Happy Birthday, Pete!

It’s Pete Seeger’s 90th birthday today, and he and I go way back. I don’t mean that literally, of course; I have never been so fortunate as to meet the legend of American folk music, or to see him in concert. But my mother raised me on his music, and I’ve grown up with his banjo and his distinctive tenor always in my ears. When I was a crying infant, my mother would sing the IWW anthem “Solidarity Forever” to calm me down. It’s a song Seeger and The Weavers introduced to a popular audience in the 1940s. Recording “Solidarity Forever,” and “Talking Union,” and “Union Maid,” “Bells of Rhymney,” “Which Side Are You On?” got Pete dragged before HUAC in the ’50s; he famously pled not the Fifth Amendment (“I refuse to answer on the grounds that it may incriminate me”), but the First. He didn’t apologize for or deny his leftist allegiances; he simply said that he had the right to freedom of speech and freedom of association.

All my life, even when I was a preschool kid listening to an old album of Pete doing kid-friendly songs that was always in the tape deck of my mom’s old white Honda station wagon, Pete has always represented what it means to me to be an American. I’ve never flown an American flag or supported a war (though I certainly support the troops); I do not recite the Pledge of Allegiance or sing the national anthem. But I am still an intensely patriotic person, and that’s because I revere Pete Seeger’s interpretation of what it means to be a patriotic American: in America, you can invoke your right to freedom of expression. In America, you can write and perform music that points out what is wonderful and what is deplorable about your country. Pete’s songs can often be tragically condemning of choices this country has made—his Vietnam-related songs “Waist-Deep in the Big Muddy” and “Bring ‘Em Home” are sadly relevant to the conflicts the Bush administration dragged the country into; all the organizing songs he sang with the Weavers and the earlier Almanac Singers (a band that included Woody Guthrie) showcase the ideological struggles that have characterized 20th-century America. Pete is the epitome of that bumper-sticker slogan, “Dissent is patriotic.” He’s always been a voice of peaceful protest and represented everything I love about my country. Pete reminds me that it’s okay to be so angry about some terrible things America has done in its citizens’ names and still be proud to live here and be a citizen. Some folks are trying to nominate him for a Nobel Prize, and I couldn’t agree more. If any living American deserves to be recognized for what he’s done to promote peace and justice the whole world over, it’s Pete Seeger.

If there’s anything that anyone has ever done to make me proud to be an American, it’s Pete Seeger singing “This Land is Your Land,” a song Woody Guthrie wrote during the Great Depression that I believe should be this country’s national anthem. I remember back in eighth grade, the year the US invaded Iraq, when tensions over loyalty and patriotism were running high. I got into an argument with some folks in my class about whether “This Land is Your Land” is a patriotic song, since it’s got verses like this:

As I went walking, I saw a sign there
On the sign it said “No Trespassing”
But on the other side it didn’t say nothing
That side was made for you and me!

In the squares of the city, in the shadow of the steeple
By the relief office, I’ve seen my people
As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking
Is this land made for you and me?

Those are the verses they didn’t teach you in school, when you had to sing a patriotic song every day in fifth grade. Those are the verses nobody knows, but I did my level best to teach, the verses that reveal, as Pete tends to do, what is wonderful about America and what needs to be criticized. They’re sentiments that reminded me that my house, with Pete or someone like him always in the tape deck (and later the CD player, and later the iPod), was so much at odds with everything else in the world around me—my middle school and high school years were the Bush administration.

The day before Barack Obama was inaugurated in January, representing so much hope that things would change in the political and social atmosphere, there was a concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, a site evocative of so many marches and concerts in the name of freedom and dissent. Pete Seeger played at this concert, aided, because he was 89 at the time, by Bruce Springsteen, and backed by a diverse choir of young Washingtonians. They did “This Land is Your Land,” and I sat on the couch in my dorm room watching the live webcast in a tiny window on my laptop. One of my greatest heroes, a man who was blacklisted during the McCarthy era, who had stones thrown at his car during the 1949 Peekskill Riots, who has been demonized more times than anyone can remember… he played in honor of a president. And he sang all the verses to “This Land is Your Land,” verses which are not even on some of the recordings he made of the song. I remember sitting there, wondering which verses they would sing, and when I heard the first words of the “forbidden” verses, I broke down sobbing. I know that for all sorts of reasons it’s silly to say, “For the first time in my life, I felt proud of my country,” and I know that’s also not really true. There have been other times when I’ve felt patriotic, or proud to be an American. But to watch, even by bad-quality web video, Pete Seeger stand on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and sing all the verses of “This Land is Your Land”? I broke down sobbing. Pete represents everything that empty gestures of flag-waving, warhawky, Bush-style patriotism are not, and everything I love about this place. I started sobbing when I watched that video, because Pete is my hero. I think he believes in those American exceptionalist values that this place stands for, and the fact that he is still around, still playing, and still believing gives me strength and hope that things are going to turn out okay.

Tonight, Pete (with some help) is playing Madison Square Garden in honor of his 90th birthday. I hope they sing “This Land is Your Land.” I wasn’t able to get to this one, but I hope that I have another opportunity to see him in concert. Regardless, though, I know I’ll be teaching my children about one of this country’s greatest citizens. Happy birthday, Pete. You’re my hero.

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