Tags: folk music, nobel peace prize, nobel prize, peace prize, pete seeger, peter dreier, political activism, protest music, roger hollander, stephen colbert, weavers, woody guthrie
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At 93, Pete Seeger can still get people singing.Pete Seeger and his banjo. (Photo: Don Davis)
On Monday, he had Stephen Colbert’s studio audience singing “Quite Early Morning,” a song he wrote in 1969, in the midst of the Vietnam War, to inspire people to keep the faith that a better world is possible, even in the midst of suffering, tragedy, and setbacks.
While Pete was singing, the camera focused briefly on his banjo head, where he’d written the words, “This Machine Surrounds Hate and Forces it to Surrender.”
Despite his age, Pete’s recognizable voice and innovative banjo-playing were on display on the Colbert show, as was his tried-and-true technique of pausing between stanzas to provide the words so people in studio, and viewers at home, could sing along. And Pete kept his cool while Colbert tried to throw him off-balance with questions about his politics and his influence on American culture. It was clear, though, that Colbert held Seeger in high regard for his lifetime of political activism, conscience, and principle.
A few years ago some of Pete’s fans launched a campaign to nominate him for the Nobel Peace Prize. The effort faltered because its activists, despite their sincerity, lacked the media and organizing savvy to mount a vibrant campaign to build on the global public’s widespread admiration for Pete Seeger.
It is time to resurrect that crusade. But this time, perhaps Stephen Colbert could lead that campaign, now that Pete has graced his show with his presence. Colbert’s show — including his faux campaign for president, his Super PAC, and his nightly send-up of Bill O’Reilly’s right-wing buffoonery — brilliantly satirizes the absurdities of America’s corporate-dominated political culture. By heading a campaign to get Pete Seeger the Nobel Peace Prize, Colbert would actually demonstrate that the forces of social conscience can triumph, against the odds.
If anyone deserves that honor, it is Pete Seeger.
Every day, every minute, someone in the world is singing a Pete Seeger song. The songs he has written, including the antiwar tunes, “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?”, “If I Had a Hammer,” and “Turn, Turn, Turn,” (whose text is drawn from Ecclesiastes), and those he has popularized, including “This Land Is Your Land,” “Guantanamera,” “Wimoweh,” and “We Shall Overcome,” have been recorded by hundreds of artists in many languages and have become global anthems for people fighting for freedom. His songs are sung by people in cities and villages around the world, promoting the basic idea that the hopes that unite us are greater than the fears that divide us.
In addition to being a much-acclaimed and innovative guitarist and banjoist, a globe-trotting minstrel and song collector, and the author of many songbooks and musical how-to manuals, Seeger has been on the front lines of every key progressive crusade during his lifetime — labor unions and migrant workers in the 1930s and 1940s, the banning of nuclear weapons and opposition to the Cold War in the 1950s, civil rights and the anti-Vietnam War movement in the 1960s, environmental responsibility and opposition to South African apartheid in the 1970s, and, always, human rights throughout the world.
For several years, Pete has kept coming out of semi-retirement to do one more concert, give one more interview, write one more book, record one more album. His remarkable spirit, energy, and optimism has keep him going through triumphs and tragedies, but he’s outlived all his enemies and remained one of the greatest American heroes of this or any other era.
Several biographies of Seeger have been published in the past decade, including David King Dunaway’s How Can I Keep from Singing? The Ballad of Pete Seeger, Alec Wilkinson’s The Protest Singer: An Intimate Portrait of Pete Seeger and Alan Winkler’s To Everything There Is a Season: Pete Seeger and the Power of Song. Five years ago Jim Brown produced a wonderful documentary film, Pete Seeger: The Power of Song.
The new book presents Pete in his own voice. With Pete’s cooperation, Rob Rosenthal (a sociology professor at Wesleyan University) and Sam Rosenthal (a musician and writer) dug through Pete’s extensive writings — letters stored for decades in his family barn, notes to himself, published articles, rough drafts, stories, books, poems, and songs — to chronicle and illuminate Pete’s incredible life as America’s troubadour for social justice. Pete, who is modest and self-effacing despite his remarkable accomplishments, has never written an autobiography. This is the closest thing we’ll get to hearing Pete discuss his life in his own words.
Pete Seeger In His Own Words chronicles his remarkable life and the fascinating people whose lives he touched, including Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, Martin Luther King, and even Bill Clinton, as well as his wife Toshi, his family, friends, and fellow musicians and activists.
The son of musicologists Charles and Ruth Seeger, Pete spent two years at Harvard, where he got involved in radical politics and helped start a student newspaper, the Harvard Progressive, but he quit in 1938 in order to try his own hand at changing society by making music. He worked at the Library of Congress’s Archive of American Folk Song (where he learned many of the songs he would sing throughout his career), traveled around with Woody Guthrie singing at migrant labor camps and union halls, and perfected his guitar- and banjo-playing skills.
In 1941, at age 22, Seeger formed the Almanac Singers with Lee Hays and Millard Lampell, later joined by Guthrie, Bess Lomax (daughter of musicologist John Lomax), and several others who rotated in and out of the group. The Almanacs drew on traditional songs and wrote their own songs to advance the cause of progressive groups, the Communist Party, the Congress of Industrial Organizations unions, the New Deal, and, later, the United States and its allies (including the Soviet Union) in the fight against fascism. The Almanacs were part of a broader upsurge of popular progressive culture during the New Deal, fostered in part by programs like the federal theater and writers’ projects. Even so, the group was hounded by the FBI, got few bookings, and was dropped by its agent, the William Morris Agency. After Seeger and Guthrie joined the military, the group disbanded in 1943.
