Resistance Mixtape: Labor Songs


This is a week late, but every day is Labor Day as far as I’m concerned. So here are some songs celebrating the working people.

Bread and Roses” by Judy Collins

“Gonna Be An Engineer” by Peggy Seeger

“Helplessness Blues” by Fleet Foxes

“I Guess I Planted” by Billy Bragg & Wilco

“Joe Hill” by Paul Robeson

“More Than a Paycheck” by Sweet Honey in the Rock

“9 to 5” by Dolly Parton

“Talking Union” by The Almanac Singers

“Working Class Hero” by John Lennon

I’m trying to make this a more regular feature, but until that time, enjoy some earlier Resistance Mixtapes:

Advertisements

Remembering Pete Seeger


Pete Seeger died on Monday night.  He is perhaps my greatest hero as I’ve long been inspired by his music and activism.  His long life was a tireless effort to right wrongs and to bring people together in peace.  He leaves the world a better place than he found it.  And if you’re pessimistic about the world today, just imagine what it would be like without there ever being a Pete Seeger.  Among the many things he accomplished in his 94 years, Pete:

  • agitated for the rights of the poor and working people by organizing labor
  • stood up for American civil liberties before the House Un-American Activities Committee
  • participated in the Civil Rights movement
  • lead a generation in the Vietnam anti-war movement
  • in the vanguard the environmental efforts to clean up the Hudson River aboard the sloop Clearwater
  • inspired millions that they could change the world by joining together in song
  • continued as an activist through his final years, supporting the Occupy movement

I don’t recall when I first heard of Pete Seeger.  His music was part of my childhood.  He even appeared on Sesame Street.  I remember watching the movie Alice’s Restaurant some time in my teens and not recognizing him until my mom told me who he was.  Probably what really got it started for me was his performance leading a singalong of “This Land Is Your Land” on the Folkways: A Vision Shared tribute album.  Through high school and college and beyond, I picked up some albums, read some books by and about him, and tried to teach myself banjo using his book.  On two occasions, I was fortunate enough to see him perform in person.  Once in 1995 with Arlo Guthrie at Wolf Trap in Virginia, and then again at Clearwater’s Great Hudson River Revival in 2002.

It’s kind of the whole point of Pete Seeger that there are no “Pete Seeger songs.”  Sure, he got writing credit on some songs but he was the first to admit that he stole bits and pieces from other songs and cobbled them together to make something new.  And he wanted you to to take pieces of his song and make something else.  And share it with everyone. At his famous Carnegie Hall show, one entire set is Pete promoting the songs of new, young musicians (and Malvina Reynolds who was young at heart).  The other set was the music of the Civil Rights movement.  The whole point of the entire show was other people’s music and the community of music as he got the audience at Carnegie Hall singing along as well as many who’ve listened to that album over the years.

Nevertheless, one can’t help but think of the best Pete Seeger songs on this occasion.  His music is a gift he leaves behind, both through the many recordings he made as well as being a living link between the roots of American music and the many artists he inspired and supported over the years.  I looked in my iTunes and discovered that I have 215 Pete Seeger recordings!  Of those, his most essential albums are We Shall Overcome (a live recording of his historic Carnegie Hall concert in 1963) and Singalong: Sanders Theatre, 1980 (perhaps the quintessential concert recording as summed up in the article “Pete Seeger And The Public Choir “).  I perhaps felt closest to Pete when I performed with the Revels at Sanders Theatre and tried my best to do my part to engage the entire house.

Below are a handful of the most meaningful Pete Seeger songs, followed by rembrances collected all over the net.

“If I Had a Hammer”

“We Shall Overcome”

“Waist Deep in the Big Muddy”

“Old Devil Time”

“Abiyoyo” from Reading Room

“Sailing Down this Golden River” performed by Sarah Lee Guthrie

“This Land is Your Land”

WBUR: Pete Seeger And The Public Choir 

“Pete Seeger understood something fundamental about humans and music, which is that many people can’t sing on key, but all crowds can. Even without rehearsal, public choirs can be stunning to listen to and thrilling to be part of. And he believed that everyone should do it, that people should retain the ability to get in a room and sing, because it was good for you, and because it taught people to pitch in and be brave.”

