Pete Seeger was 85 this week and his friends from around the world have been emailing one another and checking in at various Internet sites, telling their favorite stories about him. They’re all true those stories, every one of them. Pete is every bit the precious human being people around the world say he is.
For nearly 20 years Pete couldn’t get work because he had refused to cooperate with a Congressional witch-hunting committee. In addition to insulting them by refusing to play their game he’d confused them by using as his justification the First rather than the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution. His idea was that the First Amendment protected speech in two directions: the bad guys couldn’t keep you from speaking and neither could they force you to speak if you didn’t want to. It was a brilliant idea and it drove them quite crazy. Along with playwright Arthur Miller and seven other people, Pete was cited for contempt by a House vote of 373 to 9. He was tried, convicted and sentenced to a year in prison in 1961. The case was later thrown out by US Court of Appeals.
Pete is constantly coming up with ideas, plots, plans and schemes, which is part of his genius. A few years ago we were walking between brick buildings on the University at Buffalo campus and he said, “Did you ever notice that there are an awful lot of walls?” I said I had. I thought he was going to say something about the prison-like character of modern universities, but it wasn’t that at all. He outlined a plan to have a mural competition for kids in the city. Let the winner have his or her mural on a huge wall like that one, or that one over there. “But you use paint that biodegrades in a year so the next year you do it all over again. Every year you do it all over again. A new competition. New kids. New murals.”
Nearly 40 years ago, in early winter 1966, Pete said to me, “There aren’t any films of those black convict worksongs you’ve been working on in Texas. Somebody should make one before it’s too late, before they’re gone.”
I told him that I didn’t know anything about making movies and nobody was going to give us any money to do it anyway. NEH and NEA had just been established and weren’t giving money to people making movies about folk music yet, let alone people like us_me, who nobody knew, and Pete, who was still persona non grata in Washington because of his politics. We couldn’t wait, Pete said. Those songs would not be around much longer and it was important to document them now. He said he would pay for the film himself.
So, in mid-March 1966, Pete, his wife Toshi, and his son Dan came with their film equipment to Huntsville, Texas, where I was doing research at at Ellis prison farm, then the place Texas put multiple recidivists serving long sentences. When I met them at the motel I saw Pete unloading from their rented station wagon his guitar and banjo cases.
“Why did you bring them?” I asked.
“They’re going to sing for me,” he said, “so I’ll sing for them.”
“You don’t have to do that,” I said.
“Yes I do,” he said.
We spent several days in the Ellis liveoaks with a group of convicts who sang treecutting and logging songs while they cut down trees and chopped them into pieces with axes, and then we went to a field where they sang flatweeding songs while they worked with hoes. Pete reminded me about him singing for the convicts.
I went to the warden and said, “He wants to do a concert for the convicts.”
“Why?” the warden said.
“That’s what he does,” I said.
“Okay,” the warden said.
The next night several hundred convicts marched into the Ellis prison gymnasium and sat in folding iron chairs. I was certain it would be a disaster. These guys didn’t know from folk music. These guys didn’t know from Pete’s kind of politics. These were very tough guys. These guys would eat Pete Seeger alive.
I didn’t know a damned thing about anything.
I don’t remember what song Pete opened with, but within five minutes he had just about every convict, white and black, in that huge room singing along. And the guards. And the warden. I stood at the side of the stage astonished. It was like a Saturday afternoon workshop at the Newport Folk Festival. The next night Pete gave another concert at the Wynne Farm, another prison at the edge of Huntsville, and exactly the same thing happened.
A day or two after we finished the filming and Pete, Toshi and Dan had gone back to New York, a convict I’d been seeing for several years but who had never talked to me stopped me in the Ellis corridor and said, “How come you never recorded me singing any of them river songs?” River songs is what they called them because nearly all the Texas prisons in those days were in the rich bottomland along the Brazos and Trinity rivers. They were 19th century plantations hiding in the 20th century.
“I never knew you knew any,” I said.
“Well I never knew you knew Pete Seeger,” he said.
When he said that line to me I was really tickled by it because I was certain that until Pete got up there in the gymnasium a few nights earlier he had never heard of Pete Seeger and his long-neck five-string banjo and 12-string guitar, and neither had most of the men incarcerated or working in that penitentiary. I told the story a lot of times over the years and always thought that when I told it: how amusing that that guy said that thing about Pete about whom he knew nothing before the concert in the gymnasium.
But now I have come to realize there is something far more important and substantial in what that man said to me in the Ellis corridor. He was perfectly serious and he was telling me what Pete Seeger had accomplished in Ellis prison. It was because he felt he was a friend of Pete Seeger, because he felt he knew Pete Seeger, and that was something we shared, so he and I weren’t as total strangers to one another after all.
How many musicians do you know who can do that? How many people do you know who can do that? Go into a perfectly strange place and perform music in a style hardly anybody in the room ever heard before and before the evening is over, they’re all your buddies? Singing songs about things that really matter and thinking about those things?
For me, that’s Pete’s great gift to us: his ability to join a group of people who might not only be strangers to him but to one another as well and to leave them, however many hours later, with some feeling, some knowledge, that transcends the moment entirely, a feeling and knowledge about the things that bond rather than the things that rend, about what it means to be human rather than what it means to be brutal, about how we must and can get on together by conspiring in the best and most basic sense of that word: breathing together.
The bad guys had cause to be afraid of Pete Seeger 50 years ago, when they wouldn’t let him work. They couldn’t hear his music then and they can’t hear it now. We’re waist deep in the Big Muddy and the big fools say to push on. When will they ever learn?
Pete was right then and he’s right now. Happy birthday to him, with thanks for everything.
BRUCE JACKSON, SUNY Distinguished Professor and Samuel P. Capen Professor of American Culture at University at Buffalo, edits the web journal BuffaloReport.com. He is the author of Wake Up Dead Man: Hard Labor and Southern Blues and “Get Your Ass in the Water and Swim Like Me”:Narrative Poetry from Black Oral Traditon. Jackson is also a contributor to The Politics of Anti-Semitism. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org