Though I believe that folk, most especially in the way it functions as a channel of engagement and public discourse, is by definition an agency of cultural change, I have been reluctant to use this blog as a forum for advocating explicit change of any one type. Perpetuating the relevance of folk as an agenda in and of itself, it seems to me, precludes taking sides for any particular agenda which might be carried by folk, lest we alienate opposing values, and in doing so, diminish the potential of folk to remain dialogic.
But it's pledge drive time at our local radio station, and the Nobel Prize selection committee does seem to have a set criteria for signatories and public outcry as an establishing principle for prize consideration. And it's hard to imagine anyone genuinely untouched by the compassionate, tireless work in the name of human dignity, empowerment, and awareness which Pete Seeger continues to consider his life's work after over sixty years as a recording artist and activist.
So when my mother, who once used Seeger's songs as a vehicle for planting the seeds of peace and justice in both myself and in the inner city classrooms of New York City, became the most recent in a long series of folks to remind me of the recent petition to recognize Pete's long-standing contribution to social, environmental, and political change, it seemed like the right time to use the soapbox to do some particular good.
Though there are parallels to be made between the community ownership of song upon which this blog is predicated, and the ways in which Pete Seeger's work has bridged time and space to touch and affect the rest of us, one one level, honoring this particular life's work is made more challenging by our focus on coversong. For, though there are certainly tunes that one can point to as written by Seeger during his long career, the question of coverage and song origin is complex and unclear in much of Seeger's catalog.
Which is to say: the son of an ethnomusicologist and a true believer in folk as a mechanism for tying past to future, perhaps more than any artist in history, Seeger has lived folk song as if it truly did belong to the community for which it speaks. As such, Seeger's contribution to folk was one of popularization as much as songcraft; many of the songs he is best known for have their origin in the past, and much of his better-known works, like Turn, Turn, Turn, use older components to create new works. Even Seeger's own greatest hits album combines songs written by Pete Seeger with songs popularized by Seeger. And even the better tribute albums out there mix songs which Seeger actually wrote with songs which he made his own.
None of this precludes consideration from the Nobel folks, of course; indeed, it is Seeger's deep sense of the social and folk environment as both purposeful and shared by all of us which is perhaps the most powerful case for his recognition. As such, first and foremost, the aim of today's post is to ask all of you to take a moment and -- in the name of folk itself -- sign your name to the petition asking the Nobel Prize Committee to consider Pete Seeger for this year's Nobel Peace Prize in recognition of his tireless work sowing the seeds of peace.
But of course, you also come here for the music. And there are some great tributes out there, most notably the three sets which the activist-founded, socially conscious folklabel Appleseed Recordings has released in a scant decade of existence; I'm especially enamored of double-disk first release Where Have All The Flowers Gone: The Songs Of Pete Seeger, which in addition to the Ani DiFranco and Bruce Cockburn covers below includes a veritable who's who of big-name inheritors of the activist folkmantle, from Richie Havens and Odetta to Springsteen and Billy Bragg.
Someday, I aspire to the time and energy it would take to approach a proper post on the central influence Pete Seeger and his family -- from father Charles (the ethnomusicologist) to half-siblings Peggy and Mike to half-nephew Neill MacColl and grandson Tao Rodriguez of the Mammals -- have had in defining and continuing to define folk music as a social and political engine of change for almost a century. In the meanwhile, here's a set of personal favorites with a much simpler organizing principle: songs which other folk artists of a certain political bent have learned from or associate with Pete Seeger himself, regardless of authorship, and have recorded in deliberate tribute to this long-standing folk icon.
- Ani DiFranco: My Name Is Lisa Kalvelage*
- Bruce Cockburn: Turn, Turn, Turn
- Richard Shindell: Waist Deep in the Big Muddy
- Natalie Merchant: Which Side Are You On?
- Tony Trischka & Jennifer Kimball: Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring
- Holly Near and Ronnie Gilbert: Precious Friend
- Elizabeth Mitchell: Little Bird, Little Bird
- Kate & Anna McGarrigle: Little Boxes (Petites Boites)
- Eric Bibb: Michael Row the Boat Ashore
- Joan Baez: Sagt Mir Wo Die Blumen Sind?
- The Mammals: Quite Early Morning
- Marlene Dietrich: Where Have All The Flowers Gone
Folk and social consciousness go hand in hand; to support one is to support the other. If you have ever been moved by folksong, sign the petition -- technically, a petition "to persuade [the] American Friends Service Committee to enter Pete Seeger as their nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize 2008 " -- and in doing so help make the case for both Seeger and the folk process itself as an agency of peace. Then, head on over to Appleseed Recordings for the opportunity to purchase Seeger's work, the aforementioned cover albums, and a whole host of other folksongs from a growing stable of socially aware artists actively engaged in using folk music to change the world for the better.
Want more? Today's bonus coversongs offer a tiny, tiny taste of Seeger as political song interpreter, just in case you're still young enough to have never really encountered his own continued celebration of his folkpeers and ancestors:
- Pete Seeger: Little Boxes (orig. Malvina Reynolds)
- Pete Seeger: The Draft Dodger Rag (orig. Phil Ochs)
- Pete Seeger: We Shall Overcome (trad.)
Cover Lay Down publishes new materials Sundays, Wednesdays, and the occasional otherday. Join us this weekend as we celebrate one year of coverfolk blogging.