Posts Tagged ‘Pete Seeger’

“You gotta remember, establishment, it’s just a name for evil. The monster doesn’t care whether it kills all the students or whether there’s a revolution. It’s not thinking logically, it’s out of control.”—John Lennon (1969)

It’s been 50 years since the Beatles—John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr—first landed in America on Feb. 7, 1964, and the news media is awash with nostalgic tributes to the band that “changed everything.” The Grammys will be saluting the Beatles with a 2-hour star-studded tribute. JFK Airport plans to dedicate a historical marker to commemorate the moment the four lads from Liverpool arrived on a Pan Am flight, to be greeted by hordes of screaming fans. And all across the country, including in New York City, conferences, tribute band performances, and reenactments will pay homage to Beatlemania and their music.

While there is much to celebrate about the Beatles coming to America, there is also much to regret, starting with the fact that while we may remember the music of the Beatles, we’ve lost sight of the hope for change and revolutionary spirit that were hallmarks of those days. Indeed, the Beatles opened the floodgates of music with their riveting Feb. 9 performance on the Ed Sullivan Show which was televised to 72 million Americans in what has been dubbed “the night that changed America.” Beatlemania, in turn, helped fuel a social, cultural and political revolution that took aim at everything from war, capitalism and racism to women’s rights, militarization and equality.

Fifty years later, while we may be inundated with a glut of music that passes for art and artists that pass for activists, with no shortage of national problems plaguing us (police abuse, endless wars, government corruption, government surveillance, inequality, etc.), we are sorely lacking individuals with the kind of radicalism and willingness to challenge the status quo. This is the difference between Then and Now, between an America that was ripe for the Beatles’ music andtheir message of change and an America that is celebrating the Beatles’ music while oblivious to their radicalism.

“The Beatles were like aliens dropped into the United States of 1964,” reports Todd Leopold for CNN. Leopold continues:

Kennedy’s assassination 10 weeks earlier had left a gloom on the land. Together, the two events created a dividing line between Then and Now. “A lot of people don’t understand why (Sullivan) was a seminal moment in the history of America and, for that matter, the history of the world,” former Arkansas governor and presidential candidate Mike Huckabee recalled in a recent speech. “The country had just gone through a very painful time of mourning. … There was an extraordinary amount of despair, heartbreak, disappointment,” he continued. “I think people forget that we were still grieving as a nation. The Beatles brought something to America more than music. They brought hope.”

The Beatles converged with their era—the Sixties generation—in an almost unprecedented way. At no other time in history, or since, has a generation been so connected. The vehicle was rock music. And the Beatles helped create an aural culture. As Randy Lewis notes for the Los Angeles Times:

If they were relatively friendly revolutionaries, with their pressed suits and bemused grins and professional politesse and their malt-shop lyrics, they were revolutionaries nonetheless… Now that everything is at our fingertips, a swipe or click away at any moment anywhere, it is hard to conceive of the effect they once had. The revolution had actually been televised then… Self-contained and self-directed — notwithstanding the guidance of manager Brian Epstein and producer George Martin, who were collaborators and not directors — the Beatles were something new and in no hurry to leave or conform. Other new things followed through doors they helped open. For better or worse, for a while, the world grew young.

The burgeoning baby boomers’ fascination with music brought the sixties generation into a collective whole. “Perhaps the most important aspect of the Beatles’ attraction during that influential era,” writes author Steven Stark, “was their collective synergy.” In other words, the Beatles popularized the sanctity of “the group,” amazingly so in a time when the traditional family was beginning to disintegrate. With the Beatles, the whole was always greater than the sum of the parts. This gave them a dazzling appeal.

Unlike artists before them, the Beatles had power over millions of people worldwide. In 1967, for example, with the release of their Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band album, as one critic noted, it was the closest Europe had been to unification since the Congress of Vienna in 1815. Most thought North America could have been included as well. And the Beatles became the embodiment of the Summer of Love with their live global BBC television broadcast of “All You Need Is Love” in June 1967. Approximately 400 million people across five continents tuned in. This type of power was something new. Previously, only popes, kings and perhaps a few intellectuals could hope to wield such influence in their lifetime.

Some have even argued that the Beatles’ influence helped bring down the Iron Curtain. As Yuri Pelyoshonok, a Soviet Studies professor, says:

The Soviet authorities thought of the Beatles as a secret Cold War weapon. The kids lost their interest in all Soviet unshakable dogmas and ideals, and stopped thinking of an English-speaking person as the enemy. That’s when the Communists lost two generations of young people ideologically, totally lost. That was an incredible impact.

Following the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy in 1968, the optimism of the Summer of Love quickly evaporated and young people revolted worldwide. In the U.S., the cataclysm came as 10,000 demonstrators descended on the Democratic Party’s national convention in August. Police reacted by brutally beating rock-throwing demonstrators as well as passersby, journalists and volunteers. Violence and revolt were now in vogue.

