Singing Together For Social Change

By Anita Krajnc, Michael Greenspoon | 1997-07-01 12:00:00


Pete Seeger, the consummate protest singer, has combined folk music and progressive politics since he began singing professionally in 1939 at the age of 20. This February, at the Folk Dream Gala Concert in Toronto, he encouraged the whole audience to join in on variations of "Oh Freedom."

"When I give an evening of songs, I'm circling around. I may sing a union song, I may sing a peace song, I may sing a children's song. The most important thing I try to get out of my concerts is a sense of participation," he said in an interview following the concert.

Seeger has long maintained that folk music should be sung by everybody. He has helped popularize folk music in his travels across America with Woodie Guthrie in 1940, and with the Almanacs and then the Weavers in the '40s and '50s. Following his appearance before McCarthy's infamous House on Unamerican Activities Committee, he was blacklisted on mainstream television and radio for a third time in 1955. He subsequently helped invent the "campus circuit" and through his travels across America, Seeger "taught most of America's younger folk performers. At a single 1954 concert in Palo Alto, for instance, Seeger inspired the career of both Joan Baez and Dave Guard (of the Kingston Trio)."1

The remarkable thing about Seeger's life is that for almost six decades he has been at the forefront of almost every progressive social movement from labor to anti-apartheid, to civil rights, to peace and the environment.

Singing On The Picket Line

We asked him about his musical and political influences. Seeger attended a good prep school and Harvard University, but said he received most of his education outside the classroom.

"I was a teenager and I suddenly realized that there was a whole lot of history, world history, that I'd never learned in school...The fact that there was such a thing as a labor movement got a little footnote somewhere. I didn't know about the eight-hour day struggle and the women's rights struggle and the fight against child labor were only mentioned in passing. But it was clear that education had been planned not to encourage people to cause trouble. So I became a radical and joined the Young Communist League in college."

His father, Charles Seeger, was an important influence on both Pete Seeger's music and his politics, topics that both men thought should not be separated. At Berkeley in the 1910s, Charles was interested in how music could shape society and later was the first to instruct a course in ethnomusicology. Pete's father joined the International Workers of the World-or the Wobblies, a great singing labor movement-prior to World War I after witnessing the deplorable working conditions of the fruit pickers in California. Said Seeger, "later, in the 1930s my father, a musicologist, became convinced that great new music would not arise out of a few experts theorizing; it would rise out of rank and file musicians and poets making music based on the vernacular."

His main influence was meeting some of the greatest American labor song writers. "I'd say my big education came from meeting the family of Jim Garland and his younger sister Sara Ogen and older half sister Aunt Molly Jackson. They were from a singing Scots- Irish family. They loved to tell stories. They loved to play jokes and they knew all sorts of songs-old, old ballads-and when the union came through they were struck with the heroism of a young communist, Harry Sims, who knew that he might get killed but said 'this has gotta be done. We can't change this country around unless someone is brave enough to do it.' And he did get murdered [in Kentucky]. For sixty years now I have sung the song that Jim and Aunt Molly wrote about the death of Harry Sims."

Seeger noted that the strike wasn't a complete failure since it help convince John L. Lewis "that the whole country could be unionized if he would quit fighting the Communists. And in 1935 John Lewis spoke to the communists and said 'Look let's quit fighting each other. Let's go out and organize and unionize' and they shook hands and in three years they signed up seven million workers into the CIO (Committee on Industrial Organizations)."

"Anyway, Jim Garland also wrote 'I Don't Want Your Millions Mister.' Great song. Came up to New York and lived in the Lower East Side with his family and little children and Sara with her little children and she got a new husband. Her coal miner husband [had] died of TB and one of her children had died of a lack of milk. And her mother had died. She was bitter and she wrote [Seeger sings]:

I hate the Capitalist System,
I'll tell you the reason why
It's caused me so much suffering,
And my dearest friends to die.

"They were in their twenties, Aunt Molly was fifty. Their father had been a leader in the Knights of Labor in the 1880s. He was a preacher of the gospel. He was a radical Christian...Aunt Molly said [Seeger sings]:

I'm a union woman
As brave as I can be
I do not like the bosses
And the bosses don't like me.

"They had a neighbor of theirs write the song 'Which Side Are You On?' Out of that one strike came three or four of the best union songs ever written."

