NewsCut flashback: Pete Seeger and the meaning of patriotism

The 100th anniversary of the birth of Pete Seeger is Friday. A remembrance is tentatively scheduled for today on All Things Considered, which reminded me of a distant NewsCut post on the subject.

(Originally published on February 29, 2008)

A few weeks ago in this space, we kicked around the question of what defines patriotic. Unfortunately, the discussion was spawned by Michele Obama’s comments, and it’s near impossible to have a reflective conversation that’s not tainted by the passion of a current campaign.

As it happens, though, I stumbled across an American Masters documentary on PBS last night on Pete Seeger, who changed a lot about this country with a banjo and a song.

It came painfully says Seeger, now nearly 89, who acknowledges he still has some friends who are Communists. “I read their newspaper and there’s occasionally some good stories there. And I read the Wall Street Journal and occasionally they have some good stories there.”

His biographer noted that the FBI pursued Seeger until the only job he could get was singing to kids, said David Dunaway. “They never thought there’d be a problem with Pete Seeger singing to six year olds. Little did they know that out of that came not a subversive movement, but an American folk music revival that I think we have to give the FBI credit for helping to establish.”

“My father was a total patriot and his patriotism was completely misunderstood,” his son said in the documentary.

Seeger also visited North Vietnam during the war, though anecdotal evidence suggests he’s not quite as reviled in some quarters (update to that link) today as Jane Fonda, who also visited Hanoi.

Lost amid the fog of age, however, is the role a TV variety show could play in political debate in the ’60s. In November 1967, the height of the Vietnam War, the Smothers Brothers invited Seeger on their show (he hadn’t been allowed on TV in more than a decade), in which he sang “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy.” It was censored by CBS. The Smothers Brothers protested, and he was allowed back to sing it again He set the audience up with 4 minutes of traditional folk music considered acceptable, and then hit them with one of the most powerful — if forgotten — moments in the history of television.

Well, I’m not going to point any moral;

I’ll leave that for yourself

Maybe you’re still walking, you’re still talking

You’d like to keep your health.

But every time I read the papers

That old feeling comes on;

We’re — waist deep in the Big Muddy

And the big fool says to push on.

Pete Seeger still stands on a street corner of his town in upstate New York, holding up a sign that says “Peace,” and people still drive by wondering why on earth one person thinks he can change the world.

  • J Allen

    I watched that Smothers Brothers program back in 1967 as a kid, and I still can hear Pete singing and that deep twelve-string guitar being strummed. I got the reference to LBJ too. Not that it was subtle.

    • ec99

      As I recall, The Smothers Brothers were the first to have Janis Ian sing “Society’s Child.” Dick Clark wouldn’t let her on American Bandstand until later.

  • MrE85

    You always know it’s summer when the NewsCut reruns begin.

    Pete had the words “This Machine Surrounds Hate and Forces It To Surrender” written on his battered old banjo. It was a more peaceful take on Woody Guthrie’s more direct message on his guitar.

    • The NewsCut reruns are part of the final days of NewsCut. I have probably rerun about 8 pieces over 12 years. I hardly think you can set your calendar to that fact.

      • Barton

        “Final days of NewsCut.” I am happy for you, but so sad for the rest of us.

        • DotWonder

          i’m in denial about this being the final days of NewsCut. i will miss this oasis in midst of the chaos

          • Jack

            I am in denial as well. I will really miss this fine group of commentators.

      • boB from WA

        Gee maybe you could take a cue from the “Car Talk” guys and do “Newscut Classic”

    • Rob

      Summer? It’s still late winter.

  • J Allen

    This is a good a time as any to recall the specific cause of CBS’s dropping the Smothers Brothers show back in April, 1969. CBS thought it was in “bad taste” for the program to air a song by Joan Baez where she dedicated it to her husband who was a draft resister serving a jail term at the time. Yeah, bad taste. Right. I’m reminded of Mr. Collins’ earlier post today regarding “arrogance” by those who feel their sensibilities are offended that never seems to go out of fashion.

    • Barton

      another one of Mr. Collin’s posts where I was disappointed he closed the comment section at the same time appreciating that he closed the comment section…..

    • Oh, man – I remember that dust up about the Smothers Brothers. They were right then and proven right over the decades. As was Pete Seeger. When I listen to music of that era, it fills me with hope for a better future.

    • 212944

      David Steinberg’s satirical sermons was also in the mix. The network forbade them at one point and Tommy Smothers insisted Steinberg do another. That one never aired and the show was cancelled shortly after.

  • Rob

    American Exceptionalism abounds. Gods rest ye well, Mr. Seeger.

  • Barton

    My parents raised me on folk music, specifically The Weavers and Pete Seeger (and some very republican Irish/anti-English stuff). I still remember gasps by adults as I (as a 7 year old in the mid-70s) would sing out loudly “Solidarity Forever” (words below). I cried when Pete died: my parents both called to make sure I knew the news and that I was okay, in fact. I wrote papers in college about folk music and the labor movement – gosh, I wish I’d stuck with that instead of focusing on women serving in Vietnam for my master’s thesis……

    Pete was the ultimate Patriot.

    When the union’s inspiration through the workers’ blood shall run,
    There can be no power greater anywhere beneath the sun;
    Yet what force on earth is weaker than the feeble strength of one,
    But the union makes us strong.
    Solidarity forever,
    Solidarity forever,
    Solidarity forever,
    For the union makes us strong.
    Is there aught we hold in common with the greedy parasite,
    Who would lash us into serfdom and would crush us with his might?
    Is there anything left to us but to organize and fight?
    For the union makes us strong.
    It is we who plowed the prairies; built the cities where they trade;
    Dug the mines and built the workshops, endless miles of railroad laid;
    Now we stand outcast and starving midst the wonders we have made;
    But the union makes us strong.
    All the world that’s owned by idle drones is ours and ours alone.
    We have laid the wide foundations; built it skyward stone by stone.
    It is ours, not to slave in, but to master and to own.
    While the union makes us strong.
    They have taken untold millions that they never toiled to earn,
    But without our brain and muscle not a single wheel can turn.
    We can break their haughty power, gain our freedom when we learn
    That the union makes us strong.
    In our hands is placed a power greater than their hoarded gold,
    Greater than the might of armies, magnified a thousand-fold.
    We can bring to birth a new world from the ashes of the old
    For the union makes us strong.

    • Barton

      the above song is sung to the tune of “John Brown’s Body”/”The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”

      Also, Pete didn’t write it: I just associate it with him so much.

    • Kassie

      Jerry got me this great kids’ book about Pete Seeger, written by Colin Meloy, for me for Christmas. I highly recommend it: https://www.amazon.com/Golden-Thread-Song-Pete-Seeger/dp/0062368257

  • Brian Simon

    Why is peace, still, such a radical concept?