Which side are you on? A tribute to Pete Seeger

The Victorian Trades Hall Council is flying its flag at half-mast. Their epitaph says it all: “Pete Seeger, your work is your monument”. The Facebook site for the 30th anniversary of the British Miners’ strike is overwhelmed by tributes. All around the world, people are mourning the world’s best known folk singer.

Pete Seeger, who died at the age of 94 on 27 January, was an international towering legend in his own lifetime and will live on in the songs he wrote and sang.

Folk music might seem a tame medium in the modern world of rap, metal and hip hop. It might be hard to believe that in past eras, folk singing was seen as subversive. But songs like “Talking Union Blues”, “The Ballad of Joe Hill”, “Which side are you on?” and many, many others stand for a life lived to inspire thousands and millions in struggle and resistance.

“Now, if you want higher wages let me tell you what to do

You got to talk to the workers in the shop with you.

You got to build you a union, got to make it strong,

But if you all stick together, boys, it won’t be long.

You get shorter hours, better working conditions...”

Seeger sang about unions and organising, he sang about the bomb, he sang about pollution, he sang about civil rights and the fight against racism, he sang about Vietnam. But he also sang love songs and children’s songs. He sang songs from other languages and cultures. “Wimoweh”, sung by the ensemble the Weavers in the 1950s, was a reworking of an African song. It became a hit and has seen a recent revival in The Lion King.

‘I am not going to answer any questions’

Seeger’s stature in the world of folk music cannot be overstated. But at the same time he was a serious political figure. A member of the American Communist Party in the 1930s and 40s, he later drifted away from the party. But in 1955 he was subpoenaed to testify before the US House Un-American Activities Committee.

Seeger did not respond like everyone else after the 1950 conviction and imprisonment of the Hollywood Ten, and take the 5th amendment (right against self-incrimination). Instead, Seeger took the more political first amendment (right to freedom of speech) and refused to name personal and political associations: “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”.

He was convicted of contempt of Congress and blacklisted. As a symbol of defiance, he took his music underground, performed where he could, on picket lines and as part of the civil rights movement. His struggle with authorities lasted 7 years and he nearly went to prison.

'A strong memory of joy'

Pete Seeger was well known to all of us in Australia around the various left movements of the time. In 1961 Melbourne folk musicians had held a benefit concert for him. So you can imagine what excitement his actual appearance here produced when in 1963 he visited.

His single “Little Boxes”, written by Malvina Reynolds about conformity, became number one in the Top 40. But as singer Ken Mansell says, he was not interested in commercial success. “He aimed to reach out and change minds, not his own bank balance.”

Seeger gave a number of concerts, which inspired many Australian performers. His visit to Australia was simultaneously a political and a musical event.

Musician Judy Turner writes about “a strong memory of the joy of seeing him after hearing his records for what seemed like my whole life… it was welcoming to be part of a crowd that believed what we did, as that was so rarely the case”.

What Judy says is crucial. After the isolation of the left during the 50s and the Cold War, listening to and even more importantly singing was a critical part of the creation of the new dynamic mass movements such as the student movement and the anti-war movement.

Seeger had an “absolute rapport with the audience” and to be there was electrifying: In an audience sing-a-long “the engendered feeling was long lasting. Life-long lasting”. In Brisbane the concert was “a revelation” to one participant. My own outstanding memory of the Melbourne concert is Seeger singing “Take this Hammer” (a Black work song) while actually chopping a log of wood on stage.

Between each line he gave a loud grunt simultaneous with the noise of the axe. The song meant to me not just the centuries of slavery in the US and the fight against them, but also the fight of all working and oppressed people.

Seeger said of his visit, “I can never forget it. It was an eye-opener.”

'A sense of belonging, a source of hope'

Seeger was a major contributor to the growth of the folk music movement in the US. It is no coincidence that the revival of folk music was contemporaneous with the growth of mass movements and protest actions. In Australia in the 40s and 50s, a number of people were working to rediscover Australian bush ballads and other traditional musical forms.

The mainstream literary establishment was dominated by England, and it was left to leftists (including many from the Communist Party) to research, publish and perform music and songs sung by ordinary people. At the same time, many people were writing their own songs to express social and political issues of the day, and the “folk” song provided a convenient format.

For instance Helen Palmer wrote the famous song “Ballad of 1891” in 1951, at the time of Menzies’ attempt to outlaw the Communist Party, attacks on the trade union movement and the growing Cold War. When the folk revival of the 60s occurred, the growing mass movements needed songs of inspiration and expression.

Work songs, songs from earlier struggles, songs about everyday life of workers and others in the lower levels of society, new songs of protest – these provided support, a sense of continuity and belonging, a source of hope.

Folk songs provided the ideal vehicle for protest songs and movements. With relatively simple, direct tunes that can be accompanied on easily accessible instruments such as the guitar, the folk style does not require extensive training before a song could be sung. Sung without a loud backing, and in the 1960s usually without amplification, the audience could focus on the lyrics.

But above all, the folk style is participatory. Although many talented performers came out of the folk revival, from the point of view of protest songs, it is not the performer/audience relationship that is important, but the fact that everyone can join in, regardless of musical ability.

No one demonstrates this better than Pete Seeger. As Ken Mansell says:

“Always a crusader for humanist causes rather than a mere entertainer, the power of Seeger’s performance rested on its sincerity and passion. Seeger very rarely performed solo: he invariably obliterated the star-audience duality of Tin Pan Alley. The sound of Seeger rousing others to join him, his high-tenor voice freeing itself to soar above and beyond, became a signature of the optimistic sixties.”

'We shall overcome'

Pete Seeger was responsible for popularising the famous song “We shall overcome”, which subsequently became the anthem of the American Civil Rights Movement, and was sung by Joan Baez and many others. With its powerful tune, and its lyrics focused on hope, protesters around the world found in it inspiration and support. From Ireland to Martin Luther King to India in the 80s, the song has been sung by millions worldwide. Mark Allen remembers:

“In Prague in 1989, during the intense weeks of the Velvet Revolution, hundreds of thousands of people sang this haunting music in unison in Wenceslas Square, both in English and in Czech, with special emphasis on the phrase ‘I do believe.’ This song’s message of hope gave protesters strength to carry on until the powers-that-be themselves finally gave up hope themselves.”

In Australia as it was sung as an anti-war song. We sat for hours at vigils outside the American consulate, singing this song and others. We were moved and inspired. And the words seemed to talk to many of us, not just about the end of the Vietnam War, but also the possibility of building a better world.

“We shall all be free

We shall all be free

We shall all be free someday”

The sixties folk revival is no more. But the songs remain. Pete Seeger was not a revolutionary, but he did remain a left wing radical and never lost hope in that possibility of a better world. The guitar of the great American folk singer Woody Guthrie was labeled “This machine kills fascists”. Pete Seeger’s banjo carried the statement “This Machine Surrounds Hate and Forces It to Surrender”. Singing and music have a power that has been recognised in struggle throughout history.

(With thanks to Mark Cryle and Ken Mansell).