Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Pete Seeger: Keep singing, keep making things better

When Pete Seeger (1919-2014) was born the First World had only just finished. I don't feel so much sad that he has died this week almost a century later as amazed that his life, singing and activism has spanned such a long period of historical hopes, tragedies, victories and defeats.

'this machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender'
image of Seeger from 'Carry it on"'
Pete Seeger's biggest direct influence on me was via a book rather than through his singing. 'Carry it On! A history in song and picture of the working men and women of America' was written by Seeger with Bob Reiser and first published in 1985. The book grew out of a 1982 call from Seeger, in the folk magazine 'Sing out' to 'commemorate the Haymarket Affair and celebrate working people and the growth of the unions'. 

The book provides a potted history of U.S. struggles from the late 18th century onwards, with some amazing illustrations and photographs. But what it mostly consists of is songs, with lyrics, chords and music. Work songs, wobbly songs, Woody Guthrie dustbowl ballads, civil rights songs, a couple of Seeger songs of course, and even a Dolly Parton number- '9 to 5' rightly being given it's dues as a great working class anthem. Along the way it makes an argument about the importance of song and music, not just as a soundtrack to social struggles, but as a source of inspiration at their heart.

The introduction by Seeger and Reiser, says it all:

'Beware! This is a book of history. With songs and pictures, we try to tell how the working people of this country - women and men; old and young; people of various skin shades, various religions, languages, and national backgrounds - have tried to better their own lives and work toward a world of peace, freedom, jobs and justice for all...

people have gone on marching in the streets, talking out, striking, singing and working together for a better life. Sometimes it seems that we have to keep fighting the same battles over and over. But every now and then the mist does rise and we can see how far we have come...

Each step forward came as a result of enormous work and courage, some bloodshed, and music like this which kept people's spirits alive... Keep singing. Keep making things better'.

Seeger and Reiser - image from back cover of  'Carry it on!'

When I first came to London in the late 1980s, I learnt guitar at a Lambeth evening class in a school in Stockwell, starting out on Lead Belly songs. But it was through Seeger and Reiser's book that I was initiated into the canon of US radical songs, teaching myself 'Deportee', 'Joe Hill', 'This Land is your Land' and many others.There's still plenty of us to keep on singing.

One of my favourite pictures from the book, or any book - an Industrial Workers of the World (IWW)  memorial event on May 1 1917 in Mount Pleasant Cemetery in Seattle for victims of the Everett Massacre

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