In Memorium Pete Seeger (1919-2014)
Upon the death of Folk music icon Pete Seeger, Rolling Stone declared him an American Rebel. But Seeger wasn't the kind of rebel who lived fast, died young, and left behind a beautiful corpse. In fact, Seeger was the sort who didn't drink, didn't carouse, and rarely exhibited poor judgment. One of the more astute observations about Seeger comes from activist and former Harvard professor Cornel West who described him as possessing a "militant tenderness". But there were a few times Seeger allowed his temper to get the upper hand. Legend has it, that it was Seeger who cut the power cord that fueled Bob Dylan's infamous 1965 Newport Folk Festival performance. (Seeger became dismayed at his protoge's apparent estrangement from the greater folk movement.) Another episode found Seeger in a vile mood upon discovering that his anti-war song Waist Deep In The Big Muddy had been cut from the telecast of the Smothers Brothers show.
So by the time Seeger showed his solidarity with the leaderless, rudderless, Occupy Wall Street movement in 2011, it was all anticlimactic. He had been on the frontlines of all the major battles of the 20th century. He had found himself on the right side of history. He did hammer out justice. He did hammer out freedom. He did hammer out love between his brothers and his sisters all over this land. Seeger saw folk music as a tool to bring about social change and the power of song to transform and unite the powerless and the disenfranchised. It was all about music that mattered. So in tribute to Seeger and others who dare speak truth to power is a previously published piece.
Pete Seeger: In his long career as a folksinger, Seeger was blacklisted, received death threats, called Un-American, sentenced to jail, persecuted and harassed. And what great crime has Mr. Seeger committed to deserve all of this abuse? He simply believed that all men were created equal and shared equal rights. That was a radical concept in the 40's, 50's, and 60's. Seeger marched with Dr. King, gave voice to downtrodden union workers, championed the dispirited and the dispossessed, protested the Vietnam War, and started an environmental movement that helped clean up the polluted Hudson River. Often overshadowed by rough and rowdy travelling companions Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly, Seeger nonetheless trod his own path marked by social activism. Toshi, his wife and rock for 66 years was an instrumental part of his life and work. At age 90, Seeger was still active occasionally performing and introducing a new generation to the power of song. Yes indeed, one man and his banjo can bring about great change.
The Smothers Brothers: It must be nerve wracking and disheartening as a performer to constantly have what you say and do under a microscope. Tom and Dick Smothers know this feeling all too well. As the hosts of their own hugely popular television show The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, they were subjected to network censors due to the nature of their political satire and appeal to the youth culture at that time. Now political satire is commonplace. Can you imagine a Jon Stewart or a Stephen Colbert without there first being a Tom and Dick Smothers? The show boasted such writers as Steve Martin, Rob Reiner, and Albert Brooks. The brothers also championed such performers as the aforementioned Mr. Seeger. But as fate would have it, Seeger's performance of Waist Deep In The Big Muddy was initially censored. It was thought the song alluded to the Vietnam War and well you just couldn't do that on CBS television. The show itself was cancelled in 1969, but television and free speech would never be the same.
John Henry Faulk: It's sad that this humorist, folklorist, radio/television personality, storyteller, and civil libertarian has become largely forgotten. A native Texan who first achieved fame as the host of his own radio program in the early 50's, Faulk excelled at political humor and homespun observations about his home state. His show ran for six years until he was branded with the C word. You guessed it – communist. He was blacklisted for years due to a for profit background clearance agency (AWARE) inspired by Senator Joseph McCarthy. AWARE accused him of communist sympathies and affiliations. Faulk eventually sued AWARE and in 1962 received a 3.5 million judgment. Accumulated debts, legal fees, and an appeals court ruling erased most of that original award. But thanks to the persistence of Faulk, the blacklist period came to an end. While his professional career was never quite the same, Faulk continued to speak out about the injustices and abuses of the McCarthy era until his death in 1990.
Alan Abel: Abel may be a strange and odd choice for inclusion into this illustrious group at first glance; but the examination of his life and work leads to a troubling conclusion. Yes there is freedom of the press but is the press free to be incompetent, lazy, and inaccurate. Some of our older readers may remember the Society for Indecency to Naked Animals (SINA). Abel started a campaign to clothe animals which caught the attention of the media and gained a substantial public following. What began as a satire of media censorship turned out to be an elaborate hoax. Some of Abel's other media hoaxes include Omar's School for Beggars, an organization that bans breast feeding, and my favorite – Idi Amin's marriage to a Long Island socialite in order for him to obtain U.S. citizenship. He constantly stayed one step ahead of the media by using disguises and employing a stable of actors. Comedy writer/actor Buck Henry was employed in some of Abel's early pranks. Abel Raises Cain, a documentary by Abel's daughter Jenny, explores his careerand gives voice to those in media who find Abel not only a nuisance but outright dangerous. Abel of course counters that media lapses are not a good thing for society. He was even able to trick the New York Times into believing he was dead. They prematurely printed his obituary.
So let class registration begin. Who will sign up?
Recommended reading list:
The Protest Singer: An Intimate Portrait of Pete Seeger (Alec Wilkinson)
Fear On Trial (John Henry Faulk)
A People's History of the United States(Howard Zinn)
The Confessions of a Hoaxer (Alan Abel)
Dangerously Funny: The Uncensored Story of The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour (David Bianculli)