WGBH: Pete Seeger Had A ‘Soft Spot For Boston And Cambridge’ by Bob Seay

American Songwriter: American Icons: Pete Seeger

The Nation: Pete Seeger: This Man Surrounded Hate and Forced it to Surrender

“Pete Seeger outlasted the bastards.

But he did so much more than that. He showed us how to do our time with grace, with a sense of history and honor, with a progressive vision for the ages and a determination to embrace the next great cause because the good fight is never finished. It’s just waiting for a singer to remind usthat “the world would never amount to a hill of beans if people didn’t use their imaginations to think of the impossible.”

Smithsonian Folkways: A Tribute to Pete Seeger (1919-2014)

Bill Moyers: Remembering Activist and Folk Singer Pete Seeger

As recently as 2011, Seeger, a veteran of the labor, peace and civil rights movements, led an Occupy Wall Street protest through Manhattan. “Be wary of great leaders,” he said two days after the march. “Hope that there are many, many small leaders.”

Millard Fillmore’s Bathtub: Farewell, Pete Seeger

 He told a story about showing up at a PTA meeting in Beacon to talk on some issue, and some local guy told Pete that Beacon didn’t need outsiders telling them what to do.  This hurt Pete, since he’d been living in Beacon at that time for more than 30 years, in the house he built by hand.   Pete told me that he realized a world reputation doesn’t count for much if you can’t use it to make things better in your home town.The “local project?” He said he wanted to get an old sloop, and sail the Hudson River signing to get people to clean it up.

WBUR: Pete Seeger, Folk Music Icon and Activist, Dies at 94

“For all of his social activism, Seeger said more than once that if he had done nothing more than write his slim book How to Play the Five String Banjo, his life’s work would have been complete. …

“If Pete Seeger didn’t save the world, he certainly did change the lives of millions of people by leading them to sing, to take action and to at least consider his dream of what society could be.”

The Atlantic: Pete Seeger and the American Soul

His critics often called Pete Seeger anti-American. I think the opposite was true. I think he loved America so much that he was particularly offended and disappointed when it strayed, as it so often has, from the noble ideals upon which it was founded. I don’t think that feeling, or the protests it engendered, were anti-American. I think they were wholly, unabashedly American.

Feministing: RIP Pete Seeger

Q with Jian Ghomeshi: Remembering Pete Seeger (1919-2014)

On Point with Tom Ashbrook: The World According to Pete Seeger: A Remembrance

The Atlantic‘This Machine Surrounds Hate and Forces It to Surrender’

How did Seeger take an instrument—one with no inherent properties of justice, as evidenced by its history—and assign it a new cultural value?

There is no way to answer this but to observe the rarity of a force like Pete Seeger upon the Earth.

Sure, the banjo has a jaunty, inviting sound. Sure, it can be played in a variety of ways, making it suitable for a range of musical genres. But these qualities did not prevent it from being a prop of racist entertainment. They did not make it a symbol of community. They did not transform it into a “machine [that] surrounds hate and forces it to surrender.”

That was the work of man. One man, really.

Arlo Guthrie’s Facebook status

“Well, of course he passed away!” I’m telling everyone this morning. “But that doesn’t mean he’s gone.”

Phil Sandifer: Pete Seeger (1919-2014)

Later in the set, it started to rain just a bit. Only a few drops – nothing major. But a couple people had umbrellas and popped them open, at which point Seeger stopped playing and calmly explained that he would not be continuing until the people who were under the tree and thus still dry passed their umbrellas to the people not under the tree so that everybody could be dry.
It remains the only time I am aware of in which an artist has actually created, however momentarily, a socialist utopia.

