‘This Machine Surrounds Hate and Forces It to Surrender’

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Pete Seeger and the banjo

Pete Seeger with his banjo in 2004 (AP/Rebecca J. Rosen)

When I think of Pete Seeger, who passed away early this morning at the age of 94, in my mind he is never empty-handed. Always, always, always, he carried with him his banjo.

He was just 27 years old when folklorist Alan Lomax asked him about his odd choice of instrument in an interview.

“Hello there, Peter,” Lomax says.

“Howdy,” Seeger replies.

“Mighty nice music you’re making, Pete.”

“Oh, I’m just warming up.”

“What’s that funny looking guitar you’re playing?”

“Oh this isn’t a guitar. This is a banjo,” says Seeger.

“Well tell me: Is the banjo something new?”

“New? It’s about as new as America is.”

And age wasn’t all that the banjo and America have in common. The banjo is an instrument whose history reflects the nation’s: It was born in slavery, gained popularity on the minstrel stage, and, eventually, in Seeger’s hands, turned against its own past, becoming a “machine [that] surrounds hate and forces it to surrender”—at least, that was the proclamation written upon its head.

Seeger himself first fell in love with the banjo at age 16, when he attended a folk festival with his father in Asheville, North Carolina. At the time, the banjo was thought of as a “white” instrument, the province of poor Appalachian farmers. But, as Seeger explained in the interview above, the banjo hadn’t always been that way. “You see,” Seeger tell Lomax, “American negro slaves made the first real banjos, a couple hundred years ago, out of ol’ hollow gourds and ‘possum skins I guess.”

In fact, banjo historian Greg Adams told me, the banjo was first created by enslaved Africans in the Caribbean in the 17th century, a New World take on traditional West African instruments. The first North American reference to a banjo dates to 1736 in New York City, but most of the earliest references to American banjos come from the Chesapeake region. Generally speaking, Adams says, the banjo’s spread followed slavery’s.

It was in the 1830s and ’40s that white Americans started picking up banjos too, often in the context of racist minstrel shows, imitating slave life through the appropriation of slave instruments. The first white banjo performer, Adams explained, was Joel Walker Sweeney, a blackface minstrel performer, who was taught to play by African-Americans around Appomattox, Virginia, in the 1830s. It was through minstrelsy, Adams says, that “the banjo crossed over from vernacular traditions into American popular music and popular culture.”

From there, the banjo’s popularity continued to grow, flourishing both in a variety of genres at home—ragtime, vaudeville, early jazz, early country, bluegrass (led by the inimitable Earl Scruggs)—and abroad, particularly in minstrel performances.

It’s in the folk revival in the middle of the 20th century that Pete Seeger took the banjo and transformed it. “The banjo in the hands of Pete Seeger becomes this iconic representation of community and social justice and social awareness,” Adams says.

How did he do that? How did Seeger take an instrument—one with no inherent properties of justice, as evidenced by its history—and assign it a new cultural value?

There is no way to answer this but to observe the rarity of a force like Pete Seeger upon the Earth.

Sure, the banjo has a jaunty, inviting sound. Sure, it can be played in a variety of ways, making it suitable for a range of musical genres. But these qualities did not prevent it from being a prop of racist entertainment. They did not make it a symbol of community. They did not transform it into a “machine [that] surrounds hate and forces it to surrender.”

That was the work of man. One man, really.

Seeger’s banjo now resides at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, Ohio,where he donated it following an ill-fated attempt to sell it on eBay to raise money for Haitian earthquake relief. After watching bids climb to unimagined heights, Seeger canceled the auction. No machine to surround hate and force it to surrender should live in a private living room of a fancy home, after all.

Singer and liberal activist Pete Seeger dies at 94

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Singer and liberal activist Pete Seeger dies at 94

Legendary folk singer Pete Seeger passes away leaving impressive record of music and political activism. He also had an ambivalent if not contradictory stance on the issue of a boycott of Israel

He was variously hailed in social and traditional media as a hero, America’s conscience, and a man of the people. He also held an ambivalent if not down right contradictory position on the BDS movement, which works for a boycott of Israel.

Seeger died of natural causes at New York-Presbyterian Hospital, his record company, Appleseed Recordings, said.

Pete Seeger (Photo: Michael Hardgrove)
Pete Seeger (Photo: Michael Hardgrove)

Seeger was well known for his liberal politics, working as an environmentalist, protesting against wars from Vietnam to Iraq. He was sentenced to prison for refusing to testify to Congress about his time in the Communist Party.

