Songs Were Pete Seeger’s Hammer

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I bought my first Pete Seeger album in 1971, when I was 16, most likely at the Howard’s store on Mobberly Avenue in Longview. That is where I bought most of my records as a teen, in this discount store that was precursor and later victim to Walmart. From our house on South Twelfth Street it was an easy hike through the Letourneau University campus to the store, where I would flip through the record bin to spend some of my paycheck from the Longview News-Journal. I had recently been promoted to part-time photographer. I don’t recall that meant a raise in pay, but it did increase my hours.

I saw Seeger perform on the “Smothers Brothers” show or another television venue and was taken by this tall, thin smiling man with the reedy voice and politically tinged songs. The album I bought was called “Rainbow Race.” As a long-haired 16-year-old self-styled, anti-establishment wannabe hippie, I was enthralled with songs such as “Last Train to Nuremberg.” That was an anti-Vietnam War anthem that asked of President Nixon:

If five hundred thousand mothers went to Washington

And said, “Bring all of our boys home without delay!”

Would the man they came to see, say he was too busy?

Would he say he had to watch a football game?”

Seeger, who died this week, was one of my teen heroes. I mourn his passing, though at 94 he certainly got his money’s worth out of his time here. His entire life he sang and fought for the causes he believed in — from the labor movement of the 1940s, civil rights in the 1960s, cleaning up the Hudson River in the 1970s, and Occupy Wall Street just three years ago, where he led protestors in singing “We Shall Overcome.” Seeger slightly rewrote and popularized that civil rights anthem popularized taken from a gospel spiritual, which had its genesis in black churches.

Along the way he wrote some of America’s linchpin folk songs:

• “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?”

• “If I Had a Hammer”

• “Turn, Turn, Turn”

• “Kisses Sweeter Than Wine”

• “Wimoweh” (Think “Lion King”)

You can click on this link to find a complete list of the songs Seeger wrote: http://peteseeger.net/wp/?page_id=630.

Seeger was blacklisted in the 1950s for his involvement as a young man with the Communist Party, even though he served in the military during World War II and wrote anti-Hitler songs, such as the following:

This is the reason that I want to fight,

Not because everything’s perfect or everything’s right.

No. it’s just the opposite…

I’m fighting because I want

A better America with better laws,

And better homes and jobs and schools,

And no more Jim Crow and no more rules,

Like you can’t ride on this train ‘cause you’re a Negro,

You can’t live here ‘cause you’re a Jew

You can’t work here ‘cause you’re a union man.

He took being blacklisted from television in good stride and kept performing, calling himself a “communist with a small ‘c.’” He toured campuses and churches, building an audience for his music among young people and the burgeoning folk scene even as he was being indicted for contempt of Congress and convicted of a single count — later thrown out by an appeals court.

After that his career bloomed. As the New York Times reported, when he was picketed by the right-wing John Birch Society, “All those protests did was sell tickets and get me free publicity. The more they protested, the bigger the audiences became.”

Seeger appealed to me, not because I always agreed with his politics. I’m a capitalist with a small “c.” I enjoyed his music and admired him because he was a happy warrior. He never stopped singing and picking his five-string banjo, fighting to clean up the environment, battling racism, doing what he thought was right.

Four years ago, at 90 he co-wrote a song that includes this stanza:

When we look and we can see things are not what they should be

God’s counting on me, God’s counting on you

When we look and see things that should not be

God’s counting on me, God’s counting on you

Hopin’ we’ll all pull through, Hoping we’ll all pull through,

Hopin’ we’ll all pull through

Me and you.

Seeger believed that music could change people’s minds, saying once that, “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.”

He didn’t succeed in saving the planet but for the better part of a century Seeger did his level best through songs that still live in our collective memories.



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1 Comment

  • Randy Beeman


    Nailedit. World is a better place because of Pete and other like people

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