Pete Seeger was organizing all the time, wherever he went. He sang in union halls—to get strikers onto the picket line for yet another zero-degree daybreak after weeks without pay. He refused to sing in segregated halls—to model anti-racist solidarity for other musicians. He sang in hootenannies—to show young white liberals that supporting armed anti-colonial forces in South Africa would bring them the joy that comes from fantastic harmonies. He sang along the Hudson—because suburbanites need a sense of togetherness to fight for a fracking ban.
In the many accolades Pete Seeger received in the days, weeks, and months after his death, there was often something missing—as absent in tributes from admirers who share his revolutionary politics as in those aiming to reclaim him for respectability. That absence is Seeger’s role as an organizer, and, more broadly, the role of music (and other kinds of cultural work) as organizing, which his life exemplifies.
Seeger’s work as an organizer may have been most obvious, its goals most blatant, in the field—at a miners’ local, at an anti-war demonstration, at a sit-in, or a freedom ride. But his work, as a singer, as a song-collector, as a song-teacher, was not any less a labor of organizing in the concert hall. And that’s not exceptional. That—unrecognized though it often may be—is what makes someone a radical cultural worker. What’s exemplary about Pete Seeger is how damn good at it he was. What we need to pay attention to and learn from is how he did this important work so well.
At the root of what Seeger did, and what separates him from many other singers with progressive and even radical politics—the Joan Baezes and Peter Yarrows, for instance—is his emphasis on the anti-virtuosic, participatory side of his work, his endless willingness to suspend an egotistical commitment to Performance, and to being a Performer. His competent banjo playing and solid singing voice were never the point of his being on stage, and he never tried to make them into more than they were. He wanted his audiences to sing, to learn songs, to feel comfortable being loud, whether or not they were exactly on key. That’s the kind of listening he encouraged—not the silence that surrounds virtuosity.
This participatory, pedagogical approach interweaves with a commitment to reportage. The message of a Seeger concert was often a very simple one: “Listen! The people you admire and want to be with, the organizers you respect, the folks you want to be seen supporting—they’re singing THIS SONG. Here’s how you can sing it too.” His role as a physical bearer of songs served to transmit a portable piece of what it felt like to be there (in Birmingham, in Soweto, in Managua, in Harlan County) from the bodies of one set of singers to another. As a form of radical reportage, this bodily mirroring builds solidarity in a different way than either narrative accounts or analytic presentations, with different effects on its audience.
When Seeger took the stage, some of his organizing was done through the contents of what he communicated—the lyrics he taught and the stories that accompanied the songs. But even more, he organized through the modes of communication he chose, and the political potential they carried. His participatory style and his role as a reporter/teacher both express his core approach: he wanted what he did to be collective, and to be in aid of a political goal. He worked on the premise that the way you, as an organizer, can get to a political aim is by shifting attention from yourself to the mass, and guiding what that mass sees as the center point around which it forms.
Seeger’s choices of musical forms and genres come directly from that approach. His adroit work with certain kinds of familiarity was key to his musical omnivorousness and his ability to jump between musical lineages and disparate sources—African-American spirituals to Zulu mbube to Appalachian Ulster-Scots ballads to the King James Bible’s Ecclesiastes. It does not matter where a melody or a lyrical phrase comes from if people kind of know it. They do not need to really know the elements that make up the song, just more or less what the words are, roughly how it should sound, approximately what the melody’s shaped like. Seeger had a keen ear for what would tip those finely tuned scales of familiarity even when a song came from far outside the listeners’ usual territory in all kinds of other ways. It was an organizing tool he constantly used to make political movements distant from his audiences feel nearby, comfortable, and easy to think of as “our people.”
And it was also a tool that Seeger used to challenge his audiences. An audience member from a 1951 concert remembers Seeger playing “two songs that scared the shit out of me: ‘The Ballad of Gus Hall’ and ‘Arirang.’” To spell it out: in the former, Seeger invited a U.S. audience to join him in expressing solidarity with a member of the leadership of the U.S. Communist Party in the year when his Smith Act conviction was upheld by the Supreme Court, and in the latter, to sing an anthem of Korean unity while U.S. troops fought for partition. Not to sympathize through a screen of plausible deniability, but to actually, actively, identify themselves with the Communist “enemy” both at home and abroad. If he could do it, you could too, and you more or less knew the songs already anyway.
The crystalline militance that story reveals is another part of Seeger’s power as an organizer and cultural worker. His reputation was never as someone who would speak a lot at meetings, but as someone who would always speak last and always get whatever he wanted accomplished. He was not in the room to talk, but to get something done—and he did that by paying close attention to other folks’ agendas, needs, and priorities, and then framing his goals through the terms they themselves used. This is very much what he did on stage. If he wanted white folks in the United States to feel tied to the liberation movement in South Africa, for instance, he would teach a catchy song that he could wrap in appealing fakelore with progressive-tinged European parallels—but one whose musical form shared enough with the songs written and sung in African National Congress guerrilla camps to start making that body of material sound less alien.1
Seeger’s role as an organizer, and the approaches he brought to his organizing practice, are by no means unique. They put him in a lineage that connects back to Ralph Chaplin, Joe Hill, and the other itinerant cultural worker organizers of the Industrial Workers of the World, and their equivalents in other parts of the anarchist and communist movements of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries—Morris Winchevsky and Sh. Ansky, in Yiddish-speaking Europe, for instance.2 And, of course, it has its equivalents in our current movements.
