Losing them, fixing them, forgetting to put them in
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It may seem a farfetched comparison, but for many years I figured I pursued a theory of cultural guerilla tactics. I could not hold a steady job on a single radio or TV station. But I could appear as a guest on a thousand and one disc jockey shows, say a few words while they played a few records. I could not hold down a job at the average college or university, but I could appear to sing some songs, and then be on my way. I kept as home base this one sector of our society which refused to knuckle under to the witch-hunters: college students. Now, I figure, most of my job is done. The young people who have learned songs from me are taking them to thousands of places where I myself could never expect to go. Though I cannot get on network TV, many of my friends do. Though I cannot get a job in a university, those whom I have helped get interested in folk music are getting them.
Attention songwriters: We need new songs —
— Some songs so funny that even people who disagree will find themselves doubled up with laughter.
— Some so shocking they will chill you to the bone.
— Some so warm they will make you feel like throwing your arms about the nearest person to you.
— Melodies so catchy you’ll find yourself whistling them as you walk down the street.
— Songs so strong that even cowards will stop fleeing and turn with a breath of courage.
And what am I accomplishing? some will ask. Well, I know I’m just one more grain of sand in this world, but I’d rather throw my weight, however small, on the side of what I think is right than selfishly look after my own fortunes and have to live with a bad conscience. The voter-registration campaign is inching forward slowly, and there’s no doubt that within a few years Mississippi is going to be a much freer and happier place in general.
No doubt there’s some hurting going on now. There was during the American Revolution, too. And G.B. Shaw once said, “I can no more show a play without causing pain than a dentist can do his job without causing some pain. The morals of the country are in a bad way and of course it hurts to touch them.”
I guess in modern life you have to plan. But there’s such a thing as planning too much. There’s such a thing as planning too early. Here’s what jazz musicians can teach the politicians of the world: we must plan for improvisation.
Americans are surely some of the most mobile people in the world. From the dissenters and draft dodgers of Europe who came here in past centuries to the restless job seekers of today, we have been uprooted people. But there comes a time for nations as well as individuals to settle down and solve their problems right where they are.
Modern civilization developed highly professional specialists in the arts as well as sciences. But comes the time when the intelligent person will say, “Hold on!” Just because we have cars is no reason to forget how to walk. Because we have books is no reason to forget how to tell a good story. Because we have cameras is no reason to forget the fun of wielding pencil and brush. And because we have the phonograph is no reason to forget how to make music.
The apex of a pyramid can be only as high as the base is broad. We cannot have great professionals unless we have also many amateur participants. How can one have big-league baseball teams unless there are many sandlot players?
Often the main problem is how to loosen an audience up and make them lose self-consciousness. A good belly laugh is one of the best ways to do this, but don’t risk the sour aftertaste of an unsuccessful attempt at humor. Perhaps, more than any trick or artifice, it is best simply to enjoy yourself completely and trust that it will be catching.
. . . you have to be a practicing schizophrenic in this world. You have to work to lay the foundations for a better world, because you know that only in a more just society can some of these problems really be solved. But you also have to make do as best you can in the present world. I kidded a New York City settlement-house worker once with the famous quote, “Social work is a Band-Aid on the festered ass of democracy.” But he seriously countered, “I’ll agree. But I’m not going to throw up my hands. I’m going to keep putting on Band-Aids and putting on Band-Aids. I don’t refuse to sweep the floor even if I do live in a tenement where the dirt seeps out of every crack.”
MR. TAVENNER: I want to know whether or not you were engaged in a . . . service to the Communist party in entertaining. . . .
MR. SEEGER: I have sung for Americans of every political persuasion, and I am proud that I never refuse to sing to an audience, no matter what religion or color of their skin, or situation of life. I have sung in hobo jungles, and I have sung for the Rockefellers, and I am proud that I have never refused to sing for anybody . . . because I disagreed with their political opinion, and I am proud of the fact that my songs seem to cut across and find perhaps a unifying thing, basic humanity.
In each of my concerts there are some old songs which you and I have sung together many times before, but which can always stand another singing. Like another sunrise, or another kiss, this also is an act of reaffirmation.
Our songs are, like you and me, the product of a long, long human chain, and even the strangest ones are distantly related to each other, as are we all. Each of us can be proud to be a link in this chain. Let’s hope there are many more links to come.
No: Let’s make damn sure there are more links to come.
© Pete Seeger 1972. Simon and Schuster, New York. Reprinted with permission.