‘Change has come to America’: how I saw the Obama inauguration

‘Change has come to America’: how I saw the Obama inauguration

I wrote these posts on 20 and 21 January 2009. No further comment required, I think. Continue reading “‘Change has come to America’: how I saw the Obama inauguration”

Ava DuVernay’s 13th: from slavery to the mass incarceration of African-Americans in privatised prisons

Ava DuVernay’s <em>13th</em>: from slavery to the mass incarceration of African-Americans in privatised prisons

Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.
–Thirteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution

Ava DuVernay makes documentaries, though her most celebrated film is Selma, a dramatisation of the story of the historic 1965 marches from Selma to Montgomery and their place in the struggle for black voting rights. Last night I watched her most recent film, a Netflix documentary about the American prison system that goes under the title, 13th.

The film takes its title from the 13th amendment, which outlawed slavery but left a significant loophole which continues to permit involuntary servitude when used as punishment for crime. In meticulous detail, DuVernay shows how this loophole was exploited in the aftermath of the abolition of slavery at the end of the Civil War and continues to be abused to this day.

In Selma, Stephan James portrayed John Lewis, the SNCC activist whose skull was fractured by police who attacked the marchers on the Edmund Pettus bridge on ‘Bloody Sunday’, 7 March 1965.

That’s the same John Lewis whose reputation was besmirched in a tweet by Donald Trump the other day, and it’s the same Donald Trump to whom DuVernay devotes a powerful sequence in 13th. Continue reading “Ava DuVernay’s 13th: from slavery to the mass incarceration of African-Americans in privatised prisons”

Selma 50 years on: one of Obama’s finest speeches

Selma 50 years on: one of Obama’s finest speeches

The photo says so much. The lady in the wheelchair is Amelia Boynton, last seen portrayed in the film Selma. She was the local leader of the civil rights protests in Selma in ’65. Now her hand is held by the first African-American to become president as she goes once more over the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Continue reading “Selma 50 years on: one of Obama’s finest speeches”

Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead trilogy

Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead trilogy

What does it mean to come home?
Home, page 106

Recently, I read the Marilynne Robinson trilogy that begins with Gilead (2004), continues with Home (2008) and concludes with Lila (2014). I don’t think I have read a finer suite of novels.  Collectively, in an undemonstrative fashion, they constitute an interrogation of America as a home, and of the obligations of religious belief in a society in which social justice and the care of others is not guaranteed for all.  The novels are set in the quiet and conservative rural America of the early 1950s, yet there’s an undertow of a country divided by race and prejudice. Continue reading “Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead trilogy”

Bitter Lake: helping make sense of complex reality?

Bitter Lake: helping make sense of complex reality?

Increasingly we live in a world where nothing makes any sense.  Events come and go, like waves of a fever, leaving us confused and uncertain. Those in power tell stories to help us make sense of the complexity of reality. But those stories are increasingly unconvincing and hollow.

So begins Bitter Lake, the new film from Adam Curtis who has previously brought us intellectually-challenging films such as The Century of the Self, which showed how the work of Freud, Jung and others was appropriated by business and politics, Power of Nightmares, that compared the rise of American neo-Conservativism with the radical Islamism  and claimed similarities between the two, and All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace which argued that computers have failed to liberate humanity and instead have ‘distorted and simplified our view of the world around us’. Continue reading “Bitter Lake: helping make sense of complex reality?”

A Change Is Gonna Come: 50 years after its release, black Americans still can’t breathe

A Change Is Gonna Come: 50 years after its release, black Americans still can’t breathe

Sam Cooke

Fifty years ago today, on 22 December 1964, Sam Cooke’s iconic ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’ was released as a single. The song had been recorded in February 1964, and included on Cooke’s album Ain’t That Good News released a few months later. Perhaps more than any other song of its time, ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’ now seems the quintessential song evoking the era of civil rights protest.

