regulars. California historically is a state where party organization has tended to be weak especially on the local level, and where local government elections are nominally non-partisan. Still, the County Democratic Committee that Daraka has been chairing has successfully put a good deal of the vision to work.
Now we have the spectacle that some folks who disagree with this vision are trying to unseat Daraka by urging that he not be re-elected to the Central Committee in the upcoming election.And the afore mentioned Labour Council has endorsed all the candidates for the 2st district seats except Daraka (who served as vice chair of the CLC for several years, and has worked as a union organizer). Instead of debating policies that they don’t like, they’ve constructed a story about Daraka’s personal style—he’s dictatorial, creates conflict, arrogant. Like anyone with strong commitment and drive, I’m sure Daraka has disturbed some people and made some enemies. The fact that Daraka is exceptionally gifted, and represents the emerging young generation in local politics, should be seen as very promising for progressive politics. I think most folks who are engaged with the Party here share this view.
The turn toward punishing Daraka personally is ugly and it’s suspect. Note that a similar process of opposition to a reforming progressive party leadership has been happening in Ventura County, led by the very same folk who are backing Jason Hodge. In Santa Barbara, the ugliest public moves largely have been made by Susan Jordan, who can’t seem to get past her loss to Das Williams.
We’re in a national struggle against really dark reactionary political forces. We’re facing a global economic crisis. It’s perplexing that in that context some folks around here have nothing better to do than divide the activist community, driven, not by principle, but by spite
And while I'm at it. You may want to consider voting and working for these progressives on the June Ballot:
Hannah Beth Jackson for state senate hannah-beth2012.com
The tempo of protest is globally rising and with it--protest songs. This week on the radio we'll scan the sounds of music emanating from the actions and episodes that are defining public life right now. In Chicago, days of protest associated with the NATO meeting there. Much of the street action, led by the Iraq Vets against the war focuses on Afghanistan. But Friday the National Nurses Union will be leading a a mobilization in Dealey Plaza to raise the issue of the 'Robin Hood Tax' otherwise known as the Financial Transaction tax. It's an idea whose time may have come: to levy a small tax (0.05%)on all financial transactions-- purchase and sale of stocks, bonds, commodities, unit trusts, mutual funds, and derivatives such as futures and options. The concept is supported by a wide range of organizations and figures like Bill Gates, the Pope, Nancy Pelosi and our friend Roseann Demoro, who heads the Nurses Union. The nurses announced that tom Morello would perform at their rally--which led Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel to pull their permit (claiming that the space couldn't handle a rock concert). Apparently he has thought better of this. On the radio we'll hear Tom Morello talking about this episode, and a very good new song about the Robin Hood tax.
This week marks the release of a multi-disc album--99 songs for the Occupy movement. We'll feature a couple of tracks from this amazing contribution to the Culture of Protest, and other songs aimed at heralding the spring revival of the Occupy movement. We'll also recognize Studs Terkel's 100th birthday, the 1954 Supreme court decision ordering school desegregation, and an anthem to the freedom to love.
Pete Seeger turned 93 on May 3. Tomorrow on the radio we’ll do a birthday celebration for Pete. We’ll feature some newly released material—including two compilations of Pete concerts from the late 50s performing on college campuses at a time when he was totally blacklisted in the mainstream media, as well as some other things that Pete has contributed to the culture of protest in the last year or so. TUNE IN: CULTURE OF PROTEST THURS 5/10 6-7 PM PDT KCSB 91.9FM WWW.KCSB.ORG
In honor of the occasion some other things I’d like to share: Three videos. Pete’s new performance of Dylan’s ‘Forever Young’ with his Rivertown kids chorus—from the big Amnesy International Dulan compilation—a perfect birthday song, you;’ll agree. Next, Pete with Bruce Springsteen and Tao Seeger at the Obama inaugural concert doing all the ‘radical’ verses of This Land. And at the very end of this post, 40,000 Norwegians singing Pete’s ‘Rainbow Race’ (in Norwegian)—a classic children’s song in Norway now—a song despised by the mass murderer Breitik who hates ‘multiculturalism’. And an article I wrote a couple of years ago—my effort to pay tribute to Pete and his transformative cultural/political project. ENJOY!!!