In 2010, Seeger visited Israel for a concert in support of the co-existence oriented Arava Institute which works on joint Israeli-Jordanian-Palestinian environmental projects.

At the time, many pro-Palestinian organizations, including Adalah-NY, the New York Campaign for the Boycott of Israel, signed a petition calling on Seeger to withdraw from the Arava event, prompting Seeger to take a clear stand on the boycott movement.

“My stand is supporting the boycott of Israeli products. I don’t know much about the artistic boycott taking place, but I understand the financial boycott. I don’t think there will be a human race here in another 50 years unless the entire world finds a way to communicate – whether it’s with pictures or music or food or sports. Words may come later, but we have to find a way to (talk) in some way,” he said at the time.

When asked to clarify his position, Seeger told JTA that he “probably said” he supported the boycott, but added that he was still learning about the conflict and his “opinions waver with each piece of information” he received.

Regarding the Arava Institute event he said he though it was “very important,” and added that such co-existence initiatives “should exist all over the world,” JTA reported.

Some time before the Arava Institute event, JTA reported the Seeger claimed he was resisting calls from the BDS movement to cancel his participation in the event, citing the need for dialogue.

“I understand why someone would want to boycott a place financially, but I don’t understand why you would boycott dialogue,” JTA quoted Seeger as saying.

Celebrated career

In January 2009, Seeger performed at a concert marking Barack Obama’s presidential inauguration.

He then celebrated his 90th birthday in May of that year with a concert in New York’s Madison Square Garden that drew 15,000 spectators and performers, including Bruce Springsteen, John Mellencamp, Emmylou Harris, Arlo Guthrie, Joan Baez and Kris Kristofferson. Proceeds went an environmental group Seeger founded.

“Like a ripple that keeps going out from a pond, Mr. Seeger’s music will keep going out all over the world spreading the message of non-violence and peace and justice and equality for all,” Jim Musselman of Appleseed Recordings said in a statement.

Seeger and Woody Guthrie started the Almanac Singers in the early 1940s and in 1949 Seeger was a founding member of another key folk group, the Weavers. Those groups opened the way for Bob Dylan and another generation of folk music singer/songwriters in the 1960s and ’70s.

The Weavers had a No. 1 hit with a version of Leadbelly’s “Good Night, Irene” and by 1952 the group had sold more than 4 million records. The members soon drifted apart, however, after being blacklisted for links to the Communist Party.

Seeger and Lee Hays wrote “If I Had a Hammer” for the Weavers, along with the hit “So Long, It’s Been Good to Know You”.

Seeger also wrote the modern classic “Turn! Turn! Turn!” with lyrics from the Bible’s Ecclesiastes and “Where Have All the Flowers Gone” with Joe Hickerson. But he was modest about his songwriting.

“Hardly any of my songs have been written entirely by me,” he once said in an interview. “I swiped things here and there and wrote new verses” to old tunes.

Lost my heart to a banjo

Seeger, born on May 3, 1919 in Patterson, New York, was the son of two teachers at the famed Juilliard School of Music – his father an ethnomusicologist and his mother a violinist.

He became interested in folk music through his father, who directed family friend Aaron Copland to the music of West Virginia coal miners, resulting in the classical music works “Appalachian Spring” and “Fanfare for the Common Man.”

Another of his father’s friends was folk archivist Alan Lomax, who hired the younger Seeger to classify recordings at the Library of Congress in Washington.

A key moment in Seeger’s life was attending a mountain dance festival in North Carolina with his father.

“I lost my heart to the banjo,” he said later. “It was an exciting sound and there was a kind of honesty in country music that I didn’t find in pop music.”

In 1938, Seeger dropped out of Harvard University and took his banjo on the road. During his travels he met Guthrie at a benefit concert for California migrant farm workers.

Seeger’s career was derailed in 1951 when a book listed the Weavers as Communists. During the next year, the group’s record company dropped them and they were refused radio, television and concert appearances.

Seeger had been a Communist Party member but left about 1950. Still, he refused to answer questions from the US House of Representatives Un-American Activities Committee in 1955, was prosecuted and sentenced to a year in jail in 1961. The conviction was overturned on appeal but Seeger’s career did not begin to recover until the Smothers Brothers invited him to appear on their television show in 1967.

Seeger spent the next two decades performing on college campuses, at folk festivals and political rallies.

Despite his impact on American music, Seeger won just one Grammy for an album, 1997’s “Pete” in the best traditional folk album category. He also received a Lifetime Achievement Grammy in 1993.

In 2007 Springsteen won the best traditional folk Grammy for “We Shall Overcome – the Seeger Sessions,” a collection of songs popularized by Seeger.