The Selma to Montgomery Civil Rights March 1965

The Selma to Montgomery Civil Rights March 1965

But, Cooke’s biographer Peter Guralnick has told of how, as well as being inspired by the political context of the times, the song also emerged from two specific experiences. One was Cooke hearing Bob Dylan’s ‘Blowing in the Wind’ and being both inspired by its ability to encapsulate America’s problem with racism, and frustrated that it should have been a white American who had composed the song. The second was an incident in late 1963 when Cooke and his bandmates had tried to check into a hotel in Shreveport, Louisiana and been refused – because they were black. Guralnick says:

He just went off. And became obstreperous to the point where his wife, Barbara, said, ‘Sam, we’d better get out of here. They’re going to kill you.’ And he says, ‘They’re not gonna kill me; I’m Sam Cooke.’ To which his wife said, ‘No, to them you’re just another …’ you know.

Cooke was arrested and jailed, along with several of his entourage, for disturbing the peace. ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’ was written sometime in the next month, before being recorded in February 1964.  After the session, writes Guralnick, Cooke played the song for Bobby Womack:

When he first played it for Bobby Womack, who was his protégé, he said, ‘What’s it sound like?’ And Bobby said, ‘It sounds like death.’ Sam said, ‘Man, that’s kind of how it sounds like to me. That’s why I’m never going to play it in public.’ And Bobby sort of rethought it and said, ‘Well, it’s not like death, but it sounds kind of spooky.

You could call it that. When ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’ was finally released as a single, it was eleven days after Cooke had been shot and killed at a Los Angeles motel, in what was later ruled a justifiable homicide.

The song wasn’t a big hit at the time, but it became an anthem of the Civil Rights movement and remains an enduring symbol of that era, an enduring cry of protest against injustice and inequality in a country that is still – as seen this year – wracked with both.

‘Each verse is a different movement: The strings have their movement, the horns have their movement. The timpani carries the bridge. It was like a movie score. He wanted it to have a grandeur to it,’ says Guralnick.  He says that ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’ has become a universal message of hope, one that does not age:

Generation after generation has heard the promise of it. It continues to be a song of enormous impact,” he says. “We all feel in some way or another that a change is gonna come, and he found that lyric. It was the kind of hook that he always looked for: The phrase that was both familiar but was striking enough that it would have its own originality. And that makes it almost endlessly adaptable to whatever goal, whatever movement is of the moment.

It is, as Manjula Martin writes in an essay on the Aeon website, both prayer and warning.

Crowds rally in New York City over Eric Garner indictment verdict

Crowds protest in New York City after the failure to indict in the case Eric Garner 

In A Change Is Gonna Come: Music, Race and the Soul of America, Craig Werner wrote:

The song expresses the soul of the freedom movement as clearly and powerfully as  Martin Luther King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail.  The opening measures verge on melodrama: a searching French horn rises over a lush swell of symphonic strings accompanied by tympani.  But Cooke brings it back to earth, bearing witness to the restlessness that keeps him moving like the muddy river bordering the Delta where he was born.  Maintaining his belief in something up there beyond the sky, Cooke draws sustenance from his gospel roots.  He testifies that its been a long, long time – the second ‘long’ carries all the weight of a bone-deep gospel weariness.  Then he sings the midnight back toward dawn.  The hard-won hope that comes through in the way he uses his signature ‘whoa-whoa-whoa’ to emphasize the word ‘know’ in the climactic line – ‘I know that a change gonna come’ – feels as real as anything America has ever been able to imagine.

Peter Guralnick:

He grabbed it out of the air and it came to him whole, despite the fact that in many ways it’s probably the most complex song that he wrote. It was both singular – in the sense that you started out, ‘I was born by the river’ – but it also told the story both of a generation and of a people.

Fifty years later, following the non-indictments in the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and Eric Garner in Staten Island, New York, both unarmed black men killed by white police officers, Cooke’s lyrics remain stirringly relevant to the systematic problems faced by black Americans. According to the NAACP, police have killed at least 76 black men and women since 1999, 14 of them in 2014 alone. Racialized violence is still an institutionalized problem.