Pete Seeger’s Project
Pete Seeger turned 90 on May 3, providing the occasion for a huge Madison Square Garden celebratory concert, featuring a wide array of popular musicians singing his songs and honoring his influence. In the two years prior to this event, Seeger had gotten more mainstream attention than he’d received in his previous 70 years of performing. Bruce Springsteen recorded several CDs called “The Seeger Sessions” and simultaneously went on an international tour featuring material drawn from Seeger’s folksong repertory. There was a documentary film bio, released on public TV and theatrically, called “Pete Seeger: The Power of Song.” There’s an ongoing campaign to get him nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.
A long adulatory essay on Seeger appeared in The New Yorker and an extended version with the same main title—“The Protest Singer”—is now out as one of three recently published biographies. In addition to the book by Alec Wilkinson, there is a biographical narrative by historian Allan M. Winkler, “To Everything There Is a Season,” and a major updating of David King Dunaway’s “official” biography, “How Can I Keep from Singing,” originally published in 1981.
The attention Pete Seeger is now getting is certainly deserved, given his influence on American music and the nature of his life story. Yet, one feature of that story is that he is one of the least well-known famous persons in America. I use protest music a lot in my teaching about social movements; over the years, I’ve found that fewer than 5 percent of my students at UC Santa Barbara can identify Seeger (and this is probably a higher proportion than one would find in a sample of the wider public). Of course, the attention he’s gotten in recent years has undoubtedly enabled many more to identify him, but he remains paradoxically shadowy, given his importance.
Yet this paradox goes to the heart of what his life has been about.
One obvious reason for Seeger’s marginalization has been his lifelong commitment to the left. His father, the noted composer and musicologist Charles Seeger, was an important leader of the cultural front fostered by the Communist Party during the 1930s. Charles Seeger helped form a composers’ collective (whose membership included Marc Blitzstein, Aaron Copland and other young radical musicians) seeking to create a new music for revolutionary workers, and eventually working to preserve and reinvigorate folk and vernacular music as an alternative to commodified mass culture. His son Pete grew up immersed in the left, joined the Young Communist League during his brief time at Harvard, and was a Communist Party member (according to his biographers) during most of the 1940s. Although he stopped being a formal member of the party in the late ’40s, he was one of the star cultural figures of the communist-oriented left for many years after that. Teenagers like me and my wife (who both had been “Red diaper” babies) were proud that Pete Seeger was “ours”; there he was at benefits, and hootenannies, summer camps and rallies that defined much of our cultural lives during the ’50s when kids of our background felt pretty isolated from the political and cultural mainstream. Seeger’s allegiances made him the prototype of the blacklisted entertainer, and it was the blacklist which excluded him from TV and blanked him out of the awareness of mainstream America.
But that exclusion was not a tragedy for Pete’s life project. On the contrary, it compelled him to fulfill that project rather than succumb to temptations to modify it that might have come from more conventional commercial success.
Alec Wilkinson’s portrait of Seeger defines him as the epitome of the rugged individualist. We see him in very old age, living in a house he has built on the banks of New York state’s Hudson River. He, his wife Toshi and their small children moved there in the ’40s, and their lives for a time were indeed rugged—without electricity and running water for a while, chopping wood, growing food in a clearing in the forest. Of course, they added modern amenities, but they remained close to the land. Near the end of the book, we see Seeger and members of his clan collecting sap and making maple syrup. Wilkinson appreciates the seeming contradiction that this man, long reviled as a communist, has tried to live the American ideal of the self-made, self-sufficient man.
But Seeger was, in fact, a Communist, and continues to describe himself as a “communist with a small c.” His biographers suggest that when he was a party member, he was sometimes at odds with party discipline. In the ’30s, many CPers from comfortable backgrounds felt the need to demonstrate their revolutionary bona fides by slavish conformity to party lines and party demands. Seeger is described, by Dunaway, as restless with such demands, avoiding boring meetings, alienated by abstract theorizing. Indeed, his dedication to the promotion of folk music was not particularly appreciated by party cultural commissars. But alongside these deviations, he has had to live down the fact that the Almanac Singers, which he helped to found, began in the aftermath of the Hitler-Stalin Pact by recording a group of anti-war songs condemning the start of conscription and FDR’s military buildup. As soon as the Soviet Union was attacked by Hitler, the American Communist Party became a leading advocate of war against the Nazis; the Almanacs put out an album supporting the war effort, and their producer pulled the earlier “pacifist” album from the market. It’s a tale often used to demonstrate that the CPUSA was Stalin’s tool, and how its members were unable to think and act in principled ways. There are some who still can’t forgive Seeger for this episode.