He was a founder of Clearwater, a group to clean up the Hudson River, and wrote children’s books.

Seeger’s wife Toshi, who he married in 1941, died in 2013. They lived in upstate New York and had three children.

 

7 Big Lies Conservatives Want You To Believe About Martin Luther King, Jr.

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Martin Luther KingLibrary of Congress

When you look at American history from a straight progressive versus conservative viewpoint, ignoring the changes in party affiliation (which have been complicated, but I attempted to explain them here), there have not been too many universally agreed upon conservative victories. Primarily because conservatives are conservatives and want things to stay the same. And things have changed.

When women wanted the vote, obviously, the people not wanting that to change would have been considered conservative. Those who wanted to keep Jim Crow would have been conservatives. Many of those who would have been considered heroes to the conservatives at the time would seem super backwards to almost anyone today. No one is going around wearing a Joseph McCarthy t-shirt, and cool kids on campus are not sitting around reading “The Bell Curve.”

So it’s easy to understand why they want, so desperately, to either be able to make progressive heroes their own, or–if they are not popular enough– to do everything they can to desecrate their memory. They want Susan B. Anthony, they want Frederick Douglass, and they want Martin Luther King, Jr. Some even want Che Guevara. Why? Because they’re cool. And who doesn’t want to be cool?

Since they’re still fighting with what Margaret Sanger fought for, they’ll make up straight-up ridiculous lies about how she was a total racist who wanted to abort all the black babies. They make up lies about all these people. And they will repeat them, and repeat them and repeat them, until people just hear them so often they assume that they’re true.

The “Martin Luther King was definitely a conservative Republican” meme has been pushed so hard that people are actually surprised now when one explains that he was not, and that he was, in fact, truly reviled by not only conservatives but also people who considered themselves “moderates.” He was considered a radical. Ronald Reagan’s response to his assassination was to say that “he had it coming,” because he was a lawbreaker.

The problem, however, isn’t just that conservatives want to adopt MLK as one of their heroes, but the false things they attribute to him in order to validate him as one.

1) He was a conservative Republican!

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Do you know what “conservative” means, even? It means maintaining the status quo. It means you don’t want things to change, and you certainly do not want them to change radically. You want things to stay the way they are. Martin Luther King did not want things to stay the way they were and believed in fighting for radical change. Duh.

Also, if he was a conservative, then why was he quite clearly surrounded by leftists and progressives all the time? Just asking. Or do you think that Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton were “conservatives” then? Also, I would like to submit those two as glaringly obvious evidence that being a Christian does not make someone a conservative by default.

As for the Republican thing? First of all, Dr. King stated repeatedly that he was neither a Democrat nor a Republican. Which, actually, was a very common stance amongst leftists in those days, because–quite frankly–both parties were pretty terrible. However, he did say this in regards to the 1964 Republican convention:

The Republican Party geared its appeal and program to racism, reaction, and extremism. All people of goodwill viewed with alarm and concern the frenzied wedding at the Cow Palace of the KKK with the radical right. The “best man” at this ceremony was a senator whose voting record, philosophy, and program were anathema to all the hard-won achievements of the past decade.

Senator Goldwater had neither the concern nor the comprehension necessary to grapple with this problem of poverty in the fashion that the historical moment dictated. On the urgent issue of civil rights, Senator Goldwater represented a philosophy that was morally indefensible and socially suicidal. While not himself a racist, Mr. Goldwater articulated a philosophy which gave aid and comfort to the racist. His candidacy and philosophy would serve as an umbrella under which extremists of all stripes would stand. In the light of these facts and because of my love for America, I had no alternative but to urge every Negro and white person of goodwill to vote against Mr. Goldwater and to withdraw support from any Republican candidate that did not publicly disassociate himself from Senator Goldwater and his philosophy.

2) He was fiercely pro-life

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Ok, so MLK’s crazy niece Alveda is the one who first perpetuated this lie, but it’s total BS. As a conservative Republican herself, she’s spent several years desperately trying to appropriate her uncle’s legacy for the right– much to the chagrin of Coretta Scott King, mind you. Who will tell you in no uncertain terms that Dr. King was very definitely pro-choice.

Anyway, if you don’t want to believe the man’s wife when she tells you that King was pro-choice… uh, the fact that in 1966 he was the recipient of Planned Parenthood’s Margaret Sanger Award for his support of choice and family planning, might tell you something. He not only accepted this award, but he gave a wonderful speech about the importance of family planning in regards to economic justice.