The Almanacs cultivated an image of being unpolished amateurs. Guthrie once said that the Almanacs “rehearsed on stage.” Among them, however, Seeger was the most gifted and disciplined musician, with a remarkable repertoire of traditional songs. He carefully crafted a stage persona that inspired audiences to join him, a performing style that he perfected when he began working as a soloist. Every Seeger concert involves a lot of group singing.
Immediately after World War II, American radicals and liberals sought to resume popular support for progressive unions, civil rights, and internationalism. The left’s folk-music wing hoped to build on its modest successes before and during the war. In 1946 Seeger led the effort to create People’s Songs (an organization of progressive songwriters and performers, dominated by but not confined to folk musicians) and People’s Artists (a booking agency to help the members of People’s Songs get concert gigs and recording contracts). They compiled The People’s Song Book (which included protest songs from around the world), sponsored a number of successful concerts, and organized chapters in several cities and on college campuses.
When Henry Wallace ran for president on the Progressive Party ticket in 1948, his campaign relied heavily on folk music. Seeger traveled with Wallace during the campaign, distributing song sheets at every meeting or rally so that sing-alongs, led by Seeger, could alternate with Wallace’s speeches.
By 1949 folk music had become increasingly popular, with performers like Burl Ives, Josh White, and others gaining a foothold in popular culture, but the folk music of this period had lost much of its political edge.
For a brief period, as a member of the Weavers folk quartet, Seeger achieved commercial success, performing several chart-topping songs that reflected his eclectic repertoire. The group was formed in 1948 by Seeger and Hays (both former Almanacs), along with Ronnie Gilbert and Fred Hellerman. They exposed audiences to their repertoire of songs from around the world as well as to American folk traditions, but without the overt advocacy of left-wing political causes. Decca Records signed the Weavers to a recording contract and added orchestral arrangements and instruments to their music, a commercial expediency that rankled Seeger but delighted Hays. The Weavers performed in the nation’s most prestigious nightclubs and appeared on network television shows.
In 1950 their recording of an Israeli song, “Tzena Tzena,” reached number two on the pop charts, and their version of Lead Belly’s “Goodnight, Irene,” reached number one and stayed on the charts for half a year. Several of their recordings — “On Top of Old Smokey,” “Kisses Sweeter Than Wine,” the African song “Wimoweh,” and “Midnight Special” — also made the charts. Their 1951 recording of Guthrie’s song “So Long It’s Been Good to Know You,” reached number four.
But the Weavers’ commercial success was short-lived. As soon as they began to be widely noticed in 1950, they were targeted by both private and government witch-hunters. The FBI and Congress escalated their investigations. Seeger and the Weavers were mentioned in Red Channels and Counterattack, the semiofficial private guidebooks for the blacklist. A few performers, notably Josh White and Burl Ives, agreed to cooperate with the investigators and were able to resume their careers; others refused to do so, and some were blacklisted. The Weavers survived for another year with bookings and even TV shows, but finally the escalating Red Scare caught up with them. Their contract for a summer television show was canceled. They could no longer get bookings in the top nightclubs. Radio stations stopped playing their songs, and their records stopped selling. They never had another major hit record.
Seeger left the Weavers to pursue a solo career, but he was blacklisted from the early 1950s through the mid-1960s. In 1955 he was convicted of contempt of Congress for refusing to discuss his political affiliations at a hearing called by the House Committee on Un-American Activities, although he never spent time in jail. (The conviction was overturned on appeal in May 1962.) Many colleges and concert halls refused to book Seeger. He was kept off network television. In 1963 ABC refused to allow Seeger to appear on Hootenanny, which owed its existence to the folk music revival Seeger had helped inspire. During the blacklist years, Seeger scratched out a living by giving guitar and banjo lessons and singing at the small number of summer camps, churches, high schools and colleges, and union halls that were courageous enough to invite the controversial balladeer. In 1966, on New York City’s nonprofit educational television station, he hosted a low-budget folk music program, Rainbow Quest, that gave exposure to many little-known country, bluegrass, and folk singers.
Eventually, however, Seeger’s audience grew. In the 1960s he sang with civil rights workers at rallies and churches in the South and at the march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala. He popularized the song “We Shall Overcome” in the United States and during his concerts around the world. In a letter to Seeger, Martin Luther King Jr. thanked him for his “moral support and Christian generosity.” In 1967 Tom and Dick Smothers defiantly invited Seeger onto their popular CBS television variety show, the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. True to his principles, Seeger insisted on singing a controversial antiwar song, “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy.” CBS censors refused to air the song, but public outrage forced the network to relent and allow him to perform the song on the show a few months later.
Seeger helped catalyze the folk music revival of the 1960s, encouraging young performers, helping start the Newport Folk Festival, and promoting the folk song magazine Sing Out! that he had helped launch. His book How To Play the 5-String Banjo taught thousands of baby boomers how to play this largely forgotten instrument. On stage, he always taught his audiences songs from around the world, often sung in their original languages, such as the South African song “Wimoweh” and the Cuban song “Guantanamera.”
