We shall overcome
Banjo is the humblest of musical instruments. And Pete Seeger was the gentlest of of Americans. But together they shook the world's most powerful empire for almost a century through the sheer power of their song. The folk music legend died in peace at the beginning of the new year at the age of ninety four and his banjo only a little younger has fallen silent. But their music lives on in defiant optimism of a better life for everybody on our planet.
Seeger's signature was there written in hand on his banjo. "This machine surrounds hatred and forces it to surrender". That was the power of their song. But as Tom Morello, the young contemporary guitarist and socio-political activist of E Street Band and Rage Against The Machine remembered in his tribute to his idol, Seeger carried the same fire in his voice and his banjo the same rage in its strings as any angry protest rapper of our day. Seeger despite his sweet pacifist Santa looks of late was always a threat.
Who did he threaten and who felt threatened by this troubadour is the stuff of the history of the last century that spills on to our own 21st century. When he started singing it was depression time in the US . And he sang for the factory and farm workers who were its worst victims. His "Talking Union" is a hit from those times. Soon there was war. Hitler was gobbling up Europe. And Seeger came up with this black humor against the Nazis "Round and Round Hitler's Grave". Not a real surprise for he was collaborating with his friend and comrade, Woody Guthrie who had inscribed in his guitar the motto "This machine kills the Fascists".
"Turn, Turn, Turn" is an anthemic Seegar song ..And there he with banjo at every turn of the history of his people . There is a iconic picture of him playing at labour canteen in the forties with the First lady of America. Mrs Rossevelt listening in awe or admiration. The 1950s were difficult years for all progressives in America. So was it for Seeger who remained an unrepentant communist, but a communist with a small 'c' after he came to know of of Stalin's crimes in the Soviet Unionof those days. The McCarthy era witch hunt of leftists saw Seeger being hauled up before the House Un American Activities Committee to answer questions on his political associations.
"I am not going to answer any question as to my association.... I will be very glad to tell you my life if you want to hear it" he told his interrogators. And this in conclusion "I have sung for for Americans of every political persuasion and I am proud that I never refused to sing to an audience no matter what religion or colour of their skin or situation in life. I have sung in hobo jungles, for Rockfellers and I am proud I have never refused to sing for any body. That's the only answer I can give along that line". "If I Had A Hammer" - an evergreen song of protest is a product of the period.
The late sixties of the last century were a spring time of protest in America as in the rest of the world. The Civil rights movement of African Americans under Martin Luther King rocked America. And when millions marched to Washington in 1966 demanding end to discrimination of the blacks they were singing Seeger. His "We Shall Overcome" continues to this day to be the battle cry of the wretched and the oppressed of the earth. The anti-war movement peaked in America in the next decade. And Segeer again came up with its ringing anthem "Bring them home" a plea for America to get out of Vietnam which they finally did.
"Where Have All The Flowers Gone" is another wrenching cry for peace on earth and justice for all". When there was Iraq after Vietnam, then another generation was marching to the words of Segeer calling for end to war and letting the flowers bloom. Seeger's epic song based on Mexican resistance to oppression "Guantanamera" found a new resonance in the following years when American launched its endless war on terror following the terrorist downing of its new York World Trade Centre on a Sept 11.
But there was also hope which Seeger never failed to share. Obama offered one such hope for his people. And there he was in his late eighties, his voice cracking, fingers slowly freezing to lead with his immortal "This Land Is Your Land" as the first Black President in his nation's history took office in Washington.
And Seeger is now history. Not any history. But history of his people. But even history of a people can be one better. Segeer is now also part of the folklore. Not just American, but part of the universal folklore of the power of song.
An earlier version of this article had appeared in "OPEN VOICES " the half yearly magazine published by the senior students of "PALLIKOODAM", a non-conventional educational institution in Kottayam founded by Mary Roy.