Bruce Springsteen at Pete Seeger’s 90th Birthday Concert, at Madison Square Garden one year ago:
As Pete and I traveled to Washington for President Obama’s Inaugural Celebration, he told me the entire story of “We Shall Overcome”. How it moved from a labor movement song and with Pete’s inspiration had been adapted by the civil rights movement. That day as we sang “This Land Is Your Land” I looked at Pete, the first black president of the United States was seated to his right, and I thought of the incredible journey that Pete had taken. My own growing up in the sixties in towns scarred by race rioting made that moment nearly unbelievable and Pete had thirty extra years of struggle and real activism on his belt. He was ao happy that day, it was like, Pete, you outlasted the bastards, man!…It was so nice. At rehearsals the day before, it was freezing, like fifteen degrees and Pete was there; he had his flannel shirt on. I said, man, you better wear something besides that flannel shirt! He says, yeah, I got my longjohns on under this thing.
And I asked him how he wanted to approach “This Land Is Your Land”. It would be near the end of the show and all he said was, “Well, I know I want to sing all the verses, I want to sing all the ones that Woody wrote, especially the two that get left out, about private property and the relief office.” I thought, of course, that’s what Pete’s done his whole life. He sings all the verses all the time, especially the ones that we’d like to leave out of our history as a people. At some point Pete Seeger decided he’d be a walking, singing reminder of all of America’s history. He’d be a living archive of America’s music and conscience, a testament of the power of song and culture to nudge history along, to push American events towards more humane and justified ends. He would have the audacity and the courage to sing in the voice of the people, and despite Pete’s somewhat benign, grandfatherly appearance, he is a creature of a stubborn, defiant, and nasty optimism. Inside him he carries a steely toughness that belies that grandfatherly facade and it won’t let him take a step back from the things he believes in. At 90, he remains a stealth dagger through the heart of our country’s illusions about itself. Pete Seeger still sings all the verses all the time, and he reminds us of our immense failures as well as shining a light toward our better angels and the horizon where the country we’ve imagined and hold dear we hope awaits us.
Pete Seeger turns 91 years old today, and he’s still alive and well and singing up in Beacon, NY. I am shy of superlatives, but he is at least one of the greatest living Americans today. He is also one of the most patriotic, with a love for an idea(l) of America that surely transcends any “Country First” shouting or Tea Party mania. Pete Seeger taught me that it is possible to be a left-wing American and not be permanently ashamed to call this country home—because he has taught me that there are things like the First Amendment that we can still have faith in as sacred text, even when much else is disillusioning and dispiriting and depressing and disastrous. Pete Seeger got me through a summer in Washington; he gets me through every day in Princeton.
Now I must return to writing about Gothic literature in French and about the historiography of the Salem witch trials in English, because I don’t have as much time as I once did to write on this blog about my heroes. But if you know a Pete Seeger song, sing it today; if you think you don’t, you probably do. (You might find some in a little book called Rise Up Singing.) I’ll leave you with one of my recently-rediscovered favorite Seeger songs, “Tomorrow Is a Highway“:
Tomorrow is a highway broad and fair,
And we are the many who’ll travel there.
Tomorrow is a highway broad and fair,
And we are the workers who’ll build it there;
And we will build it there!
Come, let us build a way for all mankind,
A way to leave this evil year behind,
To travel onward to a better year
Where love is, and there will be no fear,
Where love is and no fear!
Now is the shadowed year when evil men,
When men of evil thunder war again.
Shall tyrants once again be free to tread,
Above our most brave and honored dead?
Our brave and honored dead!
O, comrades, come and travel on with me,
We’ll go to our new year of liberty.
Come, walk upright, along the people’s way,
From darkness, unto the people’s day;
From dark, to sunlit day!
Tomorrow is a highway broad and fair
And hate and greed shall never travel there
But only they who’ve learned the peaceful way
Of brotherhood, to greet the coming day;
We hail the coming day!