Pete Seeger and Protest Songs: Explosive Art| Dr. William Nunes

Prof.(Dr.) William Nunes

The tune and the song ‘we shall overcome’ as well as its translation resonated time and again as one that  motivated  us  to  believe!  Little  did  I know  then  that  it  was  the  anthem  of  the  Civil  Rights movement  led by Martin Luther King Jr. Pete Seeger, a folk song artist – also an activist for the cause of humanity.  My introduction to the activist Seeger was through my students,  which happened  only recently  while   teaching Marxism and its cultural representation.  In all honesty,  this introduction opened up a new dimension to not only know Pete – the activist, but also how dominatingly music was used as an instrument of protest and as an instrument of dissent.

The 1930s and 1940s was an important era in the political and cultural history of America. The era was marked by large groups of citizens taking to political action in response  to their social and economic circumstances. The vision, attitudes, beliefs and purposes of such participation during the revolutionary  period is clearly reflected amongst singers,  writers and folk music  personalities,  and it provides  a fascinating understanding  of the movement  and how the voice of dissent reached the millions.

Pete Seeger, at age 17 (in 1936) joined the Young Communist  League (YCL), then at the height of its popularity and influence. In 1942 he became a member of the Communist  Party USA (CPUSA) itself. He eventually “drifted away” from the communist party  but  continued  to  compose  protest  music  not  only  in  support  of  human  labour  conditions,  but  also  in  support  of  international disarmament,  civil rights, counter culture and environmental  causes. A prolific  songwriter – his songs touched some of the most  important issues of both social and politic al life. His song critiqued the system of education, media,  policies and the ways government  action. His songs described the way of life though it is not attributed to the Rastafari movement.  Some of his songs like, ‘Where Have All the Flowers Gone?’,  ‘If I a Hammer (The Hammer Song)’,  ‘Turn! Turn! Turn!’, ‘What  Did You Learn In School Today?’,  ‘Eight- hours Day’, ‘Oh, I Had A Golden Thread’,  ‘Bring ‘Em Home’,  ‘Waist  Deep in the Big Muddy’,  ‘Dear Mr. President’  were songs that  not only captured  the issues  and problems of the day but questioned the system as well as the policies of an oppressive  establishment.  The inscription on his banjo, – “This Machine Surrounds Hate And Forces It To Surrender” carried his message loud and clear, to the millions around the globe and transcended all cultural boundaries.

American Folk Music and Communism:

In the formative years of the Soviet Union, the Bolsheviks  experimented with traditional songs as an agitprop.  During the Third Period of 1928- 34, Joseph Stalin barred any traditional sounding or non- ideological art. In the United States, this dictum encouraged the CPUS (at the peak of the Great  Depression) to form the Composers’ Collective and to write new music agitprops and party choruses to sing it. Ironically, the urban, bourgeois aesthetic  tastes of composers such as Charles Seeger and Elie Siegmeister guided this effort. Party labour organizers, however, brought stirring rural protest singers to the cities, and folklore gained in prestige during the Popular Front years of the late 1930s, when the CPUS joined other left- wing groups to warn against  fascism. Soviet  doc trine soon took a pro- folklore stance, the CPUS leader Earl Browder promoted communism as “twentieth- century Americanism,” and radical composers  such as Seeger anchored the resurgence of folk culture.

By 1940, young activist musicians such as Alan Lomax, Lee Hays, Agnes “Sis” Cunningham, and Charles Seeger’s son, Pete, were creating an urban folk singers’ subculture. That year, taking the rakish self- promoter Woody Guthrie as their model, some of them formed the Almanac Singers,  an organization  that  collected  folk tunes,  wrote  folk- style  material,  and  performed  it  at  CPUS  functions.  Despite  the  party’s confusion and despair during the era of the Nazi- Soviet pact (1939- 41), the Almanac Singers thrived. The group was succeeded in the mid-1940s and early 1950s by the music al clearinghouses People’s Songs, Inc . and People’s Artists.

