Never Turning Back: Music, social justice and the legacy of Pete Seeger

A standing ovation for Pete Seeger at Clearwater 2013, the last time he performed on the main stage. Photo: Econosmith.com
A standing ovation for Pete Seeger at Clearwater 2013, the last time he performed on the main stage. Photo: Econosmith.com

By Joe Jencks

Toshi and Pete Seeger at Clearwater Festival 2009. Photo courtesy of Clearwater
Toshi and Pete Seeger at Clearwater Festival 2009. Photo courtesy of Clearwater

When I was nine, my sister bought me a two-record set of Pete Seeger and Arlo Guthrie live at Carnegie Hall. On that record was a song that has defined the last 30 years of my life: Woody Guthrie’s “Deportee.” I was mesmerized by Guthrie’s rich imagery and haunting story of immigrant workers killed in a tragic plane crash in 1948. Even my young mind grasped the social indictment so plaintively expressed in that folk classic. At the time, I did not know that I too would one day sing at Carnegie Hall, or perform with Pete Seeger at a protest. But I wanted to know the answer to the question Guthrie asked: “Who are these friends, all scattered like dry leaves? The radio says, ‘They are just deportees.’”

Breaking down the walls of indifference, seeing each person I meet as fully human—this has become my life’s work through music, work rooted in the music of the many who came before me, including Stephen Foster, Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Phil Ochs, Holly Near and so many more. In the wake of the passing of Seeger—a man who was a mentor and a friend—it is time once again to consider both the power of song to effect social change and the musicians who remain on the front lines of this great tradition.

Famed historian Howard Zinn, in A People’s History of The United States, argued that history books catalogue the stories of kings and conquerors and captains of industry—but songs can preserve the history of the people. According to Zinn, songs are the people’s history. Since the United States’ inception, music has been an integral part of our social discourse, from anti-English songs during the Revolutionary war to ballads of the mine and mill to songs about slavery and child labor. Our songs are an indelible part of our history and heritage.

In 1854, Stephen Foster penned the haunting “Hard Times Come Again No More,” addressing our nation’s issues with poverty. In the 1880s, countless labor songs emerged as a result of the brutal conditions in the new industrial factories. In the 20th century, music took on an even bigger role as a voice for the people, and transcended individual communities with the advent of radio. The rallying cry of the women’s suffrage movement, “Bread and Roses,” was heard around the country. During the Great Depression, “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” became the song of many hard-working Americans. Billie Holiday’s 1939 recording of “Strange Fruit,” represents one of the first times that a critique of racism entered pop culture through music. In the ’60s, Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth” and the Animal’s “We Gotta Get Out of This Place” became generational anthems, lending voice to the anti-Vietnam war movement.

How do songs like these actually bring change? According to singer, songwriter and activist Pat Humphries, “Justice-oriented music connects our collective intellect to our communal body, to our essential sense of humanity. In short, progressive music helps connect our heads to our hearts.”

Last September, after 65 years, one of those great connections between head and heart was finally made, as Woody Guthrie’s lyrics to “Deportee” finally helped lead to a proper memorial for the people died in that plane crash in Los Gatos Canyon, California so long ago. “Now their names have been placed on a headstone,” said Joel Rafael, a musician and Guthrie expert who’s released three albums of Guthrie interpretations. “Author Tim Z. Hernandez and songwriter Lance Canales started a movement to find the victims’ names and place them on the mass grave at the crash site. For years, people in the area knew about the mass grave, but when they realized that the nameless people in those graves were the ones in Woody’s song, they said, ‘We’ve got to do something about this.’”

Graham Nash reinforces the importance of music as a tool for change. “One of the things we mustn’t forget is that music has a great power to influence hearts and minds and to actually influence history. Woody Guthrie knew that; Pete Seeger certainly knew that; and Rev. King knew that. As musicians, we’re always trying to be alert to what the universe puts in front of us.”

Folk veteran John Gorka understands that the musician’s duty is to be alert to the world around them and to present its injustices in a way that effects change. “You’re more likely to effect change if you show people how to look at a topic in a way they hadn’t thought of before,” Gorka said.

