“A hero is someone who understands the responsibility that comes with his freedom.”
Missing Pete Seeger
Americans are proud to speak up. It is a right, this free speech.
During the 1930s, America was hitting a rough patch. It was the time called The Great Depression, the stock market had crashed and people were poor. Brother can you spare a dime. Crops blew away into dust. There was a migration to California in hopes of greener pastures.
Will Rogers spoke up. He was born in Oklahoma and worked his way all the way to New York City. He stood on the stage of the Ziegfeld Follies next to glamour girls and Eddie Cantor and Fannie Brice. He really did simply stand there with a loop of rope in his hand and talked about the day’s headlines.
“The 1928 Republican Convention opened with a prayer. If the Lord can see His way clear to bless the Republican Party the way it’s been carrying on, then the rest of us ought to get it without even asking.” Will Rogers
Woody Guthrie spoke up. He traveled the country organizing labor. Big Business, even in the Depression, was making money but paying poor wages. We need to organize; we need a union. Woody was born in Oklahoma too. He traveled to California and then to New York City. It was there that he married a Martha Graham dancer named Marjorie Mazia. He reminded America that this is our land.
As I went walking that ribbon of highway
I saw above me that endless skyway
And saw below me that golden valley
This land was made for you and me.
Orson Wells spoke up. Along with John Houseman and Jean Rosenthal, they created the musical called The Cradle Will Rock. They did it on the WPA paycheck too. We need to unionize! Just before the show was to open, the theater was shut down. Can’t have a pro-union show, y’know. Famously, they found another theater and rented a piano for five dollars and the audience followed the pick-up truck through Manhattan to the new space. No costumes, no scenery, no orchestra; they performed that night.
Marc Blitzstein performed on stage that night, he wrote the music. Actors could not perform because of their union. Instead, they stood up in the audience and sang their parts: there was no rule against audience participation.
Set in “Steeltown, USA”, it follows the efforts of Larry Foreman to unionize the town’s workers and combat wicked, greedy businessman Mr. Mister, who controls the town’s factory, press, church and social organization. The piece is almost entirely sung-through, giving it many operatic qualities, although Blitzstein included popular song styles of the time.
Pete Seeger spoke up. He was born in 1919 in Manhattan, New York. At the age of 21, he joined the Almanac Singers (Woody Guthrie was there too). They cut a couple of albums, Songs for John Doe and The Talking Union and then more. Protest songs, peace songs, he even sang for Eleanor Roosevelt at the Canteen of Federal Labor in 1944.
Then Pete got shut down. He was black-listed by the House of Un-American Activities Committee. He was held in contempt of Congress. We know this part of the story. Mr. Seeger did not plead the Fifth Amendment as so many had, he refused on the ground that it would violate his First Amendment rights — the right to free speech.
In the early 60s, he was still black listed and he still worked. He marched with Martin Luther King from Selma to Montgomery leading them singing We Shall Overcome. He was now a veteran when the new war protests and songs came out.
Check this out, in 2009 he sang This Land is Your Land at Barack Obama’s Inaugural concert in Washington DC. In 2011, he was marching with Occupy Wall Street in New York. Pete died in 2014 at the age of 94.
After the McCarthy Era, America struggled to recover its voice. The power of that inquisition forced everyone to conform and conform hard. The Beatniks (see the Russia inference?) and then the Hippies found new and some very old ways to protest. But, our freedoms were surely pressed flat.
Then in the 80s, Ronald Reagan broke the labor unions. He forced the air traffic controllers to go back to work. Now, in the Republican party; pro-labor, unions and higher minimum wages are spoken of with spit in the mouth.
Today, we have a Trump who calls our fourth estate, journalism, an enemy of the people. Free speech is under attack. The amendments of our very own constitution are under attack.
We have protests, organized protests at the grassroots level. Some follow the Indivisible guide and park in their representatives office. We see them wave their signs when the teevee cameras show up.
I’m missing Pete Seeger. He knew how to lead a group in singing a protest song. How to peacefully protest our government, it was his life time goal. We have a voice and we have a vote and the great ones say it out loud.
“If there’s something wrong, speak up!” Pete Seeger