But Pete Seeger was raised by his father to live a principled life. You can get a flavor of Charles Seeger’s moral perspective by looking at his list of “The Purposes of Music” printed as an appendix to Wilkinson’s book. “Music, as any art, is not an end in itself, but is a means for achieving larger ends. … ” These principles emphasize that music as group activity is more important than individual accomplishment, that “musical culture” of a nation depends on the people’s participation in it rather than on the virtuosity of a few, that “vernacular” music is the foundation from which all other kinds of music derive, that music should “aid in the welding of the people into more independent, capable, and democratic action.” We can read in these lines the foundation for Pete Seeger’s 70 years as an artist and political being. They are a primary source for the life project he began to formulate and implement when he was in his early 20s.
I use the word project instead of career because Seeger himself resisted talking about his “career.” The word suggests that one is orienting one’s life toward personal success, climbing a ladder of accomplishment and fame. Seeger from the outset instead set out to channel his ambition toward social and cultural change and, more than most politically minded performers, to exorcise his strivings for personal recognition. The Almanacs in the early ’40s performed anonymously (and Seeger often used an assumed name in those years), emulating various European artistic collectives of that time. A number of politically committed young musicians were part of the Almanacs collective, but Seeger was the most disciplined—focused on enabling the group to stay together and achieve its shared purpose—which was to create new songs, rooted in vernacular music with lyrics that might mobilize political action.
The Almanacs’ most lasting songs were those, like Woody Guthrie’s “Union Maid,” that became anthems of the CIO organizing campaigns, or that spurred anti-Nazi sentiment to support the war effort (“The Sinking of the Reuben James”). Their performances were deliberately unpolished (Guthrie said that they “rehearsed on stage”). In the entertainment world, there was something new and attractively fresh about such public spontaneity, and about the fusion of folk music and contemporary urban topics. The middle-class Almanacs, especially Seeger, undoubtedly thought that their unprofessional style (they wore blue jeans or overalls) would help them forge connections to the working-class audiences they hoped to reach. That assumption has often been mocked; workers were much more likely to want the polished performances of Tommy Dorsey, Bing Crosby or the Andrew Sisters. But this criticism misses the deeper aims of Seeger’s project. It was not popularity or acceptance that he was trying to gain, but the making of space for a popular music that would be created not for the commercial market but for sustaining the “democratic action” envisioned by his father.
The Almanacs’ collective didn’t last long, in part because several members, including Seeger and Guthrie, entered military service. While in uniform, Seeger continued his project—recording songs of the Spanish Civil War and a number of other topical songs (accompanied by other emerging folksingers such as Burl Ives, Josh White and Sonny Terry). He served in the Philippines as an entertainer for wounded GIs, learning quite a bit about how music can work to build collective morale. By war’s end, he was certain that making politically relevant music was his life’s work.
After the war, Seeger’s energies turned in a surprising direction—toward organizational entrepreneurship rather than merely performing. He sparked the formation of a national network of left-wing music makers (artists, songwriters, presenters, etc), People’s Artists (later called People’s Songs), to serve as a booking agency, a publisher of song-filled newsletters and books, and a support framework for advancing a popular music relevant to political action. In the immediate postwar period, leftists hoped that the dynamism of the ’30s labor movement would continue and that the social democratic logic of the New Deal would be followed by the post-FDR government. Seeger imagined that his people’s music network would be wedded to the unions and leftward social movements, but a profound split in the union movement and the left on the “communist” issue, in the context of the new Cold War, dashed such optimism. The People’s Songs project provided a soundtrack for the third-party Henry Wallace campaign in 1948, but the utter failure of that candidacy and the increasing tempo of the Red Scare thoroughly marginalized the network Seeger had worked so hard to build.
