I was thinking, moments ago, about what it takes to defeat Trumpism and to restore the American dream of truth and justice for all. I was thinking about the need for unity among Democrats (both centrists and progressives) and about the need to appeal to at least some of those who fall outside the confines of the two party system but who have the sense to understand what a bad deal for the country Trump has been.
The word Unity was in my head. Next thing I knew, I started singing the chorus to the classic old school hip-hop anthem, U.N.I.T.Y. by Queen Latifah. This got me onto YouTube, where I started thinking, about, to paraphrase my old Hudson Valley neighbor, Pete Seeger, the power of song.
But then, after some Latifah (and a bit of Public Enemy) I decided that what I wanted to hear was a bit of gospel. And by that, I meant a bit of old style gospel. And in particular, this song, in this version by the great Mavis Staples
I’ve always really liked this song. Here’s why. Back in the 1980’s, while my main musical diet consisted of bands like Black Flag, the Meat Puppets, the Fall and Hüsker Dü, I remember — via Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde (also in steady rotation on my turntable) — starting to immerse myself a bit in the various folk music eras of the past. This — along with my punk vinyl collection - was very much part and parcel of my growing awareness of politics and my recognition of myself as a young progressive and as anti-Reagan. And so one day, I happened to be home, watching a bit of TV and had the set tuned to our local PBS station (Channel 13 — NY) and that is when I discovered the Weavers
And from this, I became rather enamored. As a child of the 60’s, I certainly had a bit of familiarity with folk music, but it was mainly in the form of people like Peter, Paul and Mary, Donovan, the Kingston Trio, not to mention guitar strumming young nuns in church — this was, after all, the era of Vatican II and of “folk masses.” But watching this documentary and learning about the Weavers was something entirely new for me. It gave me a sense of the radical populism and earthy progressivism of folk music. It gave me a vision of folk as a people’s culture. It also made me hope one day to meet Pete Seeger. More on that later!
From the Weavers, it was on to learning more about Woody Guthrie. And world music. Listening to this group of harmonizing troubadours paved the way for me to expand my musical diet and have it range from Dave Van Ronk to to Phil Ochs to Fela Kuti to Miriam Makeba and paved the way for me to fall in love with the music of Billy Bragg
So, imagine my delight when as an undergrad in my early 20s, I joined with some friends to attend a march against Reaganism and to simultaneously celebrate the famous 1963 march on Washington led by MLK. He would give his legendary “I have a dream” speech at that march. There we were, twenty years later, calling attention to the unfulfilled aspects of King’s speech. And as we began marching, up on stage was Pete Seeger and his banjo, giving us some musical accompaniment.
Years later, I would get the same rush when participating in a march against W’s illegal Iraq invasion and occupation; there, singing for us, were some of the members of Chumbawamba, the lefty Brit band that gave us this great pop hit
I was happy to be in their presence! I marched with the chorus lyrics “I get knocked down, but i get up again, you’re never gonna keep me down” playing in my head. I felt happily righteous and energized to be in a big, beautiful, spirited, crowd, one that understood that the Iraq was a scam and that if there is no justice there can be no peace.
So, today, in thinking about where we all are and my need for at least a few glimmers of hope, my mind turned to this gospel song. And to the gospel tradition, and thus to African-American history, which is a history of a long struggle, one well described by MLK and both various other black prophets. And in this song, there is clearly much in the way of wisdom and prophecy. There is, for example, the calls for unity (”the city and country together,” “black and white together.” “young and old together.”) Beautiful, truthful and wise sentiments for a time of deep divisions, divisions — I might add — being fueled by enemies of the American ideal and by those with a political agenda. the song also clearly expresses pro-union, pro-worker sentiments (“the union is behind us, and we shall not be moved”) and this sentiment is so much needed now, at a time of systematic attacks on workers. But the song also expresses the idea of standing firm, being unmovable, like the tree that stands by the water. Yes, that image comforts and inspires me. Standing firm and not allowing ourselves to feel defeated in spite of the fact that we have a madman in power who is trying to wear us all down mentally.
Oh, and speaking of Pete Seeger and trees that stand by the water, and my hope to one day meet the great songwriter and activist, here is what happened to me. In early 2006, shortly after getting married, my wife and I bought a house in Beacon, NY in the Hudson Valley. Shortly after moving to this place, i wished to involve myself in local activist circles. And so i did. And within a few weeks, I was introduced to Pete. I knew he lived here. It turned out that he was a familiar presence and that he still performed, mostly for free, at local events. I was introduced to him at a local die-in protest against the war for oil in Iraq. We chatted a bit then and did so many times afterward. He embodied what “we shall not be moved’ was about . So, I’ll end with these two images which i took.
This was taken at one of our river fests. That is the Hudson River in the background. Those who know about Pete Seeger know very well about his activism revolving around the effort to clean up the Hudson. And about the annual festival which he helped to start which carries out this goal. The Beacon river festivals, which Pete also helped start, raise money for the Beacon Sloop Club, which also helps carry on this work. Again, this is all about community. And about changing things by just getting involved. Incidentally, after he passed away, this park was renamed for Pete and Toshi. A much deserved honor.
The last image is also very revealing about Pete and the idea of bringing people together. While he was still alive, Pete and some of his local musician friends would organize sing-a-longs on the streets of Beacon. It was great. it was inspiring. it brought people together.
I guess I’ll just end by encouraging those of us in this fight against Trumpism is to tap into music and into the power of song. Can music change the world? Yes, why not? Music moves the spirit, after all, and spirit can be a people fuel for activism and change.
And because I once chatted with Pete about Bruce, I think maybe I’ll end with this. Seems fitting