Monday, January 19, 2009

I roamed and I rambled and I followed my footsteps


(This Land is Your Land, featuring Pete Seeger & Bruce Springsteen)

For those who didn't recognize the elderly banjo-playing gentleman next to Springsteen today at the pre-inauguration celebration on the Mall in D.C. (see above video), that was a national treasure named Pete Seeger:
Peter "Pete" Seeger (born May 3, 1919) is an American folk singer, political activist, and a key figure in the mid-20th century American folk music revival. A fixture on nationwide radio in the 1940s, he also had a string of hit records during the early 50s as a member of The Weavers, most notably the 1950 recording of Leadbelly's "Goodnight, Irene" that topped the charts for 13 weeks in 1950.[1] As a result of an anti-communist blacklist, his career as a mainstream performer was seriously curtailed. In the 1960s, he re-emerged on the public scene as a pioneer of protest music in support of international disarmament and civil rights and, more recently, as a tireless activist for environmental causes.

As a song writer, he is best known as the author or co-author of "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?", "If I Had a Hammer (The Hammer Song)" (composed with Lee Hays of The Weavers), and "Turn, Turn, Turn!", which have been recorded by many artists both in and outside the folk revival movement and are still sung throughout the world. "Flowers" was a hit recording for The Kingston Trio (1962), Marlene Dietrich, who recorded it in English, German and French (1962), and Johnny Rivers (1965). "If I Had a Hammer" was a hit for Peter, Paul & Mary (1962) and Trini Lopez (1963), while The Byrds popularized "Turn, Turn, Turn!" in the mid-1960s, as did Judy Collins in 1964. Seeger was one of the folksingers most responsible for popularizing the spiritual "We Shall Overcome" (also recorded by Joan Baez and many other singer-activists) that became the acknowledged anthem of the 1960s American Civil Rights Movement, soon after folk singer and activist Guy Carawan introduced it at the founding meeting of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in 1960.


Dude is 89 years old! There is hardly a better symbol of overcoming the rampant fear and impending hysteria that accompanied The Cold War and McCarthyism than Pete. It's thus a fitting symbol that he was invited to sing one of the most misunderstood songs in American music, "This Land is Your Land":

"This Land Is Your Land" is one of the United States' most famous folk songs. Its lyrics were written by Woody Guthrie in 1940 on an existing melody, in response to Irving Berlin's "God Bless America", which Guthrie considered unrealistic and complacent. Tired of hearing Kate Smith sing it on the radio, he wrote a response originally called "God Blessed America for Me".[1] Guthrie varied the lyrics over time, sometimes including more overtly political verses than appear in recordings or publications.

Guthrie lifted the melody of "This Land Is Your Land" essentially note-for-note from "When the World's on Fire", a Baptist hymn recorded by country legends the Carter Family ten years earlier. However, one source claims that a Carter Family original, "Little Darlin' Pal of Mine," was the source of the melody for "This Land."[2] He wrote the song in 1940 and recorded it in 1944. The song was not published until 1951, when it was included in a mimeographed booklet of ten songs with typed lyrics and hand drawings. The booklet was sold for twenty-five cents, and copyrighted in 1945.

The first known professionally printed publication was in 1956 by Ludlow Music (now a unit of The Richmond Organization), which administered the publishing rights to Guthrie's tune. Ludlow later issued versions with piano and guitar accompaniments.

In 2002, it was one of 50 recordings chosen that year by the Library of Congress to be added to the National Recording Registry [1].

I haven't checked any wingnut web sites, but I'm sure some of the more excitable ones are irate about Pete's singing the often overlooked verse of this rabble-rousing, communist-sympathetic, anti-free market song. I'm told simply hearing these lyrics sung will make decent women abort their babies, tough men turn soft, and hippie pinko teachers yearn for universal health care:

There was a big high wall there that tried to stop me;
Sign was painted, it said private property;
But on the back side it didn't say nothing;
That side was made for you and me.
Sick, disgusting, likely code for a signal from the Kremlin to overthrow the government.

Oh, and Bono said something hopeful about Palestinians. Shocking.

Here's Woody singing TLIYL, without the radical verse:


(h/t to A Large Dog)