Talkin peace and justice with Pete Seeger

The latest chapter in Pete Seeger’s long and illustrious life is a petition drive by thousands of his fans to convince the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker group, to nominate the great U.S. folksinger for the 2008 Nobel Peace Prize. AFSC enjoys the privilege of nominating people for the prize because the group won it in 1947.

So far, more than 6,000 people have signed the petition first posted at www.petitionthem.com. It has since been picked up by several other web sites and the signatures continue to pour in.

San Francisco Bay Area folksinger Eleanor Walden, who initiated the petition, says she is seeking 8,888 signers in celebration of Seeger’s 88th birthday last month. She posted a message on her web site recently that AFSC has agreed to consider naming Seeger for the prize.



Admirers worldwide

Many petition signers add heartfelt comments. Ted Siminowski wrote, “Pete, I remember when you came to Friendship Day Camp in Los Angeles when I was 7 years old, and we gathered at your feet while you sang a song.”

Marjorie Gaba Shapiro wrote, “A deserving tribute to the man with the Golden Thread,” an allusion to one of Seeger’s beloved songs, “Oh, Had I a Golden Thread.”

Jonathan Klass of South Africa wrote, “Pete Seeger was the reason I refused to serve in the South African defense force during apartheid. He also got me playing and singing peace, myself, on a 12-string guitar and banjo over 40 years.”

Malachi McElroy praised Seeger as deserving the prize for having “defied the McCarthy witch-hunt by openly declaring himself a socialist.”

Michael Spector demanded, “If a war criminal like Henry Kissinger can receive the prize, why can’t this man of real peace?”

Dr. Andy R.A. Stevens called Seeger “a strong, clear voice of humanity in the hubbub of greed.” Mats Ohlin from Sweden e-mailed, “No other living artist has done so much to inspire people to work for a more peaceful world.”

Hartmut Massalski wrote simply in German, “Eine wundervolle idée!”



Pete’s nominee for the prize

The tall, banjo-picking folksinger chuckled when I asked him about the petition in a phone call to Beacon, N.Y., where he lives with his wife Toshi.

“All I did was sing some songs,” he said, “I get so much publicity. The mail comes in by the bushel. Poor Toshi, she’s chained to the desk just sorting through it all.”

Seeger acknowledges the importance of bestowing awards like the Nobel on painters, sculptors, musicians, poets, novelists and others from the world of the arts. Culture, he said, is a powerful force for world peace and justice.

Seeger suggested that Jaime Lerner, a city planner and former mayor of the Brazilian city of Curitiba, deserves the peace prize.

Lerner saw that thousands of residents of the slums in his city were hungry and also surrounded by trash. He launched a new program: in exchange for every bag of trash the residents collected, they received a free bag of food. He made Curitiba a showcase for both open park space and innovative mass transit.

Seeger visited Brazil in 1994. When the idea of his visiting was first discussed by his Brazilian hosts, one of them exclaimed, “You mean you want to get us all called communists?” But the invitation was extended and he visited Brazil and other countries in South America.

“Oh, what an exciting time it is in Latin America, getting out from under the thumb of Uncle Sam,” Seeger explained. “We have the struggle to close the School of the Americas,” he said, referring to the notorious facility at Fort Benning, Ga., where the U.S. teaches methods of torture to would-be Latin American dictators and their military henchmen.

“I think we’ll be studying Latin America over the coming years — the developments there are coming so quickly, so positive,” he said.



‘Keeping on’

Seeger’s voice is a bit hoarse from a lifetime of singing, yet he still keeps a quick pace. He also does a lot of reading of newspapers and periodicals, including the People’s Weekly World. He has been a reader of the PWW and its predecessors going back to the Daily Worker. His father, the eminent musicologist Charles Seeger, wrote a column for the Daily Worker under a pen name. And the late Woody Guthrie, one of Pete Seeger’s closest friends, wrote a column, “Woody Sez,” for the Worker.