'I Can't Breathe',  Eric Garner's plea becomes a rallying cry for justice 'I Can't Breathe',  Eric Garner's plea becomes a rallying cry for justice 2

‘I Can’t Breathe’,  Eric Garner’s plea becomes a rallying cry for justice

Cooke sang of how black men and women were harassed for everyday activities:

I go to the movie and I go down town
Somebody keep telling me don’t hang around

Cooke sang of a climate of distrust – still there in a society where 70% of black Americans believe the country is doing a ‘poor’ job holding police officers accountable when misconduct occurs. That same 70% also believes the police forces are doing a ‘poor’ job treating ethnic groups equally.

Then I go to my brother
And I say, “Brother, help me please.”
But he winds up knockin’ me
Back down on my knees

Michael Brown's father holds a sign in protest of his son's killing

A few days ago, in the Guardian, Syreeta McFadden wrote:

It pains me that, in 2014, in America, we have to publicly affirm that black lives matter. And yet, in 2014, we’ve seen so many examples of when they didn’t.

In July … video quickly spread of Officer Daniel Pantaleo choking Garner to death on 17 July. The NYPD banned the manoeuvre in 1993, in the aftermath of the 1991 death of Federico Pereira. … I was miles away from Ferguson, Missouri, when I saw a photo of a grieved father with his handmade sign immediately after his stepson, Michael Brown, was killed by now-former Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson and his body was left in the street for over four hours on 9 August. Months later, on 23 November, Cleveland police shot and killed 12 year old Tamir Rice within seconds of spotting him in a park. They waited four minutes before administering, or allowing anyone to administer, first aid to him. And there were others besides: John Crawford. Darrien Hunt. Vonderrit Myers. Yvette Smith. Pearlie Golden. The year blurs as we track the deaths of unarmed black civilians from police violence, whether they were captured on video or not.

Sam Cooke: A Change Is Gonna Come

Ferguson and Michael Brown: A Change Is Gonna Come

Pete Seeger: he surrounded hate and forced it to surrender

Pete Seeger: he surrounded hate and forced it to surrender

Pete Seeger

‘He’s gonna look like your granddad if your granddad can kick your ass.’

Four years ago, Pete Seeger celebrated his 90th birthday party with a sell-out concert at Madison Square Garden.  Characteristically, it was a fundraiser for a campaign to which he’d dedicated years of his life: cleaning up New York’s Hudson River.  That night, Bruce Springsteen introduced Seeger with these words:

He’s gonna look a lot like your granddad that wears flannel shirts and funny hats. He’s gonna look like your granddad if your granddad can kick your ass. At 90, he remains a stealth dagger through the heart of our country’s illusions about itself.

And that’s the truth.  Pete Seeger, who died yesterday aged 94, opposed McCarthyism, and worked tirelessly on behalf of civil rights movement, making his first trip south at the invitation of Dr. Martin Luther King in 1956. One of the seminal political events in his life, and the one which solidified his intent to make actively combating racism a lifelong pursuit, was the 1949 Peekskill race riots. In this video, Seeger recounts his experiences:

Seeger is the only singer in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame who was convicted of contempt of Congress. In 1955, he refused to testify about his past membership in the Communist Party. He had quit the party in 1949 though, he later admitted, should have left much earlier. ‘It was stupid of me not to…I thought Stalin was the brave secretary Stalin and had no idea how cruel a leader he was’.  His conviction was overturned on appeal in 1961, but Seeger continued to be blacklisted by American TV networks until 1967. CBS censored parts of his anti-Vietnam War song, ‘Waist Deep in the Big Muddy’, when he sang it on the Smothers Brothers’ Comedy Hour.

Poet Carl Sandberg dubbed Pete Seeger ‘America’s tuning fork’, and there’s little doubt that Seeger helped introduce America to its own musical heritage, devoting his life to using the power of song as a force for social change. He went from the top of the pop charts (‘Goodnight Irene’) to the blacklist and was banned from American commercial television for more than 17 years. In his nineties, Seeger continued to invigorate and inspire the musicians – most notably Bruce Springsteen, whose album We Shall Overcome – The Seeger Sessions was a tribute, comprising songs popularized by Seeger. Three years later, Springsteen persuaded Seeger to sing ‘This Land Is Your Land’ with him at Obama’s inaugural concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

Seeger sang the two ‘radical’ verses of the Woody Guthrie song that invariably get cut when it is sung in public, or in American schools:

As I was walking – I saw a sign there
And that sign said – no trespassing
But on the other side …. it didn’t say nothing!