One of the failings of many of the tributes to Pete Seeger over the past months has been to identify him and his work with “folk music” as a genre or style. He never made that mistake—he played the music that worked for each task he wanted to accomplish, whether it came from an old source or new, acoustic or electric, Anglo-American or Crimean or Zulu. Those who follow in Seeger’s footsteps by imitating his sound almost invariably miss the point, wandering off into Bob Geldof territory (like Stephan Said, for instance) or simply drifting into archival irrelevance.3
The young MCs at the EODUB Sunday night cypher spitting verses about police murders on Long Island and the punk kids singing at ABC No Rio’s HardCore/Punk Matinee about surviving as trans women may or may not know Seeger’s songs.4 And they do not need to. The parallels to Seeger’s work in the fertile musical worlds of grassroots hip hop and punk are there because there are cultural worker organizers facing similar challenges and finding similar tactics to his. What they may be able to learn from his example is how to do what they are already doing even better.
That legacy is visible in projects like the Rebel Diaz Arts Collective, which performed at the Central Park memorial concert for Pete Seeger this summer.5 When they visited Ferguson, Missouri, this fall, they brought back to their South Bronx home base the story of how the young organizers at the heart of the resistance to police violence there have made use of commercial pop music. They made sure we knew in New York City how a party song—DJ Snake and Lil Jon’s “Turn Down For What”—has become a resistance anthem directed against self-appointed “civil rights leaders” urging calm as well as against the police and military occupying their hometown. The song’s chorus has already joined upraised open hands as an expression of solidarity in the streets during protests against the violence of the DiBlasio/Bratton New York Police Department. This use of militant reportage through familiar music, aimed at participation and solidarity, is precisely Pete Seeger’s kind of organizing.
In Alfred Hayes’s memorial poem for Joe Hill, later set to music by Earl Robinson, he wrote “where workers strike and organize / it’s there you’ll find Joe Hill.” Not because Hill’s songs would not be sung in other places, but because that’s the place where they’d be sung for the purpose that he wrote them. And that is true of Pete Seeger too.
- ↩The Weavers’ “Wimoweh” is not, as it’s often described, a traditional song about Shaka kaSenzangakhona as a sleeping “king in the mountain” whose messianic return will bring about a just world, on the model of England’s King Arthur. It’s an adaptation of Solomon Linda’s genre-defining hit “Mbube,” an original song that drew on Zulu war marching-chant call-and-response structures, among other sources. Linda’s song is about a lion, and the association between Shaka and leonine power and fierceness is a conventional one, but Seeger seems to be the source of the connection between the song and the king—and possibly of the entire putative legend.
- ↩Winchevsky, known as “the grandfather of Yiddish socialism,” was the London—and then New York City—based organizer, editor, and writer of “Ale Brider,” “Di Tsukunft,” and other classics of the Yiddish radical repertoire. Ansky, better known as a folklorist and playwright, was also a lifelong organizer, key to bringing radical literature printed in France into Czarist Russia, and the writer of the Jewish Labor Bund’s anthem, “Di Shvue,” and other radical staples, including “In Zaltsikn Yam.”
- ↩Geldof, the impresario of notorious poverty-porn charity efforts like Live Aid and Band Aid, reappeared in the public eye this year with an attempt at an Ebola-epidemic-focused recreation of his 1984 “Do They Know It’s Christmas” charity single. Al-Jazeera has a sampling of African reactions to this latest exercise in patronizing self-importance; see Barry Malone, “,” Al Jazeerza, November 18, 2014, http://aljazeera.com.Said, who markets himself based on his connections to Seeger, has repeatedly cited the Geldof-mimic “We Are The World” charity single as the model for his “Love, Make the World Go Round,” which he describes as a music video “for global unity.” The mismatch between rhetoric and material reality is if anything greater for Said’s project.
- ↩A cypher is a (generally informal) gathering of hip-hop artists to share work, sharpen skills, and support each other. It is a participatory event rather than a performance for an audience (though there may be non-participants present), and generally involves performers improvising lyrics on the spot—freestyling—in turn (or, among beatboxers or breakers, improvising beats or dance sequences). There is a competitive element, but a cypher is generally not focused on competition. The term comes from the circle of participants and onlookers, deriving, like a great deal of hip-hop terminology, from the heterodox Muslim Nation of Gods & Earths (the so-called “5 Percenters”), in whose terminology the numeral “0” and letter “o” are both referred to as “cipher” and represent completion, totality, and the combination of wisdom, knowledge, and understanding.These are New York City examples, with parallels throughout the United States. The EODUB (End of the Weak) Open Mic at the Pyramid Club in the East Village is the longest-running hip-hop event of its kind in New York City; one of its hosts, Danny “Majesty” Sanchez, is a key organizer around police violence and gentrification in the city and on Long Island. The all-ages HardCore/Punk Matinee at the ABC No Rio social center, about ten blocks further south, is a collectively booked, longstanding home for political punk and hardcore music.
- ↩The Rebel Diaz Arts Collective (RDAC), centered on MCs RodStarz and G1, children of Chilean/Mapuche political exiles, is a major force in New York City’s radical culture. Even after being evicted from its workspace in the South Bronx, RDAC continues to nurture young artists as well as performing locally and nationally. Their work—writing as well as music—can be seen at .