Monitor Board of Contributors: What if Pete Seeger gave the State of the Union address?
Folk singer Pete Seeger bows to the applause of local 610 of United Electrical Workers at a rally in North Versailles, Pa., 1982. The union has been on strike against Westinghouse Air Brake for over 3 months and invited Seeger to their rally. (AP Photo/Keith B. Srakocic)
File- This Feb. 25, 1984, file photo shows folk singer Pete Seeger performing in a one-man benefit concert in Berkeley, Calif., at the Berkeley Community Theater. The American troubadour, folk singer and activist Seeger died Monday Jan. 27, 2014, at age 94. (AP Photo/Mark Costantini, File)
Pete Seeger’s death, announced on the day President Obama addressed the nation, made me think about how different our nation would be if Pete Seeger had given the State of the Union address.
I don’t remember the first time I ever heard Seeger’s song “If I had a Hammer” (who does?), but I do remember learning “Where Have All The Flowers Gone?” in grammar school. I suppose we learned it because it is a beautiful and meaningful song and doubt that the purpose was to inculcate any particular political view (this was Catholic grammar school in the 1970s). I never even knew Seeger wrote that song until I was an adult.
The first time I saw Seeger was sometime in the 1970s at a celebration of the Raritan River in New Jersey, about the time that he was sailing his sloop Clearwater to bring attention to pollution of the Hudson River. My mother, who was not by any means a left-wing social activist, suggested we go.
The last time I heard Pete sing was in a church, 12 years ago. He was in his 80s and apologized that his voice was not what it had been, although we didn’t notice it. During the intermission, I saw Pete sitting with a small group in the church basement and was so thrilled to introduce my 6-year-old, who had organized a “Kids for Peace” club, to this giant of song and social justice. She doesn’t remember it.
In between, the times I heard Pete sing blurred together. Was he at the rally in Central Park in 1982 to protest nuclear weapons? The Washington, D.C., rally against the illegal U.S. support for the contras in Nicaragua? He sang at so many rallies and concerts, for so many causes that I can’t remember whether he was at one event or another. His influence was so great, he seemed to be at any important event. His commitment to peace and social justice was such that his spirit would have been there, even if he had not been physically present.
In 1955, this commitment resulted in a subpoena from the infamous House Un-American Activities Committee. When he appeared before the committee, he refused to discuss his opinions, politics or voting because the First Amendment protects free speech, association, privacy and religion against government interference. The committee’s questions along those lines, he testified, were “improper” and it was “immoral to ask any American this kind of question.”
But, he testified, “I am proud that I have sung for Americans of every political persuasion, and I have never refused to sing for anybody because I disagreed with their political opinion, and I am proud of the fact that my songs seem to cut across and find perhaps a unifying thing, basic humanity, and that is why I would love to be able to tell you about these songs.”
His basic humanity was why we sang his songs in the folk Mass at church, and why my apolitical mother knew who he was. However, the committee passed on “If I had a Hammer.” He was convicted on 10 counts of “contempt of Congress” and sentenced to one year in jail, a sentence overturned on appeal.
So, what if Pete Seeger had returned to Congress, banjo and guitar at the ready, not to testify under subpoena, but to address the State of the Union?
Instead of Guantanamo Bay, with its mass detentions, torture and hunger strikes, he would sing “Guantanamara,” a song he sang in Spanish, with the hope that this would convey unity between Americans and Cuban citizens and acceptance of Spanish-speakers in the United States.
Instead of the Walton family paying its Walmart workers so little they rely on food stamps, we could, as he sang in “Precious Friend,” “learn to share in time / You and me and Rockefeller.”
I doubt we would have gotten ourselves entangled in Iraq’s, then Afghanistan’s, now Pakistan’s “Big Muddy.”
He would exhort Congress to use a hammer for justice, not for pounding each other in ridiculous partisan fights, to ring bells for freedom, to eschew the beck and call of moneyed interests for laws that celebrate “love between my brothers and my sisters /All over this land.”
Pete Seeger used to exhort his audiences, “Can you sing with me? I’ll give you the words,” and everybody sang along.
These days, Congress and the American people are certainly not in harmony. According to a poll aired before the State of the Union address, 63 percent of Americans feel that the country is on the wrong track, a proportion that has increased every year for the past 10 years. We have weathered a dysfunctional Congress that shuts government down and pursues economic policies in which the top one-tenth of 1 percent does fabulously while the bottom 20 percent lose ground.
It’s fantasy to imagine Pete Seeger leading Congress at last in an exuberant chorus of “If I Had Hammer” or “We Shall Overcome.” But we can echo what he testified before Congress in 1955: “I am sorry you are not interested in the song. It is a good song.”
(Sheila Zakre lives and practices law in Concord. )