Pete Seeger Carries Us On

It was some garden party.
Eighteen-thousand people packed into Madison Square Garden Sunday night
to celebrate the first 90 years of Pete Seeger's life.

The legendary folk singer is a living
history of the 20th century's grass-roots struggles for worker rights,
civil rights, the environment and peace. Powerful, passionate
performances and tributes rang out from the stage, highlighting
Seeger's enduring imprint on our society.

Bruce Springsteen opened his set with a
tribute to Pete, saying, "As Pete and I traveled to Washington for
President Obama's inaugural celebration, he told me the entire story of
'We Shall Overcome,' how it moved from a labor-movement song and, with
Pete's inspiration, had been adopted by the civil rights movement. And
that day, as we sang 'This Land Is Your Land,' I looked at Pete. The
first black president of the United States was seated to his right. I
thought of the incredible journey that Pete had taken. ... He was so
happy that day. It was like, Pete, you outlasted the bastards, man."

Springsteen recalled Pete's only request
for the inaugural: " 'Well, I know I want to sing all the verses [of
'This Land Is Your Land']. You know, I want to sing all the ones that
Woody [Guthrie] wrote, especially the two that get left out ... about
private property and the relief office.' ... That's what Pete's done
his whole life: He sings all the verses all the time, especially the
ones that we'd like to leave out of our history as a people."

The oft-censored verses, for the record:

"In the squares of the city, under shadow of the steeple,

at the relief office, I saw my people.

As they stood there hungry, I stood there whistling,

this land was made for you and me.

A great high wall there tried to stop me.

A great big sign there said private property,

but on the other side it didn't say nothing.

That side was made for you and me."

Seeger's unflinching commitment to social
justice landed him before the House Un-American Activities Committee in
1955. He told HUAC, "I resent very much and very deeply the implication
of being called before this committee that in some way because my
opinions may be different from yours, that I am any less of an American
than anyone else." Seeger was blacklisted and didn't appear on
television for close to 15 years until he sang on "The Smothers
Brothers Comedy Hour."

Seeger told me: "The Smothers Brothers
were a big, big success on the CBS television. And ... in the spring of
'67, CBS says, 'What can we do to make you happier?' And they said,
'Let us have Seeger on.' And CBS said, 'Well, we'll think about it.'
Finally, in October they said, 'OK, you can have him on.' And I sang
this song 'Waist deep in the Big Muddy, the big fool says to push on.'
... In New York, they scissored the song out. The Smothers Brothers
took to the print media and said, 'CBS ... censored Seeger's best
song.' ... Finally, in late January of '68, CBS said, 'OK, OK, he can
sing the song.' " The song tells of an Army captain who drowned while
ordering his troops deeper and deeper into a river-an obvious metaphor
for U.S. involvement in Vietnam.

In 1949, Pete Seeger and the great
"whitelisted" black opera singer and actor Paul Robeson held a concert
in Peekskill, N.Y., an upstate village with an active Ku Klux Klan. A
vigilante mob stoned the crowd. Hundreds were injured. Pete took rocks
from that assault and incorporated them into his fireplace-so that the
stones meant to maim now just protect the flame.

Dear to Pete for his life has been the
Hudson River, said to be one of the most polluted bodies of water in
the world. In 1966, Pete co-founded the environmental organization
Hudson River Sloop Clearwater, which uses a beautiful wooden boat and
an annual celebration to engage and educate people on the need to clean
the Hudson and protect the environment. There is a movement to nominate
Pete Seeger for the Nobel Peace Prize.

At Madison Square Garden, Pete was center
stage, playing his banjo. His singing voice is faint now, after 70
years of singing truth to power. He mouthed the words to the songs, but
what came out were the voices of the 18,000 people in the audience,
singing out. That's Pete's legacy. That's what will carry on.

Denis Moynihan contributed research to this column.

© 2023 TruthDig