The Greatest Singing Movement

In the 1950s, with postwar prosperity and the chill of McCarthyism and the Cold War, labor turned inward, away from radicalism and the picket lines. So Pete Seeger set his sights on one of the greatest singing movements-the civil rights movement. He helped adapt and popularize "We Shall Overcome." The song became the anthem of the civil rights movement, but was originally a religious hymn-turned-labor song sung in 1946 by 300 women, mostly black, on strike at the American Tobacco Company in Charleston, South Carolina.

Pete Seeger tells the story:

"And one woman, her name was Lucy O'Simmons, she loved a gospel song which had always been known as 'I Will Overcome'...There is a tradition in the southern black churches that any hymn can be sung slow or fast depending where in the service it is...And on the picket line they'd say 'Oh here comes Lucille now we're going to hear that sung slower than anybody ever heard it.' The nice thing about singing slowly is you can weave in and out the harmony. The black tradition is just wonderful about improvising harmony reaching the high notes, reaching the low notes, and you get dissonances blending into consonances and then more. It's a lovely style of singing...

"Well some of the strikers taught Lucille's version to Zilphia Horton, Miles Horton's wife [founder of Highlander Folk School, Tennessee]. She also had a beautiful alto voice and it became her favorite song. In 1946 or 1947, on a visit to New York to raise some money for Highlander, she taught it to me and I published it in a little newsletter, People's Songs [a folk song newsletter Seeger founded in the postwar period, predecessor to Sing Out!].

"I started singing 'We Will Overcome' all over the country. I'd go to California or Chicago and I'd lead it but I didn't have that good a voice. I just gave it a banjo accompaniment. Chica ump chica ump...That's probably the way I sang it to Martin Luther King just six months after he won the bus boycott in 1957...I sang it for the crowd. The next day, driving back to Kentucky for a speaking engagement, King said, 'We Will Overcome'. That song really sticks with you, doesn't it?"

"We Shall Overcome" has since been sung widely by social activists around the world. Seeger toured India last November, and told us, "I went to a little village with houses made of mud. A man took a look at me and says 'Pete Seeger'-he'd seen my picture. He goes over to get his daughter, and with his little daughter in his arms, they sing 'We Shall Overcome' in Bengali. Then right after that they begin to sing 'What Did You Learn In School Today?' India knows a lot more about the rest of the world than we [do]. I must say they don't get the rhythm right, they sing it like an English march."

The Role Of Protest Songs

Protest music has often played a significant role in social change movements. The labor and civil rights movements were great singing movements. Protest music has served to draw in new participants into movements and strengthen the commitment of existing members. It has helped to form a new identity (for example of blacks in the Civil Rights movement), and has educated the public about social justice issues.

But its role changes over time. The labor movement was a great singing movement in the nineteenth century and early twentieth century with the Wobblies and then again on the picket lines and in the fights to establish unions and collective bargaining rights in the '30s and early 1940. But later labor leaders lost interest. In his biography of Pete Seeger, David Dunaway notes that "unions had different needs then: to garner publicity and to persuade members to join a labor organization for the first time. This was what the Almanacs had done; but after the war, when unions had a good foothold in the plants, picket lines largely disappeared in favor of contract bargaining-and picket singers vanished as well, industrial workers wanted refrigerators and washers, not armed conflict."2

We asked Seeger whether the environmental movement might one day become a singing movement like the civil rights movement. He said, "You can never tell. I am not sure. I am hoping that some singers learn from Woody Guthrie's songs, and make their songs as simple. Who could think that 'This Land is Your Land' would be so well known! It was never plugged on the airwaves. It just went from one kid to another, school to summer camp to church-though, admittedly, it took twenty years."

A Folk Music Revival

We asked about the universal and enduring appeal of folk music and Seeger responded, "Where did it come from? I thought it was dead." Nonetheless, there seems to be a folk revival. Bruce Springsteen recently released "The Ghost of Tom Joad" based on Woody Guthrie songs. Appleseed recording is releasing a three-volume tribute this summer, entitled The Songs of Pete Seeger featuring Billy Bragg, Bruce Cockburn, Bob Dylan, Ani Difranco, Ralph Nader, Tom Paxton, and Peter, Paul and Mary.

Seeger hopes to persuade others to work at home and abroad. "Two things you got to do is sing in your local community and communicate to the rest of the world."

Anita Kranjc is a PhD candidate in Political Science at the University of Toronto. Michael Greenspoon is the former executive director of the Mariposa Folk Foundation.

1 David King Dunaway, How Can I Keep From Singing: Pete Seeger (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Co., 1981), p. 195.
2 Ibid., p. 132.

Peace Magazine Jul-Aug 1997

Peace Magazine Jul-Aug 1997, page 6. Some rights reserved.

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