Related Posts:

Book Review: The Union of Their Dreams by Miriam Pawel


Author: Miriam Pawel
Title: The Union of Their Dreams: Power, Hope, and Struggle in Cesar Chávez’s Farm Worker Movement
Publication Info: Bloomsbury Press (2009)
ISBN: 1596914602

Summary/Review:

I’ve never known much about Cesar Chávez and the United Farm Worker’s union so I was pleased to receive a free copy of this book from the Library Thing Early Reviewers program.  The book is not about Chávez directly although his presence hovers over the events covered in this book for both good and ill.  Instead Pawel focuses on the stories of nine individuals who dedicated their lives to the farm worker movement – field hands, organizers, lawyers and a ministers. Their overlapping stories offer a glimpse into the movement’s rise and fall from the 1960s to the 1980s.

At first it’s an inspiring story of boycotts, strikes and union elections where the union prevails against the growers (and their Teamster thugs) as well as scoring legislative victories.  Chávez becomes a national hero for his inspiration, non-violent leadership.  Unfortunately like many organizations the UFW is torn apart by internal conflicts and Chávez only exacerbates the problems.    Pawel details how these close friend and colleagues of Chávez see him becoming increasingly paranoid, micromanaging and megalomaniac, purging the union of people on specious grounds and making life miserable for those who remain.

This book is ultimately heartbreaking but there are glimpses of hope nevertheless.  It’s inspiring that despite all the difficulties these nine people dedicated themselves to an ideal and a cause.  While shattering the myth of Chávez the hero, this book still illustrates the good that can be done by ordinary people working for social justice.

Recommended books: The Long Loneliness by Dorothy Day, We Can’t Eat Prestige: The Women Who Organized Harvard by John Hoerr, and Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference by David J. Garrow
Rating: ***

Book Review: Dishwasher: One Man’s Quest To Wash Dishes in All Fifty States by Pete Jordan


I’m the official dishwasher in our household and love travel and eccentric characters so it was natural for me to want to read Dishwasher: One Man’s Quest To Wash Dishes in All Fifty States (2007) by Pete Jordan.  It is pretty much what it’s long subtitle say it is:  a ten-plus year journey around the United States washing dishes in different establishments that reads as part travelogue, part memoir, part humor, part worker’s manifesto and suspiciously at times like a big put on. The basic gist is that at a young age Pete Jordan discovers he has no customer service aptitude and no desire to hold a job with any real responsibility.  Since dishwashing is really the lowest job around because no one wants to do it, getting a job as a dishwasher is generally as simple as walking in and asking.  Leaving the job can be similarly serendipitous.  Jordan decides that he can see the country by working as a dishwasher just long enough to get the money to move on to another job and another state.  Along the way he dishes at a commercial fishery, a summer camp, a Jewish retirement home, an offshore oil rig, a dinner train and a commune as well as dozens of Mom & Pop restaurants.  He also takes a great interest in the history of dishwashing, it’s role in labor movements, and some famous plongeurs:  Malcom X, George Orwell, and Gerald Ford among them. This was a fun book.  Inspiring, humorous, and a little annoying at times (especially at the beginning when you just want to cuff him by the ear).  Read it and you may wish to travel the country looking for the handmade plaques Jordan made to mark the sites of great moments in dishwashing history.

Author Jordan, Pete.
Title Dishwasher : one man’s quest to wash dishes in all fifty states / Pete Jordan.
Publication Info. New York : Harper Perennial, c2007.
Edition 1st ed.
Description 358, 16 p. : ill. ; 21 cm.

Movie Review: New York: A Documentary Film by Ric Burns


New York: A Documentary Film is an 8-part film made by Ric Burns that debuted on PBS in 1999 (except for episode 8, which is from 2003).  Thanks to Netflix, I’ve finally seen this epic documentary about my ancestral homeland and one of my favorite cities.

