Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Singing All the Verses

I heard an interview with Bruce Springsteen recently.  He was talking about singing “This Land is Your Land” with Pete Seeger at Obama’s inauguration four years ago. There was some worry that the song would be too long, and someone suggested cutting the verse about standing on breadlines, thinking it might hit too close to home, after all, this was a celebration:

In the squares of the city, in the shadow of the steeple,
By the relief office I saw my people,
As they stood there hungry, I stood there wondering if,
This land was made for you and me.
--Woody Guthrie, This Land is Your Land

But Pete said, “No, we have to sing all the verses.” 

Pete Seeger was almost ninety years old when he sang “This Land is Your Land” at the inauguration.  He was over ninety years old when he marched with Occupy Wall Street protestors, singing and waving his cane in the air.  He’s been alive for almost a century and he’s still out on the streets singing all the verses.  That’s what I admire about Pete, he sings all the verses all the time.  He doesn't seem to get tired, and he's good at teaching his listeners the words so that we can sing along.   I’m not sure anyone could do what he has done, but I hope that if I’m still around when I’m ninety I can say that I tried. 

Sometimes listening to Pete’s songs makes me unbelievably sad.  Fourty, fifty years and we’re still making the same mistakes.  Pete’s still singing the same songs.  When I was little, my parents had a bootlegged copy of a concert Pete gave with Arlo Guthrie at Wolf Trap Farm Park in 1976, and I loved those tapes.  I have such clear memories of singing with Pete's voice from the back of our van.  It's still almost impossible to resist the urge to join in when he asks for harmony and starts shouting the words over the sound of the banjo, the band, and the audience already singing along. I can still sing most of the words to all the songs Pete and Arlo sang, and the frightening thing is, they’re still relevant.  Pointless war, hopeless mistreatment of the environment, disregard for human life, these are the themes that run through Pete Seeger’s music and Woody Guthrie’s words.  It takes an amazing amount of courage and perseverance to continue singing all the words when all the evidence points to the fact that people just aren’t listening.  Perhaps we’ve just not sung loud enough or long enough yet. 

I hold Pete Seeger up as an example of a person who practices what he preaches, who lives the way he would like others to live, who has amazing patience for teaching, and infinite capacity for learning.  So if you’ve been wondering why I constantly reference Pete Seeger in talking about justice and social change, it’s because of this: Pete Seeger sings all the verses.

 Pete Seeger, Arlo Guthrie, and Shenandoah singing "This Land is Your Land" 

(This isn't the concert at Wolf Trap, but it's from that tour)