Barack on Bruce: ‘sprung from a cage out on Highway 9’

Barack on Bruce: ‘sprung from a cage out on Highway 9’

On my last birthday, my lovely daughter gifted me Bruce Springsteen’s autobiography, Born to Run. For any Springsteen fan, it’s an absorbing read and even though I had already consumed Peter Ames Carlin’s biography Bruce, I learned much about the man’s early life and family, and the grind of his early music-making days with his first bands playing along the Jersey shore – many details that only the man himself could know. Though the reviews focussed on the book’s revelations about the periods during which he has suffered from depression, for me the most enthralling sections were those where Springsteen describes a couple of hair-raising and eventful road trips across America.

I was reminded that I’d never got round to writing about Springsteen’s book when I read a report about President Obama bestowing the Presidential Medal of Freedom (America’s highest civilian honour) on Springsteen yesterday in a ceremony at the White House. Springsteen’s book is over 500 pages long. Here’s the concise version, courtesy of Barack Obama. It’s rather good: Continue reading “Barack on Bruce: ‘sprung from a cage out on Highway 9’”

Springsteen in Manchester: holy communion

Springsteen in Manchester: holy communion

What felt like urban gridlock apocalypse meant that it took us nearly four hours to drive the 35 miles to Manchester and caused us to miss the first hour of the opening night of the UK leg of Bruce Springsteen’s River tour at the Etihad Stadium.

So while the Boss was powering ahead with the E Street Band on tracks such as ‘Two Hearts’, ‘Hungry Heart’ and ‘Crush on You’ from the classic 1980 album (and inviting a man dressed as Father Christmas onto the stage to join him in an impromptu rendition of ‘Santa Claus Is Coming To Town‘), we were locked down in the worst traffic chaos I have ever experienced – the result, apparently, of four simultaneous accidents that shut down Manchester’s entire tram network. Continue reading “Springsteen in Manchester: holy communion”

The music in my head (part 1): recycled and new this year

The music in my head (part 1): recycled and new this year

There’s a programme on Radio 4 that I hear sometimes when I’m driving in the car. Called Recycled Radio, it chops up old BBC programmes and recycles the snippets into something new. That made me think of all the recycled music I listen to, with album tracks often reassembled into new playlists. As I get older, I listen to a lot of recycled music – but not all the time. Every year brings exciting new sounds. In this post (the first of three) I want to round up some of the music – recycled and new – that I’ve enjoyed in 2015 but never got round to writing about. Continue reading “The music in my head (part 1): recycled and new this year”

Highway 61 Revisited at 50: we never engaged in this kind of thing before

<em>Highway 61 Revisited</em> at 50: we never engaged in this kind of thing before

Unlike Bruce Springsteen, I can recall no revelatory experience on first hearing ‘Like a Rolling Stone’. Indeed I cannot recollect the first occasion when I first heard the song – or any other track from Highway 61 Revisited, the album with which it opens. I can, however, relive the exact moment when I first heard ‘Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands’ off Dylan’s next album. Such are the vagaries of memory. Continue reading Highway 61 Revisited at 50: we never engaged in this kind of thing before”

When Springsteen played East Berlin

When Springsteen played East Berlin

In one of those curious coincidences that seems to happen to me frequently, the morning after we returned from our short break in Berlin BBC Radio 4 broadcast a drama based on the moment in July 1988 when, improbably, Bruce Springsteen performed before an audience of 300,000 people from all over the German Democratic Republic (GDR) in East Berlin in a concert watched live on state television by millions more. Continue reading “When Springsteen played East Berlin”

Blessed be the Nation: the story sung by Pete Seeger

Blessed be the Nation: the story sung by Pete Seeger

Pete Seeger, photo by Anthony Pepitone (Wikipedia)

Pete Seeger, photo by Anthony Pepitone (Wikipedia)

Following the death of Pete Seeger I came across reviews of an album put out in 1998 by Appleseed Recordings, an idealistic independent music label set up by Jim Musselman, a lawyer and activist who once worked with  Ralph Nader.  Musselman has devoted the label to releasing socially conscious contemporary and traditional folk and roots music by established and lesser-known musicians.  On the Appleseed website, Musselman speaks of the years when he worked with Ralph Nader:

I travelled the country for eight years, criss-crossing America in a Guthrie-esque way, seeing the nation and its citizens up close, learning the best ways to listen and to communicate. When I was organizing local communities to fight back against multinational corporations, I would start our open public meetings with a song, figuring that unifying people in singing was an important first step to unifying them in political action.