Many prominent musicians, including Bob Dylan, Bono, Joan Baez, the Byrds, Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks, Bonnie Raitt, Tom Morello, and Bruce Springsteen consider Seeger a role model and trace their musical roots to his influence. Many of his 80 albums — which include children’s songs, labor and protest songs, traditional American folk songs, international songs, and Christmas songs — have reached wide audiences. His travels around the world — collecting songs and performing in many languages — inspired today’s world music movement. Among performers around the globe, Seeger became a symbol of a principled artist deeply engaged in the world.
In 1969 Seeger launched the group Clearwater (near his home in Beacon, N.Y.) and an annual celebration dedicated to cleaning up the polluted Hudson River, an effort that helped inspire the environmental movement.
Through persistence and unrelenting optimism, Seeger endured and overcame the controversies triggered by his activism. In 1994, at age 75, he received the National Medal of Arts (the highest award given to artists and arts patrons by the U.S. government) as well as a Kennedy Center Honor, when President Bill Clinton called him “an inconvenient artist, who dared to sing things as he saw them.” In 1996 he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame because of his influence on so many rock performers. In 1997 he won the Grammy Award for his eighteen-track compilation album, Pete.
In the 21st century, some of the nation’s most prominent singers recorded albums honoring Seeger, including Springsteen’s Seeger Sessions. In May 2009 more than 15,000 admirers filled New York City’s Madison Square Garden for a concert honoring Seeger on his 90th birthday. The performers included Springsteen, Dave Matthews, Emmylou Harris, Joan Baez, Billy Bragg, Rufus Wainwright, Bela Fleck, Taj Mahal, Roger McGuinn, Steve Earle, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Dar Williams, Tom Morello, Ani DiFranco, and John Mellencamp.
Next month, Pete will release two new albums. A More Perfect Union features 16 original songs written with singer-songwriter Lorre Wyatt and includes duets with Springsteen, Morello, Earle, Harris, and Williams. The two-CD Pete Remembers Woody honors his friend as part of the centennial celebration of Guthrie’s birth. It includes reminiscences, songs, and anecdotes.
Probably no song reflects Pete’s indomitable spirit more than the one he sang Monday night, “Quite Early Morning.”
Don’t you know it’s darkest before the dawnAnd 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
Thanks to Pete Seeger, we can have many “singing tomorrows.” But before Pete’s fingers can strum no longer, let’s honor him with the Nobel Peace Prize.
Peter Dreier is E.P. Clapp Distinguished Professor of Politics, and director of the Urban & Environmental Policy program, at Occidental College. He is coauthor of Place Matters: Metropolitics for the 21st Century and The Next Los Angeles: The Struggle for a Livable City. He writes regularly for the Los Angeles Times, The Nation, and American Prospect. His next book, The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century: A Social Justice Hall of Fame, will be published by Nation Books in the spring.
Pussy Riot and the Two Russias August 4, 2012Posted by rogerhollander in Art, Literature and Culture, Civil Liberties, Russia.
Tags: dissent, free speech, katrina vanden heuvel, political protest, protect, protest music, punk rock, pussy riot, putin, roger hollander, russia, russia opposition, russia patriotism, russian orthodox
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(Credit: Igor Mukhin)
Pussy Riot is here to stay. International attention has mounted over the months since three members of the punk rock/protest group were imprisoned for a fifty-one-second stunt. All the more so this week, as their trial—on “hooliganism” charges—finally began.
As I’ve described before, members of the group seized the stage of Russia’s iconic Christ the Savior Cathedral just before the country’s March elections, performing (and recording) a musical plea to the Virgin Mary to oust Vladimir Putin. The cadre of Russian artists and activists descended from the performance artists Voina (“War”), who were influenced by the US punk movement Riot grrrl. Its story might have ended there, if not for a truly authoritarian response from the Russian government. Three alleged participants were arrested, threatened with seven years of imprisonment, and placed in a pre-trial detention that’s been extended for months. Now, Pussy Riot is world famous—as is its stunt. The longer they’re in prison, the more attention they get.
It’s been gratifying to see the outpouring of support for these women. It’s come from insiders and outsiders alike, in Russia and abroad. Key Putin backers have broken with him on Pussy Riot. More than 400,000 Russians have signed an online petition protesting their arrest and detention. The Washington Post editorialized in defense of the activists. Punk artists around the world have voiced their solidarity. British writer Stephen Fry has called on his more than 4.6 million Twitter followers “to do everything to help Pussy Riot” and “pressure Putin” in connection with the trial. Amnesty International named Pussy Riot prisoners of conscience; its US activists have planned a guerilla art exhibit and a solidarity concert at the Russian Embassy in Washington, DC.
The crackdown on Pussy Riot is part of a broader attack on dissent in Russia. In recent weeks, we’ve seen the introduction and rapid passage of a quartet of laws that undermine Russia’s democratic ambitions: (Re-)criminalization of “defamation”; a blacklist of “harmful” websites; punitive fines on participants in “unsanctioned” protests; and a mandate that nonprofits declare foreign funding and brand themselves “foreign agents.” Russia, alas, is not the only country cracking down on political freedom. But these broadly worded, swiftly passed laws represent another wave in Russia’s de-democratization, a process started under Boris Yeltsin and continued under Putin.
The righteousness of the Pussy Riot cause is clear-cut: courageous activists up against punitive suppression. As someone who’s worked with the women’s movement in Moscow, and as a longtime student of Russia, it’s horrific to watch the mistreatment of these women, and heartening to see them draw the support they deserve, both outside the country and within it.
