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  • February 8th, 2011

Labor’s Meistersinger

By Joel M. Vance

Labor has a voice and it’s that of a lanky nonagenarian with a long-necked banjo and a gentle spirit.  Pete Seeger for more than 90 years has been like the singer in one of his favorite folksongs, “I’m just a poor wayfarin’ stranger, a-travelin’ through this world of woe.”

He hung around with Woody Guthrie who wrote the unofficial American anthem “This Land Is Your Land.”  And it was Pete Seeger himself who wrote the anthem of black America “We Shall Overcome.”  When the threat of nuclear annihilation hung over the world, he summed it up with “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?”

Now he’s past 90 years and he has outlasted Joe McCarthy and his sleazy band of thugs and he is thought of today as what he always has been—a spokessinger for the common man and the best friend a union guy ever had.

His role as minstrel for the union man dates to 1939 when he sang in concerts for the New York Dairy Farmers Union. He and Woody Guthrie gypsied around the country until Seeger was drafted in 1942 and served in the Pacific.  He returned just in time to have a head-on collision with McCarthyism—a long-running battle that he ultimately won.

Pete Seeger is a great American, no matter what the witch hunters of the 1950s said about him.  He has never stopped sticking up for the little guy and he has never stopped sticking up for the environment.  He was traveling the length of the Hudson River long before today’s environmentalists took it up as a cause, singing about the industrial outrages being committed against this gem of a river.

Seeger did belong to the American Communist party for several years in the 1940s when the Soviet Union and Joe Stalin were our allies against Germany.  He said his father Charles, whose family dates to the Mayflower, got him into communism.  Both later became disenchanted and quit.

Seeger has said, “Some of my ancestors were religious dissenters who came to America over three hundred years ago. Others were abolitionists in New England in the eighteen forties and fifties.”  Seeger became involved with civil rights in the 1960s and joined the growing disenchantment with Viet Nam, still later he crusaded for the environment.

In 1967, he wrote an angry song titled “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy” which he sang twice on the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour—the first time the song was cut by censors and the second time it did get broadcast The song had been inspired by a training accident when an incompetent officer led his heavily-loaded platoon into deep water, resulting in the captain’s drowning.

But it really was about Viet Nam and everyone knew it.  “And the big fool says to push on….” was the repeated line and when Lyndon Johnson heard it he no doubt entertained dark thoughts about where he’d like to stick Seeger’s banjo.

Seeger is quoted as saying, “In the sixties, during the Vietnam war, when anarchists and pacifists and socialists, Democrats and Republicans, decent-hearted Americans, all recoiled with horror at the bloodbath, we came together. “

Seeger testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1955 and basically told the glowering politicos to stuff it.  He said he had a right to free speech under the Constitution and it was none of their business how he used it.

“I am not going to answer any questions as to my association, my philosophical or religious beliefs or my political beliefs, or how I voted in any election, or any of these private affairs,” he said.

He went on to explain Americanism to people who should have known it already:”I feel that in my whole life I have never done anything of any conspiratorial nature and I resent very much and very deeply the implication of being called before this Committee that in some way because my opinions may be different from yours, that I am any less of an American than anyone else.”

Ultimately he was cited and convicted of contempt of Congress (which today would put much of the public behind bars) and sentenced to 10 years in prison.  After a year the charge was dismissed and by 1969 he was more environmentalist than subversive (or maybe those are the same thing).

He and friends launched a sloop named the Clearwater on the Hudson River and his campaign to clean up and keep clean this great river has continued ever since with measurable results, although it’s a continuing battle.

What kind of example has the life of Pete Seeger set for his fellow Americans?  Well, he wrote “If I Had a Hammer” and “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” to crystallize the evils of racism and nuclear threat, but he also has written sweet songs for children. Back in the 1950s, before the McCarthyites got their claws in him, he led a group called the Weavers who had a huge popular hit with “Goodnight Irene,” as well as some others such as “The Midnight Special” and Woody Guthrie’s “So Long, It’s Been Good to Know You.”

Before that Seeger and a group of proto-folk singers set the standards for everyone who has come since.  There was Woody Guthrie, of course, but also Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry, Leadbelly and Cisco Houston and many others whose names largely are forgotten today.

He and his wife, Toshi, have been married since 1942—a marital longevity that most happy couples can only hope for and most couples in general never come within a light year of.

“I want to turn the clock back to when people lived in small villages and took care of each other,” Seeger has said.  It won’t happen, but it’s a nice daydream.

And he taught me how to play the banjo.  Not in person, unfortunately, but through his 1948 Manual “How to Play the Five String Banjo” which has been through numerous printings and revisions since.  Because I liked his music and banjo playing I bought both the book and a banjo.

Fifty years later I realized it was time to say thank you, so I sent him one of my books and told him that he had inspired me both musically and philosophically.  I got a nice note of thanks and a couple of bumper stickers reading, “Gravity Is Only a Theory.”

“Give these to your friends in Kansas,” he wrote.  Old crusaders never die—they just keep singing against whatever big fool is saying to press on, no matter what.


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