Paradoxically, ideological purity increased at the same time when McCarthyite forces ensured that ‘the Old Left was almost completely cut off from the rest of American society’. The Weavers (featuring Pete Seeger) took another route, pursuing a commercial performing  career with a vaguely leftist message,  in the hope that their music al appeal (and the public ‘s goodwill)  would overcome ideological barriers.  The Weavers’ initial success ended in 1952 due to blacklisting and government  persecution, but a triumphant  1955 Carnegie Hall concert saw their comeback. In the late 1950s, the Cold War eased and the nationwide  folk ‘revival’ began. As the Old Left died and the New ‘Radical’ was born, the pre-eminence of rural ‘folk’ attitudes,  speech, and song would become unassailable- and American culture has not been the same since.

More  than a half- century  after he stood  firm before  the  House  Committee  on Un- American Activities,  Pete Seeger,  even at the age of 92, was lending  his voice and his name  to the Occupy Movement  and the cause of combating  unrestrained  capitalism just  as he had been marching and singing for the marginalised and the voiceless since the late 1930s. He lent hope to hopeless  causes, stood up for the downtrodden,  and wrote and sung iconic anthems  that got  to the essence of what  America was and could be if it would put  hate and greed  and violence aside.

Pete Seeger, who died on 27 January  2014, at the age of 94, was involved in most of America’s  labour,  peace  and  civil  rights  movements  essentially  from  the  time  he  walked dissatisfied  out of Harvard in 1938 and began traveling around the country, picking up tunes and meeting  embattled  farm and factory workers.  Seeger was an optimist,  unswerving  in humanity’s  capacity for ethical behaviour  and justice. Seeger had a profound impact on what we today know as protest singers and American expressionism, a credit Bob Dylan was solely attributed to after winning the Nobel Prize for literature in 2016.

Dylan and Seeger spent a considerable time together jamming and playing songs in black colonies down southern United States, Seeger almost acting as a mentor to Dylan and Dylan seeing him as a father figure. Dylan today is seen as ‘the’ protest singer of the 20th Century but his career and music reveals the great and heavy influence of Seeger and Guthrie. When Dylan went electric in March 1965, Pete Seeger expressed his disinterest in it, a response which was like a “dagger in the heart” and made “Dylan want to go out and get drunk” as Dylan was later quoted saying.

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Dylan didn’t win the Nobel Prize alone, he won it with the spirits and the massive contribution of all the protest singers of his time, his mentors and his contemporaries, who expressed what the whole of a country felt during times of great peril, who constantly reminded and who constantly still remind us what being human means.

From invoking equality for the poor and the coloured, protesting against the ‘American carnage’ in the various unnecessary wars, urging Americans and people of the world to introspect, to pause in the moment of great action and look at things as humans, to question the government not as pessimists but as dutiful citizens, to live righteously not through submission but through cooperation and above all, to be and act like a human being, protest singers like Pete Singer, Paul Robson, Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan were a great counter attack against everything evil, using art for its most pure reason- to better the society, to invoke emotions, to show the lost path and also the light at the end of the tunnel.

Now that Donald Trump has come to power in the United States with the world seeing a high rise in right wing nationalism and politically volatile relationships between people and countries, does it all seem useless? All their work, their words and their tunes?

No. Their words are forever embedded in history and the human consciousness because they have given us timeless lessons, lessons which need to revived during times of disasters- political, social or cultural. This is only the time for a new wave of protest singers, for the new Pete Seeger, the new Bob Dylan, the new Woody Guthrie. They protested in their times, they protested against their times, now it is on the 21st century generation to revive protest songs and reach the masses through their songs and words. Dylan winning the Nobel Prize for literature in the same year as Trump became the President is ironic yes, but maybe it’s a reminder for us of what songs were capable of back in the 20th century, what might be done and what must be done to counter the moral bankruptcy of people, to stir up our lost emotions, to revisit our history books and sing for solidarity and for peace.

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