Now that side was made for you and me!

In the squares of the city – In the shadow of the steeple
Near the relief office – I see my people
And some are grumbling and some are wondering
If this land’s still made for you and me.

He sang the song again last September in one of his last public performances at a Farm Aid concert in Saratoga Springs, New York state.  As well as Guthrie’s ‘radical’ verses, Seeger inserted another verse of his own that protested fracking in New York state – through the decades he has campaigned on environmental issues, leading a successful crusade in the 1970s to clean up New York’s Hudson River, which was so heavily polluted that there was nowhere on its course that was safe to swim in. He built a boat, the Clearwater, that travelled the Hudson River, drawing attention to the polluted condition of the river. He founded the Clearwater organization which supports environmental education programmes in schools and campaigns for tighter environmental laws.

Pete Seeger came from a wealthy, yet highly politicised radical family. He was born at his grandparent’s estate in Patterson, New Jersey in 1919, the son of musicologist Charles Seeger and his wife, Constance de Clyver Edson Seeger, a violin teacher. Both parents could trace their ancestors to the Mayflower.

His father was a pacifist during World War I whose pacifism, while teaching music at the University of California, cost him his teaching position.  In the 1930s Pete was attending Harvard, hoping to become a journalist.  In 1936, at  a folk song and dance festival he heard a five string banjo for the first time and his life was changed forever.  By 1938 he was passing out leaflets for Spanish civil war relief on the Harvard campus and had joined the Young Communist League. He left Harvard in the spring of 1938 without taking his exams.

He went to New York where he found work with the Archives of American Folk Music. Seeger sought out legendary folk song figures including Leadbelly. Inspired by these people and learning much about folk music, he began working with the five string banjo and soon became an accomplished player.

In 1940, Seeger met Woody Guthrie and together they formed the Almanac Singers, a musical collective including Lee Hays, Millard Lampell, Sis Cunningham, Brownie McGhee, Sonny Terry and others. They recorded union songs, such as ‘The Talking Union Blues’ which they wrote as an organizing song, as well as pacifist songs. Drafted into the Army in 1942, the FBI was already building a file on Seeger because of his left-wing activities.

In 1945, after his discharge from the Army, Seeger founded the People’s Songs collective but by 1949 it had gone bankrupt.  On 4 Sepember 1949, Paul Robeson was scheduled to perform with Seeger at the Lakeland Picnic Grounds in Peekskill.  A large mob of anti-communist vigilantes stormed the venue, attacking performers and members of the audience. While trying to drive away from the scene, Seeger’s car was attacked by vigilantes. His wife Toshi and their three year old son Danny were injured by flying glass.

In the late 1940s, Seeger and Lee Hays wrote ‘If I Had a Hammer’. In 1950 Seeger, Hays, Fred Hellerman and Ronnie Gilbert formed the Weavers. They achieved great success, especially with their recording of the Leadbelly tune ‘Goodnight Irene’.

However, blacklisting in the McCarthy era put paid to commercial success for the Weavers. During the 1950s Seeger occasionally performed with the Weavers but mainly paid the bills with his appearances on the college circuit, and with recordings for Folkways Records (including albums of songs for children, two of which our daughter would play repeatedly when young).

In 1956, after writing ‘Where Have All the Flowers Gone?’ Seeger, Arthur Miller and six others were indicted for contempt of Congress by the House of Representatives. He was found guilty of contempt in 1961 and sentenced to ten years in prison. He was released from prison in 1962 when his case was dismissed on a technicality.

During the folk music revival of the early 1960s, the TV networks occasionally invited Seeger to appear on folk music shows like Hootenany, but quickly dropped him when they discovered that he had been blacklisted.