But lost in much of the coverage is a sobering reality: there are two Russias. The country’s deep divisions are reflected in the polling on Pussy Riot, with only a 43 percent plurality telling pollsters that a potential two-to-seven-year sentence is disproportionate. Why? There’s more in place here than simple offense at their act.
To many Russians, Russia feels like two different countries: one is urban, hyper-Westernized, aggressively modern, and seems condescending in its attitude to ordinary people; the other is the Russian heartland in the regions and provinces, where people are suffering economically and believe they’re guarding the country’s traditional values and religious convictions. This is the lens through which some Russians view Pussy Riot’s imprisonment: not individual freedom of conscience versus the state but national pride and religious faith versus a well-off, urban elite. Putin has masterfully stoked such resentments, framing the resistance to his authority as an affront to the values of the nation (a segment on state TV last month called protests in defense of Pussy Riot a “vanity fair”). Too many Western journalists ignore or underestimate the effectiveness of that appeal.
Putin’s key partner in this has been the Russian Orthodox Church. In recent years, the church has grown in clout while growing ever closer to the Kremlin. The church’s spokesperson announced that God had personally shared with him, “just like he revealed the gospels to the church,” that He “condemns” what Pussy Riot did. Cynically or in earnest, church leaders are nurturing a patriarchal, paternalistic form of patriotism, and its power and popularity are growing as a result (US readers: this may sound familiar). The prosecution’s indictment against the artists cites “blasphemous acts” and “weighty suffering” of believers—despite Russia’s supposed separation of church the state. That’s a sign of how flimsy the legal case against Pussy Riot is, but also of the church’s role in modern Russia.
In a case replete with ironies, here’s the final one: even as Putin reaps political benefit from the resentments of this other Russia, his economic and social policies are poised to hit its citizens hardest—and his most prominent critics in the opposition are on board as well. Last month ushered in a fairly dramatic increase in utility and transit costs. And austerity, Russia-style, is coming to other sectors as well: neoliberal “reforms” are on the way in education, housing and pensions. These changes will mean socio-economic disaster for already-suffering Russians, many in regions far-flung from Moscow. What is little reported in the West is that Putin’s own critics, those who’ve led many of the street protests in Moscow, also back these measures. These include elite critics like former Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin, Boris Nemtsov and Ksenia Sobchak, once the Paris Hilton of Russia until she became its Pasionaria. Perhaps that should be no surprise: they’re not the ones about to get hurt.
It is heartening to see the broad attention being paid to the three women of the Pussy Riot group. But perhaps it’s time for some reporting on the millions of working or unemployed Russians who will bear the brunt of economic policies hatched by the Putin government and supported by many of its opposition critics. Putin’s repression has sparked vibrant pro–Pussy Riot activism. The efforts on behalf of Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Religion and Freedom from Fear have been important. But if the opposition really wants to mobilize a mass movement for political, social and economic change, it will have to bring the Two Russias back together. That will mean developing a program that calls for fair elections and combating corruption, while also resisting neoliberal measures that will privatize public education and gut pensions. Simply put, the activism we’ve witnessed in these last months will need to expand to encompass Freedom from Want. The fate of the next Pussy Riot could depend on it.
Buffy Sainte-Marie: No No Keshagesh November 23, 2011Posted by rogerhollander in Art, Literature and Culture, Economic Crisis, Environment, First Nations, War.
Tags: buffy sainte-marie, environment, First Nations, mother earth, native poeples, No No Keshagesh, protest music, protest song, roger hollander, Wall Street, war
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Keshagesh means Greedy Guts. It’s what you call a little puppy who eats his own and then wants everybody else’s.
* * * * *
I never saw so many business suits Never knew a dollar sign could look so cute Never knew a junkie with a money jones Who’s buying Park Place? Who’s buying Boardwalk?
These old men they make their dirty deals Go in the back room and see what they can steal Talk about your beautiful for spacious skies It’s about uranium. It’s about the water rights
Got Mother Nature on a luncheon plate They carve her up and call it real estate Want all the resources and all of the land They make a war over it; they blow things up for it
The reservation out at Poverty Row The cookin’s cookin and the lights are low Somebody tryin to save our Mother Earth I’m gonna Help em to Save it and Sing it and Pray it singin
No No Keshagesh you can’t do that no more.
Ol Columbus he was lookin good When he got lost in our neighborhood Garden of Eden right before his eyes Now it’s all spyware Now it’s all income tax
Ol Brother Midas lookin hungry today What he can’t buy he’ll get some other way Send in the troopers if the Natives resist Same old story, boys; that’s how ya do it , boys
Look at these people Lord they’re on a roll Got to have it all; gotta have complete control Want all the resources and all of the land They break the law over it; blow things up for it
While all our champions are off in the war Their final rippoff here at home is on Mister Greed I think your time has come I’m gonna Sing it and Say it and Live it and Pray it singin
No No Keshagesh you can’t do that no more.
TO VIEW THE VIDEO:
Buffy Sainte-Marie is a Canadian Cree singer-songwriter, musician, composer, visual artist, educator, pacifist, and social activist. By age 24, Buffy Sainte-Marie had appeared all over Europe, Canada, Australia and Asia, receiving honors, medals and awards, which continue to this day. Her song Until It’s Time for You to Go was recorded by Elvis and Barbra and Cher, and her 1964 Universal Soldier became the anthem of the peace movement, despite the fact it was pretty much banned on US radio. For her very first album she was voted Billboard’s Best New Artist. Buffy won an Academy Award Oscar and a Golden Globe Award for the song Up Where We Belong.
