Friday, January 31, 2014

Pete Seeger knew the answer to the question: "Which Side Are You On?"

(Pete Seeger performing at a CIO labor canteen in Washington, D.C., in 1944, with First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt in the audience.)

Roots music fans across the country are mourning the recent death of American folk music hero Pete Seeger at the ripe old age of 94, and many of them, like me, are thinking about their favorite Seeger songs. It’s a huge body of work.

For me, there’s not much question. It’s not a Pete Seeger original, but the Seeger-led Almanac Singers’ version of Florence Reece’s Which Side Are You On? (from a 1955 collection--not sure when it was recorded) wins hands-down. It’s a haunting version, made more so by the slow, percolating sound of Seeger’s banjo in the background.

Don’t scab for the bosses
Don’t listen to their lies
Us poor folks haven’t got a chance
Unless we organize

Seeger’s long life stretched across modern labor history in this country, and he was a major champion of the movement, celebrating its music as well as its stand for the working man and woman. Seeger kept alive a tradition that goes back to the anthem of the French Revolution, La Marseillaise, and the Paris Commune, L’Internationale, across the ocean to Wobbly troubadour Joe Hill at the turn of the last century and Reece’s 1931 hymn to striking coal miners in Harlan Country, Kentucky. Also in that tradition is Sarah Ogan’s bitter indictment of rabid, unhinged capitalism in the 1944 ballad Come All You Coal Miners (recorded by folklorist Alan Lomax).

Seeger performed at rallies for the Congress of Industrial Organizations, worked with Lomax on a book of protest and workers’ songs in the late 1930s, sang and raised hell with balladeer Woody Guthrie, joined the American Communist Party for a time, got in trouble with the House for Un-American Activities Committee and was found guilty of contempt of Congress by that less-than-august body. He and his 1950s group The Weavers were banned from the television show Hootenanny in the early 1960s even though that show ostensibly championed folk music.

Seeger was the connection between those earlier traditions and a later generation of labor and folk-singing musicians like Joe Glazer and Anne Feeney. Rock ‘n’ Rollers like Bruce Springsteen and Tom Morello pay homage to Seeger’s legacy in their music.

Working people had a champion in Pete Seeger. They’ve always needed music to articulate things banners and speeches aren’t always able to say. Seeger knew that, and he provided a heck of a lot of that music. We’ll be hearing it for a long time to come.

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