3) He totally hated the gays

Wrong again, friends. Now, there isn’t that much information out there on this. Why? Because it wasn’t something people talked about back then. It just wasn’t. Of course, one can assume that if this was a particularly strong belief of his, that he probably would have delivered a few sermons on it here and there, as he was not exactly someone who was known to hold back his feelings on anything.

However, what we do know is that one of his closest associates, and the primary organizer behind the March on Washington, was Bayard Rustin– who was an out and proud gay man, who fought both for civil rights and for gay rights. We know that King considered Rustin a close friend, and that his orientation was not a problem for him. As strange as it seems now, that was pretty radical for the time in which they lived.

4) He was viciously opposed to Affirmative Action

NOOOOOOOOOOOO. God no. BIG NO.

This is one of the BIG ONES. Conservatives tend to take the one thing they know about Dr. King other than that he was a Christian– the part of the “I Have a Dream” speech that goes “I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character,” as evidence that he was opposed to Affirmative Action.

In reality? I’m pretty sure he would have supported it, given that it was pretty much his idea in the freaking first place.

Yeah. Really. King wrote a lot in support of similar programs in India to help those formerly in the “untouchables” caste, and America’s GI Bill, about how there should be a similar program here to help black people in terms of employment and access.  He stated that there needed to be ”a massive program by the government of special, compensatory measures which could be regarded as a settlement in accordance with the accepted practice of common law.” Given that there weren’t any Affirmative Action policies at the time, his organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference created something similar – Operation Breadbasket. Clergy would call up businesses in the area to find out how many black people they had working there, and if the percentage was significantly less than the percent of black people in that city, they’d boycott that business.

For the record, probably every single damn thing most people believe about Affirmative Action is total bullshit. It’s not a requirement, it’s a tax break– and it wouldn’t be necessary if it didn’t already exist in first place, but to the benefit of white men who generally prefer hiring white men. Also, for the record, as far as college based AA programs go? Why do I never hear anyone complaining about “legacies” the same way I hear them complaining about AA? You think George W. Bush got into Yale on his own merits?

“Whenever the issue of compensatory treatment for the Negro is raised, some of our friends recoil in horror. The Negro should be granted equality, they agree; but he should ask nothing more. On the surface, this appears reasonable, but it is not realistic.”

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

5) He would have supported the conservative rhetoric of being “colorblind”

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Oh come on. The conservative idea of a colorblind society is one in which they get to spit on your face and tell you it’s raining. I am pretty sure that MLK did not think that calling attention to systemic racism was a waste of time. He was not a “Oh, well, let’s just pretend everything is peachy keen so we don’t upset anyone” kind of guy. He was well aware that racism was much more than just some yahoos running around in white sheets.

6) Because of said “content of character” thing, he was definitely into free market capitalism

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Yeah, no. Pretty much his whole thing was wealth redistribution. Part of the reason he was hated by conservatives was because they thought he was a commie. He was also extremely supportive of unions.

“It is a crime for people to live in this rich nation and receive starvation wages”

“This will be the day when we shall bring into full realization the American dream — a dream yet unfulfilled. A dream of equality of opportunity, of privilege and property widely distributed; a dream of a land where men will not take necessities from the many to give luxuries to the few; a dream of a land where men will not argue that the color of a man’s skin determines the content of his character; a dream of a nation where all our gifts and resources are held not for ourselves alone but as instruments of service for the rest of humanity; the dream of a country where every man will respect the dignity and worth of human personality — that is the dream.”

I could go on forever with these, because there are a hell of a lot.

7) That if he was alive now, he’d be one of them, and they’d totally love each other

Yeah, I’m sure they’d love him just as much as they adore Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson. I’m sure they wouldn’t scream and scream that he was being a “race baiter” or any some such, and that they’d listen intently whenever he spoke about racial issues. Totally sure that wouldn’t happen at all.

The fact is, because Dr. King is dead, they feel like they’ve got a little more leeway for their pipe dreams about how they’d totally be buddies now.

I have no problem with conservatives respecting Dr. King. They should, everyone should. But they should respect him for who he was, not for who they need him to have been. I don’t agree with every single person in history that I admire. Hell, almost all the philosophers of interest were giant misogynists. I don’t have to pretend they weren’t in order to like the other things they did.

For the record though, if conservatives really wanted a Civil Rights icon to call their own, they could always go with post-Black Panther era Eldridge Cleaver, who converted to Mormonism and became a super wacky Conservative Republican in the 80s. He even ran for office twice before going back to jail for burglary and crack possession. Although I’m not sure how they’d take to “Soul on Ice.”

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