Still, Seeger’s penchant for organizational entrepreneurship was an important dimension of his work that deserves more attention than any of these biographies provide. He has continued to be an organizer since those postwar years. Major successes: the song magazines Sing Out! and Broadside, which published and publicized the politically conscious new songwriting of the ’60s; the Newport Folk Festivals in the late ’50s and ’60s, which brought together a new generation of troubadours with a vast array of traditional performers; a book (first edition mimeographed), “How to play the 5 string banjo,” which taught tens of thousands to play this largely forgotten instrument; the formation of the Freedom Singers by SNCC [Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee],which toured to raise awareness and money for the Southern struggle (with Toshi as their agent); the Clearwater Sloop, which involved the construction of a large sailing vessel that sparked the movement to clean up the Hudson River and became the center of an ongoing environmental education program. None of these efforts were single-handedly created by Seeger, of course. Indeed, his biographers suggest that he was not exactly a detail person. Toshi Seeger, Pete’s spouse of 67 years, early took on many of the managerial tasks his work required (while managing their household of three children in their log cabin). But he seems always to have had the ability to make the impossible seem plausible and thereby inspire and goad others to help fulfill various of his organizational visions. It’s a rare thing for an artist to be so preoccupied with the mundane tasks of concrete institution building. But he saw, from the start, that artistic efforts per se would not be enough to fulfill the overall project; cultural change is inextricably bound up with social organization.
Seeger’s passion for building alternative institutions was rooted in the cultural left’s longstanding ambivalence about the mainstream culture industry. Those like Charles Seeger and Alan Lomax who in the ’30s wanted to create a popular music rooted in American folk traditions thought that by so doing they would foster alternatives to a mass culture dominated by commercial media. Woody Guthrie frequently expressed disdain for commercial music, and his legend, dramatized in the fictionalized bio film “Bound for Glory,” celebrated his deliberate refusal to accept radio network contracts and nightclub dates. The Almanacs and the postwar People’s Artists thought they could create a noncorporate, social-movement-based apparatus to reach popular audiences, and those hopes were in some ways fulfilled (by a plethora of record labels, community radio stations and the like). On the other hand, the Almanacs, from the beginning, were not averse to commercial opportunity; they and Guthrie did land spots on network radio and in nightclubs. Yet each time such breakthroughs happened, press uproars about their commie politics soon followed, and such bookings declined.
Seeger’s most promising mainstream venture was the effort by the Almanacs’ successor group, the Weavers, to work commercial venues. The quartet was born out of the People’s Artists/Henry Wallace cultural left, but was discovered and signed by Gordon Jenkins of Decca Records (one of the largest record labels of the ’40s and ’50s). Jenkins produced a series of Weavers hits (several of these among the biggest-selling singles of the era), and the group was booked into many of the leading clubs and concert venues. The Weavers themselves were uncomfortable with their handlers’ demands that they steer clear of the causes and organizations they had been accustomed to working for, but it wasn’t long before right-wing entrepreneurs of the emerging Red hunt went after them, largely based on Seeger’s long association with “communist” politics. Some two years after they had burst on the scene, the Weavers’ big-time commercial-recording and live-performance career was over.
Seeger may have been disappointed that the Weavers’ successful popularization of folk music was so quickly aborted, but, with Toshi Seeger’s managerial efforts, he quickly embarked on a perpetual tour of America’s college campuses, summer camps and auditoriums, where he honed a solo performance style and repertory that defined who he was as a musician, and in the process brought into being a ragtag army of young fans. He was reviving for urban audiences not only the musical roots of the country but the ancient role of the troubadour, bringing the news through song.
Seeger’s commitment to his project was embodied in a particular performance style. The key for him was not the display of his own talent and skill, or to thrill or entice an audience. It was instead to bring songs to people so that they could make them their own. Every Seeger performance was centered on group singing. Simply getting a mass audience to join in requires skill, but he aimed further—to teach new songs, and to foster singing in harmony. He particularly relished teaching South African songs, in their original language, that involved two or three competing melodic lines (most famously “Wimoweh”).
Seeger has not to my knowledge laid out a full-fledged theory to explain his emphasis on mass singing. Such a theory, however, is implicit in his performances: There is an empowering effect in the very sound of a singing assembly; there is a persuasive effect that can come when audience members sing lyrics expressing a political perspective or commitment; there is a sense of mutual validation when people in a crowd sing together in an attitude of resistance. And once you sing a song there is a good chance that you will be able to reproduce it by and for yourself. By working as a song leader and teacher, Pete Seeger was achieving his father’s wish for a mode of musical performance that had an ability to “aid in the welding of the people into more independent, capable, and democratic action.”
The blacklisting of Pete Seeger by network TV lasted at least 15 years. Still, his cultural impact steadily increased during that time. The Weavers reunited in a historic Carnegie Hall Christmas season concert in 1955 and thereby defied the blacklist; the recording of this event on the upstart Vanguard label hit the charts, and the group continued to tour and record for several more years (although Seeger separated from it). Seeger drew ever larger concert crowds, including many of the young who heard him first at summer camps or on college campuses. He made, in that period, dozens of albums for Folkways.
