Pete Seeger turns 90 on World Press Freedom Day: Thank you for the protest music!

Pete Seeger: Still singing protest at 90...

Pete Seeger: Still singing protest at 90...

Today, 3 May, is once again World Press Freedom Day. It is recognised by the UN, and observed by media professionals and media activists worldwide to ‘draw attention to the role of independent news and information in society, and how it is under attack’.

By happy coincidence, today also marks the 90th birthday of Pete Seeger, American folk singer and a pioneer of protest music. Since media freedom is inseparable from the democratic rights to dissent and protest, I will devote this blog post to salute Pete and his many decades of music for worthy causes — ranging from the American civil rights movement and opposing the Vietnam war to saving the environment and nuclear disarmament.

I won’t go over the basic biographical or career information, which is easily found online. Wikipedia has a good entry, and PBS shows a career timeline which has covered some of the most momentous events of the past century. There are approximately 200 songs (music and lyrics) that Pete wrote or with which he is associated – including “Guantanamera,” “Where Have All The Flowers Gone,” “If I Had A Hammer,” “Turn Turn Turn,” “Wimoweh,” “We Shall Overcome”.

Pete is a hero for at least three generations of music lovers and freedom lovers around the world who believe in human rights, human dignity and democratic freedoms. Armed with nothing more than his banjo and melodious voice, and driven by the courage of his conviction, this small, gentle man has stood up to mighty leaders, generals and officials.

Never underestimate the power of one determined man...

Never underestimate the power of one determined man...

Pete is celebrated as much for his artistic and cultural achievements as for standing resolutely for his political beliefs and for lending his voice and music in support of causes be believed in. In 1955, he was called before the now infamous House Un-American Activities Committee, but refused to name personal and political associations on the grounds that this would violate his First Amendment rights. He said: “”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. I think these are very improper questions for any American to be asked, especially under such compulsion as this.”

This defiance resulted in sustained harassment, persecution and professional isolation. As his recent PBS biography noted, “Standing strong for deeply-held beliefs, Seeger went from the top of the pop charts to the top of the blacklist and was banned from American commercial television for more than 17 years. This determined singer/songwriter made his voice heard and encouraged the people of the world to sing out along with him.”

‘If you love your country, you’ll find ways to somehow to speak out, to do what you think is right,” Pete says in this powerful documentary looking back at over half a century of activist singing and music.

Watch opening segment of PBS AMERICAN MASTERS series: Pete Seeger: The Power of Song, directed by Jim Brown and first aired in February 2008

Watch more PBS interviews with Pete Seeger and some of his archived performances from yesteryear

Having pleaded under the First Amendment during the communist witch days of the 1950s, Pete repeatedly paid tribute to the far-sighted American pioneers who introduced the First Amendment guaranteeing the freedom of speech.

“As some judge said, if there is any fixed star in our firmament, that is the First Amendment,” he says in a talk-cum-performance at the Ford Hall Forum. In this audio-only piece, he talks the privilege of living under the First Amendment. He recalls his experience being questioned by the House Unamerican Activities Committee, encounters with censorship, and his relationship with fellow singer Woody Guthrie. It runs for nearly an hour, but is worth every second.

For someone like Pete Seeger who sang alongside Dr Martin Luther King, Jr., and other civil rights movement leaders and activists, it must have been deeply moving to be able to sing at the concert to mark President Barack Obama’s inauguration on 20 January 2009 at the Lincoln Memorial.

Watch Bruce Springsteen sing along with Pete Seeger on Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land”. As he often does, Pete invites the euphoric audience to sing along!

One of my favourite Pete Seeger songs is “Turn! Turn! Turn! (to Everything There is a Season)”, often abbreviated to “Turn! Turn! Turn!”. It’s a song adapted entirely from the the Book of Ecclesiastes in the Bible (with the exception of the last line) and composed to music by Pete Seeger in 1959. Seeger waited until 1962 to record it,

Pete Seeger tells how he came to write “Turn Turn Turn.”

I have always believed that we have to get creative and resourceful when the basic freedoms of conscience and freedom of expression are under siege from despotic rulers and fanatical extremists. When we are not allowed to express in factual prose, we must turn to creative prose. And when prose fails, we still have verse, lyrics, satire and drama — the possibilities are only limited by our imagination. This is why I celebrate activist artistes like Pete Seeger, and invoke the memory of activist-poets like Adrian Mitchell and Ken Saro-wiwa. When the barbarians are at our gates and we feel surrounded by the unrelenting forces of hatred, intolerance and tribalism, they remind us that Another World is Possible — but we have to believe in it, stay the course and find ways to sing, dance and laugh our way out of gloom.