The bitter tears of Johnny Cash November 9, 2009Posted by rogerhollander in Art, Literature and Culture, Political Commentary.
Tags: american indian, american indian movement, antonino d'ambrosio, apache, bitter tears, colombia records, country music, folk music, folsom prison, ira hayes, john hammond, johnny cash, leonard peltier, marlon brando, native american, navajo, pete seeger, peter le farge, pima, protest ballad, protest music, protest song, Richard Nixon, ris Kristofferson, robbie robertson, roger hollander, Willie Nelson, wounded knee
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In July 1972, musician Johnny Cash sat opposite President Richard Nixon in the White House’s Blue Room. As a horde of media huddled a few feet away, the country music superstar had come to discuss prison reform with the self-anointed leader of America’s “silent majority.” “Johnny, would you be willing to play a few songs for us,” Nixon asked Cash. “I like Merle Haggard’s ‘Okie From Muskogee’ and Guy Drake’s ‘Welfare Cadillac.’” The architect of the GOP’s Southern strategy was asking for two famous expressions of white working-class resentment.
“I don’t know those songs,” replied Cash, “but I got a few of my own I can play for you.” Dressed in his trademark black suit, his jet-black hair a little longer than usual, Cash draped the strap of his Martin guitar over his right shoulder and played three songs, all of them decidedly to the left of “Okie From Muskogee.” With the nation still mired in Vietnam, Cash had far more than prison reform on his mind. Nixon listened with a frozen smile to the singer’s rendition of the explicitly antiwar “What Is Truth?” and “Man in Black” (“Each week we lose a hundred fine young men”) and to a folk protest song about the plight of Native Americans called “The Ballad of Ira Hayes.” It was a daring confrontation with a president who was popular with Cash’s fans and about to sweep to a crushing reelection victory, but a glimpse of how Cash saw himself — a foe of hypocrisy, an ally of the downtrodden. An American protest singer, in short, as much as a country music legend.
Years later, “Man in Black” is remembered as a sartorial statement, and “What Is Truth?” as a period piece, if at all. Of the three songs that Cash played for Nixon, the most enduring, and the truest to his vision, was “The Ballad of Ira Hayes.” The song was based on the tragic tale of the Pima Indian war hero who was immortalized in the Iwo Jima flag-raising photo, and in Washington’s Iwo Jima monument, but who died a lonely death brought on by the toxic mixture of alcohol and indifference and alcoholism. The song became part of an album of protest music that his record label didn’t want to promote and that radio stations didn’t want to play, but that Cash would always count among his personal favorites.
The story of Cash and “Ira Hayes” began a decade before the meeting with Nixon. On the night of May 10, 1962, Cash made a much-anticipated New York debut at Carnegie Hall. But instead of impressing the cognoscenti, Cash, who had begun struggling with drug addiction, bombed. His voice was hoarse and hard to hear, and he left the stage in what he described as a “deep depression.” Afterward, he consoled himself by heading downtown with a folksinger friend to hear some music at Greenwich Village’s Gaslight Café.
Onstage was protest balladeer Peter La Farge, performing “The Ballad of Ira Hayes.” A former rodeo cowboy, playwright, actor and Navy intelligence operative, La Farge was also the son of longtime Native activist and novelist Oliver La Farge, who had won a Pulitzer Prize for his 1930 Navajo love story, “Laughing Boy.” The younger La Farge had carved out an intriguing niche in the New York folk revival scene by devoting himself to a single issue. “Pete was doing something special and important,” recalls folksinger Pete Seeger. “His heart was so devoted to the Native American cause at a time that no one was really saying anything about it. I think he went deeper than anyone before or since.”
Cash never pretended that music could stay immune from social, but he tried his best to “not mix in politics.” Instead he talked about the things that unite us like the dignity of honest work. “If you were a baker,” he told writer Christopher Wren in 1970, “and you baked a loaf of bread and it fed somebody, then your life has been worthwhile. And if you were a weaver, and you wove some cloth and your cloth kept somebody warm, your life has been worthwhile.”
Raised in rural poverty on the margins of America, Cash empathized with outsiders like convicts, the poor and Native Americans. But his identification with Indians was especially deep — even delusional. During the depths of his early ’60s drug abuse, he convinced himself, and told others, that he was Native American himself, with both Cherokee and Mohawk blood. (He would later recant this claim.)
At the Gaslight, once he had listened to “Ira Hayes’ and La Farge’s other Indian protest tunes, including “As Long as the Grass Shall Grow” and “Custer,” Cash was hooked. “Johnny wanted more than the hillbilly jangle,” Peter La Farge would write later about meeting Cash at the Gaslight. “He was hungry for the depth and truth heard only in the folk field (at least until Johnny came along). The secret is simple, Johnny has the heart of a folksinger in the purest sense.” In fact, Cash had written an Indian folk protest ballad of his own in 1957. “I wrote ‘Old Apache Squaw,’” Cash later explained to Seeger. “Then I forgot the so-called protest song for a while. No one else seemed to speak up for the Indian with any volume or voice [until Peter La Farge].”