Ric Burns’ style is similar to his brother Ken in that their is a rich wealth of archival images, photos and films, supported by contemporary film interspersed with interviews with a variety of experts and dramatic renditions of quotations by historical figures.  It’s an effective technique, albeit one that could use a few adjustments.  I particularly like hearing from the experts, a grab bag of historians, writers, politicians, architects, and New Yorkers.  Standouts among the crowd include urbanist Marshall Berman, soft-spoken historian Craig Steven Wilde, and architect Robert A. M. Stern (as an aside, it seems to me that architects are often great speakers as well).  I would prefer longer clips of these people speaking about New York in place of the narration, no offense to David Ogden Stiers.  It would be one way to reduce the cliches that plague this film.  If you had a dollar for every time the words “Capitol of the World” are uttered, you could take me out for dinner at a fancy restaurant and probably get change.  Similarly, the contemporary film of soaring over the Manhattan skyline is overused creating a visual cliche.

These are minor quibbles though.  I would expect that many viewers would criticize the filmmakers for leaving things out although it would be impossible to cover every detail of city as large and historic as New York.  I would have liked to have seen more about New York’s role in popular culture such as radio, film, tv, and sports, not to mention more details about the four boroughs not named Manhattan, but so be it. I also felt that the 70 years covered in episodes #6 & 7 could have branched out to include more than road building, public housing, and white flight, since so much else happened in those times.  But then again this is the time of my life, and my parents, and my grandparents so I’m much more connected to it through personal experience and stories

The film covers New York History chronologically, with each episode culminating in a Big Event that kind of ties together the historical and cultural processes discussed in the episode.  These include 1. the Erie Canal, 2. the Civil War Draft Riots, 3. the Consolidation of  Greater New York, 4. the Triangle Shirt Waist Factory Fire, 5. the construction of the Empire State Building, 6. the Great Depression and the 1939 World’s Fair, 7. the 1975 Fiscal Crisis, and 8. the World Trade Center & September 11th Attacks.  I think a more effective approach would have been to ditch the chronological approach and made the episodes specifically about these events: what led up to them, what effects did they have, how they influenced the people and their times, et al.  Episode 8 about the World Trade Center does in fact follow this method by tracing the history of the buildings construction, use, and desctruction, subtly creating a microcosm of New York history from the 1950’s to 2001.

Each episode also has a Big Person, a New Yorker of great prominence and influence who somehow personifies his times (and they are all “he’s”).  These include 1. Alexander Hamilton, 2. Walt Whitman, 3. William Tweed, 4. Al Smith, 5. F. Scott Fitzgerald, 6. Fiorello LaGuardia, 7. Robert Moses, and 8. no one really but high-wire artist Philippe Petit is the surprising heart of this episode.  I like this aspect less if only because it seems to lead to lionizing “great men” and repetition of more cliches (with the exception of Robert Moses about whom opinions were more neutral to negative, appropriate since Moses was eeeeeeeevil).

My overall impression Ric Burns’ New York is positive.  Episode 4: The Power and the People and Episode 8: The Center of the World are standout episodes that particularly bring the history of the city to life.  The former episode covers some of my favorite topics such as immigration and labor, while the latter profoundly recreates the horror of the September 11th attacks, but also the hope and heroism in the aftermath.  If you like New York, history, and/or documentaries check this one out.

Banned Books Week


September 30-October 6 is Banned Books Week, set aside to promote great literature that has been banned or challenged.  You can learn more online at the ALA Banned Book Week website (should you be luckier than I and find that the website is actually functional).  They have great promotional posters with pirates, and you know how I feel about pirates.

bbw.jpg

Jessamyn West of librarian.net has collected useful links for Banned Books Week as well as a related post on union issuesUnshelved takes a funny look at books challenged in the library (keep reading, it may be the start of a series).  Amnesty International also has a Banned Books Week page.

In honor of Banned Books Week, I’ve scanned the lists of books frequently banned and/or challenged and selected two books I’ve never read before to read this week: Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury (a banned book about banned books, what could be more appropriate?) and I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou.  I have to stop by my new local library to pick these up.  And when I’m done, I can wear this pin:

bbwpin.jpg