And here’s Pete singing another one of my personal favourites, a song that powered the civil rights movement and has since inspired and sustained struggles for social justice around the world: We Shall Overcome.

New York Times editorial appreciation on 5 May 2009: Still Singing

To Whom It May Concern, a.k.a. Tell Me Lies: In memory of Adrian Mitchell (1932-2008)

I was run over by the truth one day.
Ever since the accident I’ve walked this way
So stick my legs in plaster
Tell me lies about Vietnam…

With these lines opened the bitterly sarcastic reaction to the televised horrors of the Vietnam War by British poet, playwright and performer Adrian Mitchell.

He first read his best-known poem, called To Whom It May Concern (also known as Tell Me Lies), to thousands of anti-war protesters who flocked into London’s Trafalgar Square on the afternoon of Easter Monday 1964. As Mitchell delivered his lines from the pavement above in front of the National Gallery, angry demonstrators in the square below scuffled with police.

Adrian Mitchell (1932 - 2008)

Adrian Mitchell (1932 - 2008)

Mitchell, who died on 20 December 2008 aged 76, occasionally updated the poem to take into account the subsequent wars and resulting tragedies in places as far apart as Iraq, Burma, Afghanistan and Israel/Palestine.

“It is about Vietnam, But it is still relevant,” Mitchell said in 2001. “It’s about sitting faithfully in England while thousands of miles away terrible atrocities are being committed in our name.”

As Michael Kustow wrote in an obituary in The Guardian: “Mitchell’s original plays and stage adaptations, performed on mainstream national stages and fringe venues, on boats and in nature, add up to a musical, epic and comic form of theatre, a poet’s drama worthy of Aristophanes and Lorca. Across the spectrum of his prolific output, through wars, oppressions and deceptive victories, he remained a beacon of hope in darkening times. He was a natural pacifist, a playful, deeply serious peacemonger and an instinctive democrat.”

The one time journalist and television critic was fired by The Sunday Times (UK) for reviewing Peter Watkins’ 1965 anti-nuclear TV film The War Game. Its depiction of the impact of Soviet nuclear attack on Britain had caused such dismay within the BBC and British government that the public broadcaster cancelled its scheduled transmission on 6 August 1966 (the 21 anniversary of the Hiroshima attack). It was finally broadcast in 1985, with the corporation stating that “the effect of the film has been judged by the BBC to be too horrifying for the medium of broadcasting”.

But Auntie Beeb and the rest of the Establishment couldn’t stop Mitchell, whose satirical poems continued to demolish myths emanating from the propaganda mills of the military-industrial complex and their allies in the mainstream media.

As Kustow recalled: “To Whom It May Concern, a riveting poem against bombs and cenotaphs and the Vietnam war, with which he stirred a capacity audience in Mike Horovitz’s pioneering Poetry Olympics at the Albert Hall in 1965, has lasted through the too many wars since: a durable counting-rhyme to a rhythm and blues beat.”

Watch Adrian Mitchell recite/sing his poem in 1965 (black and white film):

As Jan Woolf wrote in another tribute: “To watch Adrian Mitchell…prepare his body for a performance of To Whom It May Concern – chin cupped in hand, eyes focused, back tense, ‘I got run over by the truth one day…’ – was to see a great poet steadying himself with all the focus and tension of a warrior. When those blue suede shoes got moving, the poem came alive. He breathed it, lived it, became it. It was as if he were dancing with language to get at the truth.”

Woolf recalls that Mitchell’s reading of Tell Me Lies at a City Hall benefit just before the 2003 invasion of Iraq was electrifying. “Of course, he couldn’t stop that war, but he performed as if he could.”

Watch Mitchell read what he called the 21st-century remix of his protest poem ‘To Whom It May Concern (Tell me lies about Vietnam)’.

The 21st century re-mix ends with these words:

“You put your bombers in, you put your conscience out
You take the human being, and you twist it all about
So scrub my skin with women
So chain my tongue with whisky
Stuff my nose with garlic
Coat my eyes with butter
Fill my ears with silver
Stick my legs in plaster
Tell me lies about –
BAE Systems

Tell me lies Mr Bush
Tell me lies Mr Blairbrowncameron

Tell me lies about Vietnam

For some strange reason that has nothing to do with Adrian Mitchell’s recent departure, these words and the whole poem keep turning in my mind over and over again.