Cash, like many in the 1960s, could see that everything that was certain, rigid and hard was breaking apart. Social movements were blossoming. But the thunderous American choir that was singing “We Shall Overcome” and “We Shall All Be Free” drowned out the cry of the loose-knit Native movement. As Martin Luther King and other leaders steered their people toward legislative victories that would further integrate them into a society they were locked out of, the rising tide of Native youth activists wanted something different.
“In my mind, Native people could not have a civil rights movement,” American Indian Movement activist and musician John Trudell says. “The civil rights issue was between the blacks and the whites and I never viewed it as a civil rights issue for us. They’ve been trying to trick us into accepting civil rights but America has a legal responsibility to fulfill those treaty law agreements. If you’re looking at civil rights, you’re basically saying ‘all right treat us like the way you treat the rest of your citizens’. I don’t look at that as a climb up.” Rather than pursue assimilation into the American system, Native American activists wanted to maintain their slipping grip on sovereignty and the little land they still possessed.
By the early ’60s, the burgeoning National Indian Youth Council (NIYC) was attempting to stake its own claim for their equal share of justice. With the expansion of fishing treaty violations and the breach of two major land treaties that led to the loss of thousands of acres of tribal land in upstate New York for the Tuscarora and Allegany Seneca (the story behind La Farge’s “As Long as the Grass Shall Grow”), the NIYC, led by Native activists like Hank Adams, responded by adapting the sit-in protest. Rechristened as the “fish-in,” the NIYC disputed the denial of treaty rights by fishing in defiance of state law. Fish-ins were held in New York and the Pacific Northwest.
The fish-in tactic worked in helping build some public support, but it did little to stop the treaty violations. Instead, the U.S. government ramped up its efforts to crush any momentum the Native movement was building. Oftentimes their tactics were brutal and violent. “This was the time of Selma and there was a lot of unrest in the nation,” remembers Bill Frank Jr. of Washington state’s Nisqually tribe. “Congress had funded some big law enforcement programs and they got all kinds of training and riot gear-shields, helmets. And they got fancy new boats. These guys had a budget. This was a war.”
By 1964, the Native American cause had attracted the interest of another celebrity. On March 2 the NIYC gained national attention as actor Marlon Brando joined a Washington state fish-in. Already an outspoken supporter of the civil rights movement, Brando’s very public support and subsequent arrest for catching salmon “illegally” in Puyallup River helped to boost the Native movement. Brando’s involvement with the Native cause had begun when he contacted D’Arcy McNickle after reading the Flathead Indian’s book “The Surrounded,” a powerful novel depicting reservation life in 1936. Brando’s involvement in Native issues led to government surveillance that lasted decades. His FBI file, bursting with memos detailing possible means of silencing the actor, quickly grew to more than 100 pages.
Three days after Brando’s arrest in Washington, Cash, fresh off the biggest chart success of his career, the single “Ring of Fire,” and having just finished recording a very commercial album called “I Walk the Line,” began recording another, very different album. When Cash left Sun Studios for Columbia in the late 1950s, he believed his rising star would give him the creative capital to produce and record something a little outside the pop and country mainstream — albums of folk music and live prison concerts. He was alternating folky albums like “Blood Sweat and Tears,” a celebration of the working man, with commercial discs laden with radio-ready singles. “Ring of Fire,” which had reached No. 1 on the country charts and had crossed over to pop, had bought him the permission of Columbia to make an album of what he called “Indian protest songs.”
In the two years since Cash had first met La Farge and listened to “The Ballad of Ira Hayes,” Cash had educated himself about Native American issues. “John had really researched a lot of the history,” Cash’s longtime emcee Johnny Western recalled. “It started with Ira Hayes.”
As Cash explained, “I dove into primary and secondary sources, immersing myself in the tragic stories of the Cherokee and the Apache, among others, until I was almost as raw as Peter. By the time I actually recorded the album I carried a heavy load of sadness and outrage.”
But Cash felt a special kinship with Ira Hayes. Both men had served in the military as a way to escape their lives of rural poverty longing to create new opportunities. Plus, both suffered from addiction problems; Cash and his pills and Hayes with alcohol. He decided to anchor the album with “The Ballad of Ira Hayes.” And since the song had provided the spark for Cash’s vision, it just felt right that he should learn more about the song’s subject.
Cash contacted Ira Hayes’ mother and then visited her and her family at the Pima reservation in Arizona. Before Cash left the Pima Reservation, Hayes’ mother presented him with a gift, a smooth black translucent stone. The Pima call it an “Apache tear.” The legend behind the opaque volcanic black glass is rooted in the last U.S. cavalry attack on Native people, which took place on Apaches in the state of Arizona. After the slaughter, the soldiers refused to allow the Apache women to put the dead up on stilts, a sacred Apache tradition. Legend says that overcome by intense grief, Apache women shed tears for the first time ever, and the tears that fell to the earth turned black. Cash, moved by the gift, polished the stone and mounted it on a gold chain.
With the Apache tear draped around his neck, Cash cut his protest album. He recorded five of La Farge’s songs, two of his own, and one he’d co-written with Johnny Horton. All were Native American themed. “When we went back into the studio to record what became ‘Bitter Tears,’” Cash bassist Marshall Grant says, “we could see that John really had a special feeling for this record and these songs.”