Meanwhile, a pop-centered folk song revival became commercially huge. Weavers imitators, led by the Kingston Trio and later Peter, Paul and Mary, sold millions of records. Seeger and the Weavers had shown that folk music could sell, but the resulting commodification inevitably cheapened, denatured and contradicted Seeger’s project. His support of the Newport Folk Festivals helped provide alternative, more authentic access to rooted music and performers. By the early ’60s, a musical rebellion against pop folk was in the works as a band of young troubadours, consciously following in Woody and Pete’s footsteps, started singing. Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Phil Ochs, Odetta and many others performed in newly started folk clubs, recorded on upstart labels, appeared at civil rights and ban-the-bomb rallies, and dominated the college tours. Network TV shows featured many of these troubadours alongside the slick bands—but because Seeger was deliberately excluded from these shows, many of the young troubadours boycotted them (even though he personally encouraged some of them to seize the opportunity to get exposure).
The folk music revival was a political as well as cultural phenomenon. The festivals, concerts and clubs where folk fans congregated were among the prime social spaces for shaping awareness and engagement with the Southern civil rights movement and the new left. The early ’60s student activists saw Dylan, Ochs, Baez et al. as “ours” (much as Red diaper babies in the early ’50s claimed Seeger).
Pete Seeger’s belief in the power of song derived in large part from history—the fact that a number of great social movements were fueled by music. There is a tradition of labor song in America, dating from the 19th century, and a number of songs from that tradition continue to this day to help define the identities of labor organizers and raise spirits on the picket line. The Almanacs and People’s Songs were experiments designed to make the U.S. labor movement of the ’30s and ’40s a singing movement—but the results were mixed. Seeger’s dream of a singing mass movement was much more fully realized in the civil rights struggle of the ’60s.
Music of course has been a central feature of African-American culture from its very origins. In the early ’60s, as marchers gathered in churches to prepare to challenge segregation with their very bodies, traditional songs and song styles used in these churches were turned into hymns of solidarity and shared risk-taking (with lyrics adapted for the occasion). Pete Seeger contributed to the development of this freedom singing; it was he who had first made “We Shall Overcome” known to civil rights activists in the 1950s, and his concerts in the early ’60s taught the new freedom songs to mass audiences in the North. Seeger encouraged Bernice Reagon to found the Freedom Singers quartet, modeled on the Almanacs, and he and Toshi managed the group’s touring across the country to raise support for SNCC. The music of the Southern movement was an important factor in forging a moral identification with it among Northern students—an identification that led to a flood of volunteers to Southern organizing campaigns and manifold support efforts. In that period, Seeger’s project was finding its fulfillment in his work on stage and as an organizer. You can get a feel for that moment by listening to a recording of his June 8, 1963, concert in Carnegie Hall, available on the Columbia label under the title “We Shall Overcome.” My wife and I were there, and remember it vividly as an experience in which those present were transformed from an audience into a community of active participants in history.
A few weeks after that concert, Seeger and his family embarked on a world tour, taking nearly a year of travel through Asia, Africa and Eastern and Western Europe. In some of those places, he was able to reach the mass audience denied him in the United States: singing on radio in India to an audience nearly the size of the American population, according to Dunaway; teaching “We Shall Overcome” to people across the planet (which helps account for the fact that it soon became the universal freedom anthem).
If Seeger is often portrayed as a victim of blacklist and censorship, it is clear that his long marginalization from the mainstream was necessary for the fulfillment of his project. When he refused to discuss his political allegiances before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1955 (basing his noncooperation on his First Amendment rights rather than on the Fifth Amendment right not to incriminate oneself), Seeger’s stance took courage: It led the committee to charge him with 10 counts of contempt of Congress, each punishable by a year in jail. Trial and appeal of these charges took some seven years, and Seeger’s blacklisting was reinforced by the legal cloud he was under during that period. In the end, a federal court of appeal overturned his conviction. It was in many ways a costly time for the Seegers, yet as a result he came, says Wilkinson, to “typify the principles of all the brave people he sang about.”