Ani DiFranco at the March for Women's Lives, 2004.  Photo by Susan Alzner
Ani DiFranco at the March for Women’s Lives, 2004. Photo by Susan Alzner

This duty of the musician is, according to longtime folk singer and educator Reggie Harris, not an eternal constant of the American experience, but an innate element of human existence. Harris, who’s performed with the likes of Seeger and Tom Paxton and at venues like the Kennedy Center and the Smithsonian Institute, contends that music speaks to us instinctually. “We’re hard-wired as human beings for story and for song,” he said. “Music changes the air. Singing together synchronizes breathing in such a way that it creates community. And I think it’s the creating of community that is the basis for social change. We begin to see each other in different ways. The Civil Rights movement would never have continued without music. The songs made change possible.”

One of the most important musicians to use music for creating community and social change was Pete Seeger. “When my grandfather was first popular, nothing commercial was ever really about what was going on in the world. “He was one of the first popular musicians to say, ‘There’s all this stuff going on,’ and to intentionally bring that to the national stage,” said Kitama Cahill-Jackson, Seeger’s grandson and the organizer of Seeger Fest. In celebration of the legacy of Seeger and his wife, Toshi, the free festival, encompassing film, dance and music by Harris, Steve Earle, Dar Williams, Emma’s Revolution and others, will take place in New York City and the Hudson River Valley, where Seeger made his home and based an organization, Clearwater, to help clean the Hudson River.

Kim and Reggie Harris performing during their residency at The Swannanoa Gathering at Warren Wilson College, 2012. Photo by R.L. Geyer
Kim and Reggie Harris performing during their residency at The Swannanoa Gathering at Warren Wilson College, 2012. Photo by R.L. Geyer

Today, Clearwater continues to grow, initiating countless environmental campaigns and educational programs, as well as an annual music festival each June, the proceeds from which help fund the organization’s efforts. At this year’s festival, director Steve Lurie made sure to carry on Seeger’s mission. “I ask myself if Pete and Toshi would recognize this festival as a Clearwater Revival?” Lurie said. “Would they be proud of this festival? Is this festival diverse? Do we have, as Pete used to say, ‘a rainbow-colored race’ on our stages? We try to have a dynamic offering that honors the history of the organization and the festival.”

Ani DiFranco, who herself has lent her name, her music and countless hours of her time to countless causes—from supporting the Burmese resistance to founding the “Vote, Dammit” campaign to increase poll turnout—knows firsthand just how much Seeger sought to include new faces. “When I showed up on the scene, people like Pete, Utah Phillips, Tom Paxton and Peter Yarrow were extremely welcoming. They saw through my shaved head and my army boots and my pierced teenage followers, and they saw themselves. I remember the first time I played Clearwater, Pete hugged me and he was like, ‘You! We’ve been waiting for you!’”

Seeger truly was waiting for every young musician that came into his life, myself included. On the tenth anniversary of my father’s death, he sat alone with me for two hours at a People’s Music Network gathering. We talked at length of music, activism and family. It was a hard day, but Seeger invited me to grieve, laugh, remember and sing. I will be forever grateful for those hours.

Seeger long provided inspiration to Manhattan-based artist/activist Aurora Barnes, who will be performing at Seeger Fest. “I came up on Nina Simone, Bob Dylan and Pete Seeger,” Barnes said. “There was never a question in my mind that music and social justice go hand in hand. My father and my mother met on a picket line!” Barnes founded Girls Talk/Guys Talk, which creates workshops and activities where young people communicate about issues in ways not often facilitated in school or at home. “We talk about the things that may affect them, from the representation of women and people of color in the media, to how we feel about ourselves and how we treat other people.” It’s important to remember that music for change isn’t just about what happens on stage or on a picket line. It’s about what happens in the classroom, on the street, in church, at work and in our homes.

Lucy Kaplansky, David Amram, Raffi and Pete Seeger on the Hudson River Sloop Clearwater. Photo: Econosmith.com
Lucy Kaplansky, David Amram, Raffi and Pete Seeger on the Hudson River Sloop Clearwater. Photo: Econosmith.com

Indigo Girl Emily Saliers likewise believes that music is an especially important agent of social change. “Both Amy [Ray, her Indigo Girls partner] and I were raised to believe that we were citizens of our communities and ultimately of the world, and that it was important to be an active member of your community.” Saliers and Ray have used their voices and their music to speak out on Native American’s rights, LGBTQ issues and, most recently, for the movement to abolish the death penalty, launching a successful charity T-shirt sale to benefit that cause. According to Saliers, “Something transcendent happens when people come together and music is part of the tool for change.”