Yet the album’s first single, “Ira Hayes,” went nowhere. Few radio stations would play the song. Was the length of the song, four minutes and seven seconds, the problem? Radio stations liked three-minute tracks. Or maybe disc jockeys wanted Cash to “entertain, not educate,” as one Columbia exec put it.
“I know that a lot of people into Johnny Cash weren’t into ‘Bitter Tears,’ ” explains Dick Weissman, a folksinger, ex-member of the Journeymen and friend of La Farge. “They wanted a ‘Ballad of Teenage Queen’ not ‘The Ballad of Ira Hayes.’ They wanted ‘Folsom Prison.’ They didn’t want songs about how American’s mistreated Indians.”
The stations wouldn’t play the song and Columbia Records refused to promote it. According to John Hammond, the legendary producer and Cash champion who worked at Columbia, executives at the label just didn’t think it had commercial potential. Billboard, the music industry trade magazine, wouldn’t review it, even though Cash was at the height of his fame, and had just scored another No. 1 country single with “Understand Your Man” and No. 1 country album with “I Walk the Line.”
One editor of a country music magazine demanded that Cash resign from the Country Music Association because “you and your crowd are just too intelligent to associate with plain country folks, country artists and country DJs.” Johnny Western, a DJ, singer and actor who for many years was part of Cash’s road show, recalls a conversation with “a very popular and powerful DJ.” According to Western, the DJ was “connected to many of the music associations and other influential recording industry groups. He had always been incredibly supportive of John.” Western and the DJ started discussing Cash’s new album and the “Ira Hayes” single. “He asked me why John did this record. I told him that John and all of us had a great feeling for the American Indian cause. He responded that he felt that the music, in his mind, was un-American and that he would never play the record on air and had strongly advised other DJs and radio stations to do the same. Just ignore it until John came back to his senses, is what he told me.”
“When John was attacked for ‘Ira Hayes’ and then ‘Bitter Tears,’” explains Marshall Grant, “it just ripped him apart. Hayes was forced to drink by the abuse and treatment of white people who used and abandoned him. To us, it meant Hayes was being tortured and that’s the story we told and it’s true.”
When “Bitter Tears” and its single did not get the attention he felt they deserved, Cash insisted on having the last word. He composed a letter to the entire record industry and placed it in Billboard as a full-page ad on Aug. 22, 1964.
“D.J.’s — station managers — owners, etc.,” demanded Cash, “Where are your guts?” He referred to his own supposed half Cherokee and Mohawk heritage and spoke of the record as unvarnished truth. “These lyrics take us back to the truth … you’re right! Teenage girls and Beatle record buyers don’t want to hear this sad story of Ira Hayes … This song is not of an unsung hero.” Cash slammed the record industry for its cowardice, “Regardless of the trade charts — the categorizing, classifying and restrictions of air play, this not a country song, not as it is being sold. It is a fine reason though for the gutless [Cash's emphasis] to give it a thumbs down.”
Cash demanded that the industry explain its resistance to his single. “I had to fight back when I realized that so many stations are afraid of Ira Hayes. Just one question: WHY???” And then Cash answered for them. “‘Ira Hayes’ is strong medicine … So is Rochester, Harlem, Birmingham and Vietnam.”
As Cash later explained, “I talked about them wanting to wallow in meaninglessness and their lack of vision for our music. Predictably enough, it got me off the air in more places than it got me on.” In reality, however, as Cash noted in his letter, “Ira Hayes” was already outselling many country hits. Ultimately, thanks in part to aggressive promotion by Cash, who personally promoted the song to disc jockeys he knew, “Ira Hayes” reached No. 3 on the country singles charts, and “Bitter Tears” peaked at 2 on the album charts.
Later, long after “Bitter Tears,” and after he’d won his battle with drugs, Cash would dial back his claims of Indian ancestry. But he never wavered from his support for the Native cause. He went on to perform benefit shows on reservations — including the Sioux reservation at Wounded Knee in 1968, five years before the armed standoff there between the FBI and the American Indian Movement — to help raise money for schools, hospitals and other critical resources denied by the government. In 1980, Cash told a reporter: “We went to Wounded Knee before Wounded Knee II [the 1973 standoff] to do a show to raise money to build a school on the Rosebud Indian Reservation” and do a movie for “Public Broadcasting System called ‘Trail of Tears.’” He joined with fellow musicians Kris Kristofferson, Willie Nelson and Robbie Robertson to call for the release of jailed AIM leader Leonard Peltier.
Since Cash first recorded “The Ballad of Ira Hayes” in 1964, many musicians have recorded their own versions. Kris Kristofferson is one of those musicians. He summed up the spirit behind Cash’s now nearly forgotten protest album in his eulogy for Cash, who died in 2003. Cash, he said, was a “holy terror … a dark and dangerous force of nature that also stood for mercy and justice for his fellow human beings.” Four years before his famous concert at Folsom Prison, four years before the American Indian Movement formed, and at the pinnacle of his commercial success, Cash insisted on producing an uncommercial, deeply personal protest record that was a close as he could come to truth. He would always cherish it. “I’m still particularly proud of ‘Bitter Tears,’” Cash would say near the end of his life, while talking about the topical music he recorded in the 1960s. “Apart from the Vietnam War being over, I don’t see much reason to change my position today. The old are still neglected, the poor are still poor, the young are still dying before their time, and we’re not making any moves to make things right. There’s still plenty of darkness to carry off.”
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Antonino D’Ambrosio is the author of “A Heartbeat and a Guitar: Johnny Cash and the Making of Bitter Tears.”