In 1997, for Appleseed’s first major project, Musselman approached numerous well-known musicians, along with writer Studs Terkel with a request to each record a song written, adapted or performed by Pete Seeger for a tribute album to highlight Seeger’s musical contributions and his tradition of mixing songs and political activism. The resulting  double CD Where Have All the Flowers Gone: The Songs of Pete Seeger was the one I stumbled across as I followed internet references to Seeger in the days after his death.

Where Have All the Flowers Gone cover

It’s a terrific album from which you gain a holistic sense of the man and the causes he embraced. Jim Musselman also did a great job choosing songs from Seeger’s vast repertoire and matching each tune with an artist ‘based on either the philosophical fit between the artist and the message of the song and/or their unique musical style’, as he writes in the accompanying booklet. As an example of this approach, take the opening track – ‘Where Have All the Flowers Gone’ – sung by Irish songwriter and peace activist Tommy Sands with Bosnian Vedran Smailovic (‘the Cellist of Sarejevo).  Bear in mind that this was recorded in 1997, before the Good Friday agreement in Northern Ireland and only months after the lifting of the siege of Sarejevo.

The album includes 37 versions of Seeger-related songs specially recorded by luminaries such as Bruce Springsteen, Jackson Browne, Billy Bragg, Sweet Honey In The Rock, Ani DiFranco and many others.  The material is wonderful, every song reinforcing the picture of Seeger as both an interpreter of musical tradition and as a crusader for social justice.  The performances are first-rate, with many highlights. Bruce Springsteen’s gentle reading of ‘We Shall Overcome’, for example, precedes the version he recorded for his album, The Seeger Sessions many years later, while Jackson Browne and Bonnie Raitt offer a lilting reggae-inflected account of ‘Kisses Sweeter Than Wine’.  There are the songs that reflect Seeger’s later commitment to environmental issues and his campaign (entirely successful) to clean up his beloved, polluted Hudson river, such as ‘Sailing Down My Golden River’.

Lisa Kalvelage report

A remarkable, if less musical interlude comes with Ani DiFranco singing ‘My Name Is Lisa Kalvelage’, Pete’s adaptation of the words spoken in May 1966 by Lisa Kalvelage, one of four women who stopped a shipment of napalm to Vietnam by standing on a loading platform and refusing to move. Seeger’s words come from the statement she made in court after being arrested. Kalvelage likened her protest to lessons she learned from being raised in Nazi Germany – never to keep silent:

If you live in a democratic country where the government is you, you cannot say, ‘I followed orders,’ ” she told a reporter. “If you recognize that something is wrong, you have to speak out to set it straight.

But the words I really wanted to pass on in this post come from one of the two recitations on the album by the late Studs Terkel. It’s a reading of ‘Blessed Be The Nation’, verses Seeger left on a rock on an island where he had camped with his youngest daughter.  He elaborates in the CD booklet:

In 1964 I took my youngest daughter canoeing on a beautiful lake in Maine.  We camped on a little island and were dismayed to see the beach littered with bottles and cans.  We picked ’em all up.  I had a marker with me and wrote this graffiti on a flat stone.  I never wrote a tune, but someone else can try.

Seeger never put music to these words.  I’d like to share them here:

Cursed be the nation of any size or shape,
Whose citizens behave like naked apes,
And drop their litter where they please,
Just like we did when we swung from trees.

But blessed be the nation and blessed be the prize,
When citizens of any shape or size
Can speak their mind for any reason
Without being jailed or accused of treason.

Cursed be the nation without equal education,
Where good schools are something that we ration,
Where the wealthiest get the best that is able,
And the poor are left with crumbs from the table.

Blessed be the nation that keeps its waters clean,
Where an end to pollution is not just a dream,
Where factories don’t blow poisonous smoke,
And we can breath the air without having to choke.

Cursed be the nation where all play to win,
And too much is made of the colour of the skin,
Where we do not see each other as sister and brother,
But as being threats to each other.

Blessed be the nation with health care for all,
Where there’s a helping hand for those who fall,
Where compassion is in fashion every year,
And people, not profits, is what we hold dear.

There’s a recording of Studs Terkel reading the words on YouTube:

In another song on the album – ‘False from True’, sung by Guy Davis – Seeger ruefully observes the limits of protest in song.  But, as he remarks in the verse, he continued to sing our story for as long as he had breath within.  For that we can be thankful, for the words continue, inspiring succeeding generations:

No song I can sing will make a politician change his mind,
No song I can sing will take the gun from a hate-filled man;
But I promise you, and you, brothers and sisters of every skin,
I’ll sing your story while I’ve breath within.

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