Jesse Jarnow

what machine do you use to kill fascists? (faster times, 6/09)

What Machine Do You Use To Kill Fascists?

by Jesse Jarnow

Faster Times, June 2009

It wasn’t all too surprising that Pete Seeger didn’t have many thoughts about the internet and its effect on copyright. After all, dude is 90–87, when I interviewed him–and still lives in a house he built himself overlooking the Hudson River and chops wood everyday.

He did, however, point me towards a Woody Guthrie songbook which Guthrie published with the inscription, “this song is Copyrighted in U.S., under Seal of Copyright # 154085, for a period of 28 years, and anybody caught singin it without our permission, will be mighty good friends of ourn, cause we don’t give a dern. Publish it. Write it. Sing it. Swing to it. Yodel it. We wrote it, that’s all we wanted to do.” He told me about a pamphlet he once published called “Mimeograph Power, encouraging people all over to mimeograph things.”

He asked me to send a copy of the article. Which I did, along with (as requested) a mailing address for Gilberto Gil, the one time Brazilian political dissident, then serving as his country’s Minister of Culture. (Seeger had lit up when the conversation somehow turned to Brazil and how a city there had built a system of radial bus routes. Internet, no. Brazilian city planning, check.) He responded with a postcard (on the front: a 40-item list: How To Build Global Community), saying he’d copied the piece and passed it along to a friend at Folkways. He signed it with a banjo.

It is hackneyed to call somebody “a human internet,” but Seeger almost unquestionably is. Over the course of his now seven-decade career, he has spread thousands of songs and connected hundreds of causes. And, while he was once a polarizing figure, blacklisted through much of the ’60s, he is perhaps the only man to have transformed both music and politics and transcended both while doing so.

In The Protest Singer: An Intimate Portrait of Pete Seeger, a fantastic New Yorker-profile-turned-short-bio published by Knopf on the occasion of Seeger’s 90th birthday this May, Alec Wilkinson quotes Seeger on his 1949 separation from the Communist Party. “I thought it was pointless,” Seeger says. “I realized I could sing the same songs I sang whether I belonged to the Communist Party or not, and I never liked the idea anyway of belonging to a secret organization.” That wasn’t quite enough for Joseph McCarthy’s House Un-American Activities Committee, who called Seeger before them in 1955. Seeger refused to testify, but refused to take the 5th Amendment either.

Since then, as Joseph McCarthy’s trials have taken their right place in history as something far worse than the vague American communism they were hunting, the impressiveness of Seeger’s nearly Biblical stand has only grown.

“Before the HUAC engagement, people sometimes regarded Seeger’s optimism as childish,” Wilkinson writes, “and unrealistic, as a habit of mind inconsistent with the moral rigor of a serious person. Afterward, he became a figure of undeniable stature. He had stared down jailtime. He had stood amid peril for his beliefs. He had typified the principles of all the brave people he sang about.”

Unless one grew up singing along with Pete Seeger’s music, it might be hard to hear it as anything but purely cornball, despite its obvious sincerity. This is by its very design, of course, evidenced by the fact that perhaps millions of people did grow up singing along to it. For whatever other ideologies he championed, Seeger has always been a populist, and this populism both fueled the nascent folk scene and, in some twisted way, via Bob Dylan, transmutated into the “sincerity” gene that has plagued, served, and saved rock and roll ever since.

If The Protest Singer whitewashes Seeger in any way, it is utterly appropriate of its subject. It is not that Pete Seeger needs a mythology–he has possessed that since 1955–but that the myth needs a proper form for transmission. The Protest Singer reads emotionally like any number of Great Hero biographies one might have accidentally ingested as a grade school student. Its dust jacket even suggests that it is such: an even balance of red, white, and blue on the spine and cover proper. And its colors don’t run. They sing. It should be read by every American child.

“This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender,” Seeger famously wrote on his banjo (depicted on The Protest Singer‘s rear), paraphrasing Guthrie’s blunter, “This machine kills fascists.” It makes one wonder, amid a tangle of USB cables and iPhones and the corporate-folk culture of YouTube, just what his own machines are capable of doing.

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