“which side are you on?” – the almanac singers (1941)


Last week, on May 3rd, would’ve been Pete Seeger’s 100th birthday.  A folk singer, revolutionary, and social activist, Seeger lived to be 94 after passing away in 2014.  Not only did he secure his legacy as a protest singer during one of America’s most difficult periods of the 20th century, the Civil Rights Movement, he lived long enough to see the ongoing success and failings of the movement as well as to adapt his timeless message of peace, justice, and equality to other causes that would gain prominence and create an existential, or even direct, threat to those values as well as the safety and security of Americans and even the rest of the world.

Had Seeger lived to be 100, he would’ve seen Donald Trump ascend to the presidency.  From the initial announcement where he spewed racist ideology against Mexicans, to his disgraceful behavior on the campaign trail, to his inauguration where he espoused about “American carnage,” to locking up migrant children in cages, to every other morally objectionable thing Trump says and does, Seeger would’ve seen it all.  And I would like to think, even at the age of 100, he wouldn’t have been quiet even with limited ability at such an age.

What makes a great protest song, or even a song that addresses a social or political issue, lies within its timelessness.  The populace tends to have a short memory and with the influence of 24-hour news cycles and the culture of shock it perpetuates as each new story is more disturbing than the last and occurring with more frequency, songs that are about dated issues that cannot be adapted to modern sensibilities and problems get lost in the dustbin of cultural history.  That was never the case for Pete Seeger.

A folk singer is essentially a storyteller, and one of the greatest assets a folksinger has is the concept of folk process.  Folk process, within the structure of folklore studies, is the process of taking a previous form of folk art, whether it be indigenous or generational or regional or whatever, and transforming it little by little.  Not too much as to create something wholly new and different, but just enough to keep the basic framework there.  In the tradition of folk songs, it could be something like a 1930s bluesman changing a few words in a negro spiritual which then gets altered by a white folk singer in 1960s Greenwich Village to protest an injustice.  This is like playing a really slow game of telephone in an age before the Internet, when songs would transform over several generations.

These days, in 2019, sometimes it can be easy to by cynical about all these folk songs.  One reason is because we have more contemporary music options than every generation before.  Plus, there are other distractions that offer people endless entertainment.  Also, the ideas inherent in these songs just seem so obvious to us now.  Besides the fringes of society that advocate for extremist ideology, normal people today tend not to question concepts like freedom and equal rights barring some minutiae that gets debated based on religious doctrine.  Essentially, we’re born into a society where these values are instilled into us at an early age.  While Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Our Land” was once a radical song nearly a century ago, kindergarteners sing it in class. Pete Seeger’s musical catalogue is filled with songs that once addressed a singular cause or issue, but have basic fundamentals and ideas that are still applicable once the song changes a few details through folk process.

One of my favorite protest songs that Seeger popularized is “Which Side Are You On?” Written in 1931 by Florence Reece, the song is about the bitter struggle Harlan County, Kentucky coal miners endured against the mine owners.  Reece’s husband Sam was a union organizer for the United Mine Workers and faced threats and intimidation from local authorities to the point that the Reece’s home was illegally entered by employees from the mining company.

Seeger, as a member of The Almanac Singers, recorded a version of the song in 1941 for the album Talking Union and dedicated to Joe Hill, a labor activist who was shot and killed for his labor rights activism.  While recorded and performed by many artists over the decades (Billy Bragg, Natalie Merchant, Talib Kweli, and Peter, Paul, and Mary to name a few), the song would be attributed to Pete Seeger who continued performing the song throughout his career and reworking into an anthem of progressive solidarity.

While Seeger is no longer with us, his legend lives on through the ideas he fought for in his advocacy.  I often struggle with identifying who among contemporary musicians is leading the countercultural charge against Donald Trump.  And I realize I cannot identify any one particular figure.  There are many artists working to promote the same ideals that Seeger fought for.  It is too easy for me to look back on history and identify a few key cultural figures whose careers and work stands out because that is how these things work out.  The reality is that Seeger was one of many, working together in a collective of unified values, who fought for social justice.  Even if he is the one whose name is more familiar, he didn’t work in isolation.  Just it was unfair in the 1960s to put the burdens of responsibility on one person to achieve social justice, so it is unfair for me to demand that of the figure today.  Though people celebrated Seeger’s 100th birthday all over the world, it is only because he is a representation of a specific set of ideas, the same ones people, both known and unknown, are fighting for today in song, art, poetry, and film in the continuing tradition of folk process.