In our time, in a number of countries, troubadours have become icons of resistance. Joe Hill, the Wobbly bard whose funeral after his execution for a murder conviction was attended by thousands, was one of the sources for the Almanacs. Woody Guthrie’s legendary stature in American culture derives in part from Seeger’s efforts to make him known. And then, in the ’60s and ’70s, iconic troubadours were born all over the place: Bob Marley in Jamaica, Victor Jara in Chile, Vladimir Vysotsky in the Soviet Union, Wolf Biermann in East Germany, Cui Jian in China, Miriam Makeba in South Africa. Some of these, like Jara, explicitly used Seeger and Guthrie as models. All were able to achieve stature and profound popular affection despite, and because of, persecution, censorship, martyrdom.
The honors showered on Seeger in recent years include the Medal of Freedom and the Kennedy Center Award. A cynic might say that in America, political troublemakers are marginalized and suppressed, but when they are safely old or dead they are canonized. That’s how we periodically persuade ourselves that we really are a free country. But Seeger’s actual story as told in these books is more complex and more instructive. Wilkinson’s essay stresses Seeger as the epitome of America’s highest values: Beneath his one-time Communist Party affiliations, he was always more like Thoreau—a thoroughly principled individualist, determined to show that each of us could make his or her own life. Winkler emphasizes Seeger’s historical importance in relation to all of the major social movements of his time (the book includes a handy CD compilation of Seeger performances). Dunaway’s updated biography is far more detailed than the others, based on extensive interviews with Seeger and associates and extensive use of his papers. Dunaway gives us a close-up understanding of Seeger’s life choices in their political context. The book details the number of occasions when he entertained serious doubts about his project or his own capacities, doubts familiar to any political activist—the rising frustration when periods of mass action ebb, the sense of obsolescence that comes from personal aging and historical rupture.
We imagine Pete Seeger, at 90, feeling enormous personal fulfillment. How rewarding to get to sing Woody Guthrie’s radical verses to “This Land Is Your Land” at the inauguration concert for our first black president, side by side with one of the biggest stars of popular music! But we can also hear him saying: “Yes, but will the human race survive the 21st century? There’s a 50/50 chance. We’ve got a lot of work to do.”
I haven’t posted blogs for a few months but I want to try to get more regular from here on (and without the aid of laxative!). Part of the blog-lag has to do with the fact that Mickey and I are working on a joint memoir called Making History, Making Blintzes-–which tries to figure out something about what it means to be American leftists based on our experience and those of our parents over the last 100 years. We’re at the point in life where this sort of reflection is good for our souls—and maybe helpful to others (including, if they get around to reading it—and we get around to finishing it—our children and grandchildren). More on this some other time!
This is a big year for leftwing anniversaries—Woody Guthrie centennial; the Lawrence Massachusetts strike (one of the great moments in labor history)--and the 50th anniversary of the Port Huron Statement. Mickey and I were participants in the SDS ‘founding’ at the UAW camp in Port Huron Michigan, where some 50 of us worked through Tom Hayden’s draft of the Statement, trying in our youthful presumption, to produce a manifesto for a new American left. The 50th anniversary of that effort serves as a good hook for reflecting on the legacy of the new left project, made especially pertinent by the Occupy movement, whose modes of operation and perspective resonates strongly with what was felt and said at Port Huron.
So a number of campus based conferences are happening during this year based on this anniversary. Nelson Lichtenstein and I decided to organize what turned out to be the first one in early February. Here’s a link to get a good idea of who presented what there, and some collateral reading on the Statement including its very text. Working on that also took me away from the blog. The Santa Barbara event featured a mix of academics, veteran organizers, academic-organizers, and an intellectual spectrum that spanned generations and the ofcus was on the legacy of participatory democracy along with some intriguing probes into origins and meanings of the new left by young historian types. For me a highpoint was the conference finale: we’d invited a number of student leaders from UCSB to come to the conference and in the end to try to interrogate the veteran organizers. The student activists were inspiring—they represented a literal rainbow of identities, but seemed quite seriously engaged in hearing and learning from the oldsters (something that we at that age were not so inclined to do!)
There have been several conferences since ours—at UCLA (where Tom Hayden taught a course based on the Statement and the students presented ideas about how it might be updated for today; Mickey and I and Maria Varela talked as ‘Port Huron veterans’ and Tom Morello wound things up with a rousing songfest, synthesizing the Woody tradition with some of the hardcore from which he comes).