Like Saliers, Texas-based songwriter Eliza Gilkyson has never been afraid to speak out and use music to effect change. In addition to supporting conservation causes and the Workers Defense Project, Gilkyson co-founded 5604 Manor, an Austin community center that supports a wide range of causes, in 2010 “Art can help us travel together to a place where we’re all opened up enough to consider that our belief systems are keeping global change from coming,” Gilkyson said. But she too cautions that while art can make a huge difference in the world, it is important for artists to not make themselves the center of the work; the art needs to speak for itself.

UK-based activist and Americana rocker Billy Bragg, would likely agree. Bragg has used his music for a multitude of causes, most notably speaking out for workers’ rights, even joining countless picket lines and strikes. Bragg also founded Jail Guitar Doors, an initiative to get musical instruments into prisons, as part of rehabilitation efforts. Bragg believes that “the most powerful art has the ability to change the perspective of those who engage with it, but ultimately the responsibility for changing the world must lie with the audience, not the performer.” Bragg invites all of us to consider what we are doing in our own neighborhoods and communities, and to work for positive change.

Unfortunately, an audience isn’t always ready to hear the message, a fact that all of these artists understand, and which Seeger experienced firsthand. Veteran composer David Amram knew Seeger for 65 years, collaborating with him often. Amram recalled a particularly intense example of the people rejecting the message. “A few months before he died, Pete and I were driving past the spot where he and Paul Robeson were nearly stoned to death after their concert.” In 1949, white supremacists and anti-Communists attacked a concert near Peekskill, NY, swinging baseball bats and throwing stones through vehicle windows. Robeson and Seeger barely escaped with their lives. Seeger described the incident as a wakeup call for America to see that part of ourselves and know that’s not who we are. “I thought that was pretty remarkable that he could think that way,” Amram said.

Six years later, Seeger’s inspiring 1955 testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee forever changed the course of his life, and the course of music for social change. He refused to answer questions that might incriminate friends and colleagues, and when asked by the committee if he was pleading the Fifth Amendment, he said, no, he was pleading the First Amendment! By his reckoning, he was not being harassed for having committed a crime; he was being interrogated for exercising his freedom of speech.

Because he didn’t cooperate, Seeger was blacklisted and forced from the concert stage. But never to be silenced, he began performing in churches, schools and at summer camps. His banishment from the mainstream forced him to become one of the first “indie” musicians, and it was all DIY for him and Toshi after that. While in exile from the mainstream, Seeger and Toshi helped nurture a generation of politically aware artists, activist and citizens—from Ani DiFranco to Aurora Barnes to Pat Humphries and beyond—who themselves went on to sing songs, make art, create organizations, produce concerts and coordinate demonstrations. The music that was driven underground for its political content became a hydra, sprouting more heads than could be easily silenced.

A few years ago, Seeger recalled the HUAC testimony with Amram: “They did what they believed was right. And I did what I believed was right. And I’m proud that I did.” Over a lifetime, Seeger and Toshi brought people together despite differences in race, creed, class and cultures. They helped clean up the Hudson River and created a model that spawned other environmental organizations. They were mentors to many, and friends to more. And they always made a space for the music, the great transformative song in which we all breathe and sing, together.

Joe Jencks is an award-winning songwriter, musician, essayist and activist. He tours internationally full-time and is co-founder of the harmony trio, Brother Sun.

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  1. […] In January of 2014, the world lost a legend, a man who transformed American folk music while demanding social justice and environmental awareness: Pete Seeger. Six months later, scores of artists gathered to pay tribute to Seeger and his wife, Toshi (who passed in July 2013) – Judy Collins, Peter Yarrow, Holly Near, Harry Belafonte, Paul Winter Consort, Martha Redbone, Dar Williams, Dan Zanes, Guy Davis, Tom Chapin, the Chapin Sisters, David Amram, Tiokasin Ghosthorse, Sarah Lee Guthrie, Johnny Irion, Roland Mousaa and many more.  See them in action below (and read more on Pete Seeger in Elmore’s recent feature here). […]