Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Pete Seeger, Bruce Springsteen and Tao Rodriguez

Nothing about the pre-Inauguration festivities has been more of a symbol of hope and democratic change than this:

A quick secret that hardcore folk music fans know about Woody Guthrie's "This Land Is Your Land". The tune is from a Gospel song recorded by the Carter Family in 1930, "When the World's on Fire". Woody was a big fan of the Carter Family.

Pete Seeger has been one of my favorite singers for a long time. And this appearance by him at age 89 at the We Are One concert for President-elect Obama is a particular personal triumph for him. Blacklisted for a long time for his leftwing affiliations, Seeger has had an enormous impact on popular music, though mostly in the background. I believe his only Top Ten hit ever was "Little Boxes", written by the San Francisco folk singer Malvina Reynolds, inspired by the mass-produced housing in Daly City, just south of San Francisco.

But he was one of the main driving forces behind the folk music revival of the early 1960s, with direct influence on people like Peter, Paul and Mary and his most famous protege, Bob Dylan. He was a close friend and band partner with Woody Guthrie, in a group called the Almanac Singers. Pete first became famous after the Second World War as part of a folk group called The Weavers. Their stardom was cut short when they were blacklisted. But not before they got Woody's music before a mass audience. Woody's own music has been far more influential than Pete's. But it was thorough Pete that influence became possible.

Along the way to today, he's also done a lot. He made what is said to be the first popular album of environmental songs, "God Bless the Grass". He was a leader in cleaning up the massive pollution in the Hudson River. If he hadn't, maybe no one would have survived that plane crash last week; the river might have caught on fire and they would all have burned to death. Seriously, the river was so polluted at one point that it would actually catch on fire!

Always pro-labor and pro-civil rights, in the 50s he did an arrangement of an old hymn, "We Will Overcome". He changed the chorus to "we shall overcome" because he thought it made the sound come out better by opening the singer's mouth more at the end of "shall". He originally did it as a labor song. But it became the anthem of the civil rights movement.

My favorite story about Pete's influence on popular music is that Emmylou Harris wrote him when she was a teenager and told him she would like to play folk music. But she wasn't sure she had suffered enough to do it right. Pete wrote back and told her that was fine, that she could still do folk music. And he was right. As one reviewer put it, Emmy may look like a mellow hippie. But don't be fooled; she really totally Goth.

And Pete is maybe the best I've ever seen at getting his audience to sing along with him, which folk singer like to do but few of them are that good at it. Bruce Springsteen and Shakira are both pretty darn good at that, too.

Back to "This Land Is Your Land": there's a wonderful irony in the song becoming so widely known all of the world. And being sung before the President-elect at the Lincoln Memorial on this occasion, with that huge crowd singing along. Arlo Guthrie is probably the best interpreter of his father's songs. (His daughter Sarah Lee Guthrie is also a great folk singer.) And Arlo is a master story teller. He has a long story about what if the song meant from California to the New York islands, but not directly, but instead around the world the other way. In that case, the song was apply to everybody. Except America.

He also tells a story about the first time he ever went to the White House. It was during the Clinton administration when Woody was being honored by having his own postage stamp issued. Arlo said that for a guy like Woody who spent his entire life trying to avoid respectability, this came as one final, crushing defeat.

But this is no defeat for Pete Seeger. On the contrary: it's a powerful validation for a brave man who has influenced American popular culture as few individuals ever have.

And it really is a great song!

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"It is the logic of our times
No subject for immortal verse
That we who lived by honest dreams
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-- Cecil Day-Lewis from Where Are The War Poets?


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