Monday, February 3, 2014

Pete’s Hammer and the Season of Grieving

All tyranny needs to gain a foothold is for people of good conscience to ... remain silent.—Thomas Jefferson

“The season for grieving,” in the words of my buddy Keith Whitton, is what I’ve come to know the winter as. He’s right. Statistically speaking, the lion’s share of death and dying occurs in the months where the trees are bare and a roaring fire and bottle of whiskey are things of beauty. Not like either is ever an unwelcome sight.
     Now, before I get further in today’s rambles, I’ll try and refrain from making this blog turn-out too morbidly. Despite my depressive tendencies as of late (which are getting better all the time) I’ve got plenty to write about here that has nothing to do with mourning and general morbidity. I’m thinking tomorrow I’ll write about my latest disgust with the ever-present, omnipotent security state. Then again, that might even be more depressing than detailing someone’s agonizing death from (insert the most horrible illness you can think of here).
     Back to today’s scrawl: a new year always brings about new things. Some of them good, but many of them, well, yeah. New laws, new bans on certain products (grrr…those assholes will rue the day they banned the production of incandescent lightbulbs…grrr!...That was me growling, by the way. It’s fierce, if you could hear it in person) and of course, the first few celebrity deaths of a new year. The rule of thumb seems to be “they die in threes”. Well, yesterday brought news of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s demise. He was one of the few modern-day actors I actually dug, plus he had the class and dignity to fight his demons in private, unlike many contemporary celebrity trainwrecks. It’s sad whenever someone loses that war, but at least he’s free of his burdens now. Here we are, just a few days into February and I haven’t bothered to look up a “Celebs who’ve died in 2014 so far,” but I’m sure the list of personalities from film, politics, etc. is more than a triptych at this point of household names.
    This year has certainly been unkind to great musicians. Let’s see, we’ve already lost the great Texas singer/songwriter Steve Fromholz, blues great Jeff Strahan, Phil Everly and just the other day, the sad news appeared on the sea of links I regularly attempt to peruse on that Pete Seeger had passed.
     Talk about a moment where the breath leaves you. “What? No! That’s impossible,” I thought, thinking the nonagenarian folk music giant would/should/could live forever (much in the same fashion I used to think about Les Paul and Doc Watson).
      Thinking about the tall, reedy banjo-playing gentleman didn’t really start until last night, when I watched an American Masters episode about him. It struck me how much Pete’s music has been a part of my life (and his influence extends to all of us who’ve sung songs of truth, joy and pain) although I’ve yet to own a Pete Seeger record. I plan on changing that travesty here pretty soon. I heard his songs on mixtapes that my grandparents made when I was a youngster, and later on, I heard covers of his songs (chief among them the Byrds’ rendition of “Turn, Turn, Turn!”) that elevated many rock groups’ coolness/substance factors tenfold.
      At the risk of throwing a huge cliché out here, the man was simply a giant of American music. Whether you heard Pete doing his own songs or not is irrelevant. In some way, if you’re a music fan or, especially, if you fancy yourself a folksinger, Pete Seeger’s connection is there. Irrelevant, also, are whatever notions one might have about Seeger’s political views. Although it seems to be “cool”, currently, to be intolerant of one whose politics you might not agree with, Pete Seeger’s contributions and lifelong commitment to his art and bringing people together in his own way transcended any knee-jerk reactions to witch-hunt-worthy scare tactics that he was a victim of. Besides, those who demonized him and withdrew him from the public's view were proven to be liars. Yeah, that'd be you, Senator Joseph Mc Carthy. You and Hoover both ruined a great number of lives, but anyhuevos, I digress. One of his most famous tunes, “If I Had a Hammer”, which I first heard on a Trini Lopez 45, shouldn’t just be thought of as an anthem for the Communist Party or whatever progressive or collectivist ideas one might/could assign to it. If anything, it should be an anthem of positivity and love. Music is always spoken of as the “universal language,” and that sort of song, with its simple, hummable and catchy melody and uplifting lyrics serve as a prime example of that idea. Not for nothing was the song adopted as a theme for those who fought for civil rights in the 1960s.
      A large chunk of the American Masters segment focused on Pete’s activism and anti-war songs during the Vietnam era. Although he had gained nominal re-entry into the public consciousness during that time, after years as a victim of McCarthy’s blacklist, his stance against the war and songs like “Waist Deep in Big Muddy” assured that he wouldn’t be accepted by the mainstream in the way that Peter, Paul and Mary (who covered many Seeger tunes) were. If anything, Johnny Cash put it best in an interview that was shown on the program (circa early 70s). He told Seeger that he believed him to be “one of the most patriotic artists ever,” despite the criticism of Seeger’s politics. What is patriotism anyway? I tend to favor Thomas Jefferson’s oft-cited quote about dissent being the highest form of patriotism than any line-towing, jingoistic claptrap that seems to become the order of the day, party affiliation or party-in-charge irrelevant.
      Although I do not write overtly political songs, I’d like to think that in striving to be a better lyricist and not going the easy route in songwriting is a part of that tradition. I don’t tow lines very well. Whether I get invited to the cool kids’ shindigs or not based on something I said or sang is an idea I couldn’t give less of a shit about, and I know Pete Seeger felt the same. Nothing cool or innovative was ever done by those who just followed the tide of safety and surety. From the guy who invented the printing press to the guy who wrote The Sound and the Fury, coloring outside the lines a bit gets things done and generates new perspectives. That’s who Pete Seeger was. For the better part of 94 years, he made people think, pissed people off and got people to tap their feet. Good job, Mr. Seeger. I only hope that some of us folksingers, writers, visual artists, inventors, etc., have picked up your hammer.
     94 is a damn good run. I fervently hope I get to do the things I love for a great long while, too. Here's to you, Mr. Seeger and to those who have the gumption to give legs to their ideas, no matter how crazy the naysayers might see them as.

P.S.: Anterior to what I wrote a bit about not writing overt political songs, that's one thing I've been meaning to get to. You see, before my buddy Big Tom passed on, we were writing an anti-TSA song that I never got around to finishing. These days I'm getting better about finishing things I start and feeling more and more organized and motivated every day, so I'm thinking not only will the TSA song ("The TSA Groped My Freedom Away") will soon see the light of day, but I'm feeling like writing one about those fear merchants at the NSA...hmmm...a theme developing...

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