Since then, conferences and events at NYU, and Madison, with more happenings this summer and fall, culminating in Ann Arbor at the end of October. In These Times had a big feature section on the Statement (with pieces by veterans including Mickey Flacks as well as contemporary activists) Of particular note is Tom Hayden’s long reflection on the anniversary which appeared in the Nation. Go to Tom’s website for that piece, for other news about the Port Huron anniversary, and for Tom’s almost daily reporting on the most pressing political happenings and matters. Tom’s editing a book to be out this summer reprinting the Statement and containing remembrances and reflections by a bunch of us who helped write it. Lichtenstein and I are going to produce a more academic compilation based on the conference here and other material.
So please come back here regularly because from here on I hope to be posting more or less every day. In the next few days:
+A tribute to Pete Seeger on his 93rd Birthday—we’ll be doing a radio tribute on this Thursday featuring new releases—and on the blog I’ll share something I wrote about Pete a couple of years ago that some folk seemed to appreciate.
+A short piece I’ve written on the Port Huron Statement anniversary and why observe it
+How the 99% movement can help community action and why this is central to its fate.
+And more or less every day try to say something about movement, politics, protest songs, history and even blintzes.
LATE BREAKING NEWS: Lois Capps, our congressperson, has signed the latest letter by Barbara Lee and Walter Jones (along with over 60 other congress people) calling on Pres. Obama as follows: “at the upcoming NATO summit in Chicago, we ask that you announce an accelerated transition of security responsibility to the Afghan government and security forces and the expedited withdrawal of our troops from Afghanistan as quickly as these can be safely and responsibly accomplished.” Local Progressive Democrats have been urging Cong. Capps to participate in these antiwar initiatives for some months.
Tags: port huron statement, mickey flacks, Tom Hayden
Selma Rubin was the matriarch of progressive social action in Santa Barbara. She helped create some of the leading organizations that are the backbone of environmental and social justice activism in our region: Community Environmental council, Environmental Defense Fund, SB County Action Network, Pueblo and she served on the boards of a wide range of organizations and institutions. She died on March 9 at age 97. Thursday May 3 there will be a community memorial to celebrate her life. It's at B'nai B'rith Temple at 4 PM. All who knew Selma are welcome.
Tomorrow evening I'll do a radio show for Selma playing songs that relate to her life and legacy and that help us reflect on her passing. You can hear a selection of some of the songs I'm using by going here: http://8tracks.com/rflacks/untitled-mix.
culture of protest thurs 5/3/12 6-7pm kcsb 91.9fm www.kcsb.org
Dick Flacks here...sociology professor emeritus at UCSB. Budget cuts mean that I can't continue my annual course on political sociology. Maybe a blog will be a space for me to continue to ruminate and pontificate. And maybe (as a veteran teacher on these matters) I can offer some ways of thinking about what's happening nationally and locally that will be useful, as we struggle to make sense of the tortured complexities of these times.
I've been a leftwing activist for more than 50 years. What we've been struggling for all these years is full democracy--to increase the opportunities for people to have real voice in the decisions that affect them. Step by step over these years we've made some gain...but it is a long march, and one that never ends. The big barrier to democracy in our society is the concentrated power of corporations. At the same time, democracy is undermined by the felt powerlessness of people in their daily lives--the persistent belief that our problems are only our own personal concern. It's a strong cultural theme--such individualism--constantlly reinforced by mass media and everyday circumstance. But the current big crisis of the economy maybe makes it more possible for more people to understand that we've got to have social reform and economic reform. So my writing here is aimed at helping us figure out what to think and act on that so that we can hope for new democratic possibilities. WE'll be talking about the local and the national.
The blog name comes from an old labor union hymn:
Step by step the longest march can be won. Many stones can form an arch...singly none. And by union what we will can be accomplished still. Drops of water turn a mill, singly none, singly none.
For 27 years I've had a weekly radio show on KCSB (91.9 fm. www.kcsb.org) It's called the Culture of Protest. It's comes from my fascination with music and social movements. I collect 'political' and 'protest' music and that's what we play each week (Thursdays 6-7 pm). So sometimes here we'll share and talk about that.
I'm worried about one thing about the blogosphere. And that's the way that some people use the blog comment space for anonymous nastiness. I'm sick of the kind of political blather that assaults the motives of others, and sees dark conspiracy behind every thing one doesn't like. This kind of stuff is helping to poison the political atmosphere. So I'm going to strive for a civil tone to whatever interaction may happen on this blogsite.