The Beatles, the most influential pop voice of the time, responded to this shift towards violence with “Revolution,” the first Beatles song with an explicitly political statement. As “Revolution” stresses, it was not a movement about physically overthrowing a regime. It was a spiritual revolution, one aimed at overthrowing preconceived notions. Thus, before you can effect a lasting change, as John Lennon sings, you have to “free your mind.” As John Lennon sings in his masterpiece on the need for nonviolent change, “When you talk about destruction, don’t you know that you can count me out?”

The underground press–which at the time included such newspapers as the Village Voice–immediately criticized the song and Lennon for not urging outright rebellion against authority. Lennon was quick to point out that if they really wanted a revolution, it had to begin with changing the way people think: “I’m not only up against the establishment but you too. I’ll tell you what’s wrong with the world: people–so do you want to destroy them? Until you/we change our heads–there’s no choice.”

It didn’t take long for Lennon, the activist of the group, to recognize that he could use his celebrity status to not only communicate his own ideas about the world but change the way people thought about issues of the day. He subsequently began his quest for worldwide peace. In fact, it may be that Lennon was the last great iconic anti-war activist of our age. Indeed, by October 1969, Lennon’s “Give Peace a Chance” had become a universal chant at anti-Vietnam War demonstrations. On November 15, during a peace rally in Washington, DC, the legendary folk singer Pete Seeger led nearly half a million demonstrators in singing “Give Peace a Chance” at the Washington Monument.

Unlike the other members of the Beatles, who are largely remembered for their music, Lennon’s political activism soon became a hallmark of the man himself. As Time magazine contributor Martin Lewis recognizes, “Of all Lennon’s legacies, one of the most enduring, and perhaps the most impressive, is who his enemies were. The true measure of his greatness was that in the 1970s he terrified the most powerful man in the world.” Lewis, of course, is referring to Richard Nixon, who became a determined enemy of Lennon.

Of all the Beatles, it may be Lennon’s activism which speaks most to the concerns of our present day and the ever-growing menace of the police state. In fact, as I document in my book A Government of Wolves: The Emerging American Police State, Lennon, enemy number one in the eyes of the U.S. government, was targeted for surveillance by the FBI (most likely in conjunction with the NSA).

Fearing Lennon might incite antiwar protests, the Nixon administration directed the FBI to keep close tabs on the ex-Beatle, resulting in close to 400 pages of files on his activities during the early 1970s. But the government’s actions didn’t stop with mere surveillance. The agency went so far as to attempt to have Lennon deported on drug charges. As professor Jon Wiener, a historian who sued the federal government to have the files on Lennon made public, observed, “This is really the story of F.B.I. misconduct, of the President using the F.B.I. to get his enemies, to use federal agencies to suppress dissent and to silence critics.”

Fifty years after America first fell in love with Lennon and his mop-top comrades, the Beatles’ legacy lives on—at least, their musical legacy lives on.

Yet while the Beatles’ greatest legacy was in effecting a revolution of spirit and mind, today we’re in dire need of revolutionaries willing to challenge the status quo.

The world could use another revolution, don’t you think? — John W. Whitehead

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Pete Seeger and the Power of Song

“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.”—Pete Seeger

“The world will be saved by people fighting for their homes. Homes will be saved by people who fight for the world.”—Pete Seeger

Pete Seeger, the 94-year-old activist-singer-songwriter who tried to change the world with every note he uttered, has died, and we are all the poorer for it.

A longtime friend whose letters I treasured for their hand-drawn embellishments and whose words of encouragement urged me to keep on fighting, Seeger belonged to a dying breed of Americans who cared more about making a difference using whatever resources were available to them than luxuriating in creature comforts and basking in the glow of their greatness.

Long before the Beatles or the Rolling Stones, Jim Hendrix or Bob Dylan, there was Pete Seeger, a lone ranger fighting injustice with little more than a five-string banjo in hand and a gift for putting words to music. Unarguably one of the most important musical influences of the 20th century, Seeger helped to lay the foundation for American protest music, singing out about the plight of everyday working folks and urging listeners to political and social activism.

Born in New York City on May 3, 1919, Seeger, whose father was a pacifist musicologist, was plunged into the world of music and politics from an early age. He studied sociology at Harvard University until 1938, when he dropped out and spent the summer bicycling through New England and New York, painting watercolors of farmers’ houses in return for food. Looking for but failing to get a job as a newspaper reporter in New York City, he then worked at the Archives of American Folk Music at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. In 1940, Seeger met Woody Guthrie at a Grapes of Wrath migrant-worker benefit concert. Seeger, Guthrie, Lee Hays and Millard Lampell joined together to form the Almanac Singers, which became known for its political radicalism and support of communism.