Pete Seeger Carries Us On May 6, 2009Posted by rogerhollander in Art, Literature and Culture, Peace.
Tags: amy goodman, bruce springsteen, civil rights activist, denis moynihan, environmental activist, folk music, folk singer, huac, hudson river recovery, ku klux klan, labor movement music, paul robeson, peace activist, peekskil concert, pete seeger nobel peace, pete seger, protest music, roger hollander, smothers brothers, woodie guthrie
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Published on Wednesday, May 6, 2009 by TruthDig.com
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.
Miriam Makeba lives January 28, 2009Posted by rogerhollander in Africa, Art, Literature and Culture.
Tags: Africa, african music, anti-apartheid, azania, Biko, black liberation, freedom music, Hugh Masekela, Lumumba Akinwole-Bandele, mama africa, mandela, miriam makeba, protest music, roger hollander, Sekou Odinga, Sizulu, South Africa, Tambo, xosa
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|Written by Lumumba Akinwole-Bandele|
|This morning I awoke to the news of the tragic death of Mama Africa Mama Miriam Makeba. To many Africans in the Diaspora, Miriam Makeba was the voice of South Africa. Having accomplished so much as a vocalist, she went further to be the ambassador of the people of South Africa to the world. She helped bring vivid details of the beauty of the South Africa and its people and at the same time present the horrors of apartheid.
Working and living in the Black liberation movement, I along with many others participated in the anti-apartheid movement. I spent many years on marches, rallies, boycotts, and other activities. The Music of Miriam Makeba and her ex-husband Hugh Masekela will forever be the soundtrack of that struggle. This music was our news reports on the lives taken as well as the victories won in the anti-apartheid struggle. Their music made the names Mandela, Sizulu, Biko, Tambo, etc come to life for those of us across the waters. The theaters that she performed in became transformed to meetings for people to share and update each other on the movement to free South Africa.
Culture has always been central to the lives of African people. The marriage of culture and movement were clearly essential and effective in the struggle to end apartheid. Mama Africa’s role in creating this environment must never be forgotten. The boycotts were effective because the word got out. The calls for the release of Mandela were effective because the word got out; one of the carriers of the word was Mama Africa. She managed to spread the word with clarity and power without preaching.
Her voice, grace, beauty, vision, strength and commitment will live on. I feel honored to have been moved by the life of Miriam Makeba and thank the creator for allowing her to share her talent and vision with us. We have much to learn from her life. As many African traditions teach us, her spirit is now stronger than ever. Lets Celebrate Mama Africa.
In the words of freedom fighter Sekou Odinga “If you are a poet make revolutionary poetry, if you are an artist, create revolutionary art!”
Long Live the struggle for a truly free and Independent Azania
“This Land Is Your Land” Like Woody Wrote It January 21, 2009Posted by rogerhollander in Art, Literature and Culture.
Tags: bruce springsteen, depression, dust bowl, folk music, New Deal, pete seeger, protest music, roger hollander, song lyrics, this land is your land, woodie guthrie
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Pete Seeger and Bruce Springsteen, performing at Sunday’s concert at the Lincoln Memorial. (Photo: Mandel Ngan / AFP / Getty Images)
18 January 2009by: Tommy Stevenson, Tuscaloosa News
www.truthout.org Bee Branch – At the conclusion of today’s concert for president-elect Barack Obama 89-year-old Pete Seeger joined Bruce Springsteen for a sing-along with perhaps half a million people of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land,” which I dare say practically everyone in the country knows from childhood.
There was a big high wall there that tried to stop me;
Sign was painted, it said private property;
But on the back side it didn’t say nothing;
That side was made for you and me.
In the shadow of the steeple I saw my people,
By the relief office I seen my people;
As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking
Is this land made for you and me?
Nobody living can ever stop me,
As I go walking that freedom highway;
Nobody living can ever make me turn back
This land was made for you and me.
The “relief office,” of course, refers to the ad hoc soup bowls and such set up during the Depression before the New Deal began to get the social security net we have all depended upon since the 1930s in place.
Seeger, like Guthrie, has been a controversial figure at times during his life, questioned by the witch hunting committees of Congress in the 1950s, black listed, and even banded from television as late as the late 1960s.
But while he hasn’t got much of a voice left anymore and did not attempt to play his banjo today, it was wonderful to see the gleam in his subversive eye as he did his call and response with the throngs in front of the Lincoln Memorial.
Somewhere Woody – and Leadbelly, and Sonny and Cisco and the rest of the great balladeers of that bygone era – are smiling tonight.
Words and Music by Woody Guthrie
This Land Is Your Land
This land is your land, this land is my land
From California, to the New York Island
From the redwood forest, to the gulf stream waters
This land was made for you and me
As I was walking a ribbon of highway
I saw above me an endless skyway
I saw below me a golden valley
This land was made for you and me
I’ve roamed and rambled and I’ve followed my footsteps
To the sparkling sands of her diamond deserts
And all around me a voice was sounding
This land was made for you and me
The sun comes shining as I was strolling
The wheat fields waving and the dust clouds rolling
The fog was lifting a voice come chanting
This land was made for you and me
As I was walkin’ – I saw a sign there
And that sign said – no tress passin’
But on the other side …. it didn’t say nothin!
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 grumblin’ and some are wonderin’
If this land’s still made for you and me.