Pete Seeger singing If I Had a Hammer at SNCC rally in Greenwood, MS, 1963

Pete Seeger singing If I Had a Hammer at SNCC rally in Greenwood, MS, 1963

Seeger became involved in the civil rights marches in the South, both as a marcher and as a performer for the marchers. One notable occasion was at Greenwood in Mississippi in the summer of 1963 when there were voter registration drives underway in various communities, one of which was in Greenwood. On 2 July, Seeger performed at a SNCC rally before a small gathering of civil rights workers,  singing ‘If I Had a Hammer’.  Bob Dylan sang ‘Only A Pawn in Their Game’, written following the murder of Medgar Evers less than a month earlier, on 12 June.

Pete Seeger’s version of ‘We Shall Overcome’ became the anthem of the movement.  He discussed the origins of the song in an interview in 2006:

Seeger was strongly opposed to the Vietnam War. In September 1967 he appeared on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour on CBS-TV where he was scheduled to sing ‘Waist Deep in the Big Muddy’, an attack on the war, but the song was cut by the network censors.

‘Songs won’t save the planet’, Seeger told his biographer David Dunlap, author of How Can I Keep From Singing? ‘But, then, neither will books or speeches…Songs are sneaky things. They can slip across borders. Proliferate in prisons.” He liked to quote Plato: “Rulers should be careful about what songs are allowed to be sung.’

I have been singing folk songs of America and other lands to people everywhere. I am proud that I never refused to sing to any group of people because I might disagree with some of the ideas of some of the people listening to me. I have sung for rich and poor, for Americans of every possible political and religious opinion and persuasion, of every race, colour, and creed.

Pete Seeger on The Johnny Cash Show in 1970 complete and uncut

It takes a worried man to sing a worried song….

Pete Seeger with Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee: ‘Down by the Riverside’

In 2012 Pete recorded a hearty version of Bob Dylan’s ‘Forever Young’ for an Amnesty International fund-raising album:

surrounded hate and forced it to surrender

‘This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender’

John Nichols’ closes a fine elegy on The Nation website (which reminds us that Seeger played a banjo inscribed with the message ‘This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender’) with these words:

He showed us how to do our time with grace, with a sense of history and honour, with a progressive vision for the ages, and a determination to embrace the next great cause because the good fight is never finished. It’s just waiting for a singer to remind us that: ‘The world would never amount to a hill of beans if people didn’t use their imaginations to think of the impossible’.

As I mentioned earlier, the fine biography of Pete Seeger written by David Dunaway is entitled How can I keep from singing? – taking its title from an old 19th century hymn revived and adapted by Pete in the early 1950s

My life flows on in endless song
Above earth’s lamentations,
I hear the real, though far-off hymn
That hails a new creation.

Through all the tumult and the strife
I hear it’s music ringing,
It sounds an echo in my soul.
How can I keep from singing?

While though the tempest loudly roars,
I hear the truth, it liveth.
And though the darkness ’round me close,
Songs in the night it giveth.

No storm can shake my inmost calm,
While to that rock I’m clinging.
Since love is lord of heaven and earth
How can I keep from singing?

When tyrants tremble sick with fear
And hear their death knell ringing,
When friends rejoice both far and near
How can I keep from singing?

In prison cell and dungeon vile
Our thoughts to them are winging,
When friends by shame are undefiled
How can I keep from singing?

So long, Pete.  It’s been good to know you.

American Masters: Pete Seeger: The Power of Song (PBS)

Seeger at his home in Beacon, New York state in March 2009

The baton passed to another generation

See also

Pete Seeger

Don’t you know it’s darkest before the dawn
And it’s this thought keeps me moving on
If we could heed these early warnings
The time is now quite early morning
If we could heed these early warnings
The time is now quite early morning

Some say that humankind won’t long endure
But what makes them so doggone sure?
I know that you who hear my singing
Could make those freedom bells go ringing
I know that you who hear my singing
Could make those freedom bells go ringing

And so keep on while we live
Until we have no, no more to give
And when these fingers can strum no longer
Hand the old banjo to young ones stronger
And when these fingers can strum no longer
Hand the old banjo to young ones stronger

So though it’s darkest before the dawn
These thoughts keep us moving on
Through all this world of joy and sorrow
We still can have singing tomorrows
Through all this world of joy and sorrow
We still can have singing tomorrows