In 1942, Seeger was drafted by the U.S. Army and sent to Saipan in the Western Pacific. After the war, he helped start the People’s Songs Bulletin, later Sing Out! magazine, which combined information on folk music with social criticism. In 1950, Seeger formed The Weavers with Lee Hays, Ronnie Gilbert and Fred Hellerman. Targeted for the political messages behind some of their songs, the group was blacklisted and banned from television and radio.

In 1955, the House Committee on Un-American Activities subpoenaed Seeger to appear before them (read his testimony at http://www.peteseeger.net/HUAC.htm). During the hearings, Seeger refused to disclose his political views and the names of his political associates. When asked by the committee to name for whom he had sung, Seeger replied:

I am saying voluntarily that I have sung for almost every religious group in the country, from Jewish and Catholic, and Presbyterian and Holy Rollers and Revival Churches, and I do this voluntarily. I have sung for many, many different groups—and it is hard for perhaps one person to believe, I was looking back over the twenty years or so that I have sung around these forty-eight states, that I have sung in so many different places.

He was sentenced to one year in jail but, quoting the First Amendment, successfully appealed the decision after spending four hours behind bars. Nevertheless, he was blacklisted most of his life from normal radio and television work.

During the 1960s, Seeger traveled around the country, continuing to play his folk songs for the peace and civil rights movements. Deeply offended by the U.S. involvement in Vietnam, Seeger, along with other folk singers such as Joan Baez, led many protests.

“Wherever he was asked, when the need was the greatest, he, like Kilroy, was there. And still is,” said his long-time friend, Studs Terkel. “Though his voice is somewhat shot, he holds forth on that stage. Whether it be a concert hall, a gathering in the park, a street demonstration, any area is a battleground for human rights.”

In 1963, Seeger recorded the now-famous gospel song “We Shall Overcome.” In 1965, he sang it on the 50-mile walk from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, with Martin Luther King, Jr. and 1,000 other marchers. That song would go on to become the anthem for the civil rights movement and be translated into many languages. Seeger also turned his attention to cleaning up the Hudson River that ran past his home. In 1966, he helped form Clearwater, an organization dedicated to educating the public on environmental concerns such as pollution and protecting the river. The group offers educational programs for children on a 76-foot replica of a traditional Hudson cargo sloop and holds a two-day festival on the banks of the Hudson River every June.

Seeger was awarded the Presidential Medal of the Arts and the prestigious Kennedy Center Award in 1994. In 1996, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for his contribution to music and to the development of rock and folk music. In April of that year, he received the Harvard Arts Medal, and after decades of creating songs, in 1997, Seeger won a Grammy Award for Best Traditional Folk Album for his album, Pete. In May 2009, a broad cross-section of musicians including Bruce Springsteen, Dave Matthews, John Mellencamp, Joan Baez, Ani DiFranco, Roger McGuinn of the Byrds, Emmylou Harris and others assembled at Madison Square Garden to pay tribute to Seeger and celebrate his 90th birthday.

Right up until the end, Seeger never stopped speaking out and he never stopped urging young people to follow their hearts and take initiative: “Well, here’s hoping all the foregoing will help you avoid a few dead-end streets (we all hit some), and here’s hoping enough of your dreams come true to keep you optimistic about the rest. We’ve got a big world to learn how to tie together. We’ve all got a lot to learn. And don’t let your studies interfere with your education.”

In an interview I conducted with Pete Seeger several years ago, I asked him whether he had found an answer to the question “When will they ever learn?” which he repeatedly posed in his song, “Where Have All the Flowers Gone.”

Seeger’s response is one for the books:

We will never know everything. But I think if we can learn within the next few decades to face the danger we all are in, I believe there will be tens of millions, maybe hundreds of millions, of human beings working wherever they are to do something good. I tell everybody a little parable about the “teaspoon brigades.” Imagine a big seesaw. One end of the seesaw is on the ground because it has a big basket half full of rocks in it. The other end of the seesaw is up in the air because it’s got a basket one quarter full of sand. Some of us have teaspoons and we are trying to fill it up. Most people are scoffing at us. They say, “People like you have been trying for thousands of years, but it is leaking out of that basket as fast as you are putting it in.” Our answer is that we are getting more people with teaspoons every day. And we believe that one of these days or years—who knows—that basket of sand is going to be so full that you are going to see that whole seesaw going zoop! in the other direction. Then people are going to say, “How did it happen so suddenly?” And we answer, “Us and our little teaspoons over thousands of years.”

But I don’t think we have forever. I now believe that all technological societies tend to self-destruct. The reason is that the very things that make us a successful technological society, such as our curiosity, our ambition and determination, will also cause us to fall.

Rest in peace, Pete, and not to worry. I and the other ragtag members of your teaspoon brigade will keep working to change the world one teaspoon at a time. — John W. Whitehead

Click here to read the Seeger interview in its entirety.