“I don’t get a chance to read the PWW as closely as I’d like to,” Seeger said. “I read a wide array of periodicals. But nearly every edition of the PWW, I find an article that is well written and I learn from it. There was a story a few years ago about a French songwriter who wrote a Christmas carol. He was a socialist. I never would have known about that if I had not read it in the PWW.”

Seeger remained a subscriber to the Worker even during the depths of Cold War repression when he was hauled before the witch-hunt House Un-American Activities Committee to demand that he “name names.” He refused to testify, citing his First Amendment right of free speech. Accused of singing on behalf of subversive causes, Pete offered to sing some of his songs for the committee.



Engaging others

The petition hails Seeger’s genius in turning his audiences into choruses. One thinks of the Zulu song “Wimoweh,” which Seeger popularized back in the 1950s. Whether it was in Carnegie Hall or a small college auditorium, Seeger enlisted the crowd to sing with him.

Folk music is not a spectator sport. Getting everyone to sing was a big factor in Seeger’s success in promoting the sweeping folk music revival of the 1950s and ’60s.

I discovered how pervasive that movement was listening to an interview on National Public Radio’s “Fresh Air” hosted by Terrie Gross. Her guest was Neil Diamond, the popular crooner. “Who influenced you?” she asked. “Frank Sinatra? Nat King Cole?”

“Oh no,” Diamond replied. “Pete Seeger — the Weavers.” Diamond said he was like thousands of other starstruck teenagers in New York City lugging guitars and banjoes to Washington Square in Greenwich Village every weekend and trying to sing like Seeger and the Weavers, the folksinging quartet that Seeger belonged to.



Antiwar songs still reverberate

Pete Seeger is a genius on a par with Woody Guthrie and the great Huddie Ledbetter, better known as Leadbelly, in composing songs, both the lyrics and the tunes.

Take “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy” which Seeger wrote in 1967 as President Lyndon Johnson was escalating the Vietnam War. The sergeant of a platoon wading into a river says to his commanding officer, “Sir, with all this equipment, no man will be able to swim.” The captain replies, “Sergeant, don’t be a Nervous Nellie … All we need is a little determination. Men, follow me!” Then comes the refrain, “We were neck deep in the Big Muddy and the big fool said to push on … All at once, the moon clouded over, we heard a gurgling cry/A few seconds later, the captain’s helmet was all that floated by.”

Seeger planned to sing the song on CBS’s hit “Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour” in 1967. The television network barred the song, despite Seeger’s protests, because it was too clearly aimed at President Johnson’s futile troop surge in Vietnam. He did sing it on the show a year later. It was an instant hit with the growing antiwar movement.

The song is as timely today as it was 40 years ago, with President Bush ordering tens of thousands more troops into Iraq’s Big Muddy.

Think of other songs Seeger wrote or arranged that have made a profound, lasting impact on American culture: “The Hammer Song,” “Turn, Turn, Turn,” “Guantanamera,” “If You Miss Me at the Back of the Bus,” “Bells of Rhymney” or “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?”

That last song, such a plaintive call against the mayhem of war, is the title of a book by Pete Seeger, “Where Have All the Flowers Gone? A Singer’s Stories, Songs, Seeds, Robberies,” published by Sing Out Publications in 1993.

“I’m just now completing a revision of that book. I have three songs yet to go,” Seeger told me. It is an anthology of 203 songs written, arranged or sung by Pete over the years. It is illustrated with dozens of photographs, many drawn from the PWW’s photo archives.

Among my fondest memories of serving as editor of the PWW during the 1990s was Pete arriving, his banjo slung over his shoulder, to spend hours poring through our photos. Once he shook his head and said, “This is the best photo collection I have seen anywhere.” He offered a warm acknowledgement of our assistance in the book.

Pete Seeger should be the 2008 Nobel Laureate for Peace. It will not only be a long overdue tribute to Pete for his personal contributions, but also a recognition of all those millions of people he got to sing out with him for peace and justice.

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