More from the Take Back America Conference
I’ve already written about the energy and passion of the presenters and honorees at the Take Back America (TBA) conference. Some even made their appearance on celluloid, rather than in person. Although Pete Seeger was not actually at the conference, we were well aware of his influence and his example. “Pete Seeger - the Power of Song” is a movie I had been eager to see ever since I first heard about it. I didn’t realize that the conference’s honoree, Norman Lear, was the co-producer. Because I was late to the session, I also missed Lear’s opening remarks and the very beginning of the film. So I got to see it without any editorial commentary. It didn’t take long to realize that Pete Seeger was and is the embodiment of that very same energy, passion and love of country that characterized the conference. In fact, it was quite easy to see what drove Norman Lear to make this documentary. The two men have a lot in common.
I’m sure that it hasn’t been easy living with this talented and principled man. Caught up in Senator McCarthy’s web and the subsequent blacklisting, the Weavers plunged from fame to infamy to obscurity with startling speed, after Seeger refused to plead the 5th or swear a loyalty oath at the the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) hearings. Struggling to stay afloat, the Weavers contemplated an offer to do a cigarette advertisement. Seeger, who neither smoked nor approved of the activity, objected so strongly that he dropped out of the group in protest. He and his family lived in semi-isolation on the Hudson River in a log cabin that they had built themselves. He traveled frequently, leaving Toshi to raise the children on her own. Luckily for him, she has always fully shared Seeger’s values and his vision. He filled his time with teaching kids to play the banjo, frequently visiting the schools, and traveling around playing concerts, which he loved as much for the give and take with the audience as he did for the performing. Sharing, connecting, being part of something. That’s what Seeger has been all about for as long as anyone can remember.
He took something he loved and was good at - music – and used that skill to accomplish so much and in such an unconventional way. He’s a man with a very long reach – reaching out to others, creating a sense of community, of shared concerns and values. His banjo lessons and concerts renewed the public’s love and appreciation for folk music. His music drew people together and fueled the peace movement. Because he was critical of American policy, he was judged harshly. But, as fellow musician Tom Paxton explains, “Viet Nam was a lie and singing peace was a return to sanity and justice.”
His music and the way he used it often put him on the front lines. Seeger did not shrink from that uncomfortable and unpopular position. At one concert, an overwrought veteran reacted angrily to one of Pete’s anti-war songs and its vivid imagery. The vet had come to the concert to kill Seeger. Toshi urged Pete to talk with him. The two sat down together. Pete started strumming and singing “Where have all the flowers gone?” By the end of the song, they were singing and weeping together. The experience shook the vet to his core – he told Seeger he was now “filled with peace.”
Seeger once heard that the most important place in the world is right where you are. He has embodied that principle. His love of nature has found expression in the Hudson River that flows outside his door. The river was terribly polluted, many said beyond repair. Seeger was able to use his music to get the river cleaned up, as strange as that may sound. Former NY Gov. Pataki, an unusual ally, has called Seeger “the master of finding common ground” with others. Pete knew exactly what he was doing. He built a boat large enough to take groups up and down the Hudson. Of course, he brought along his guitar. People thought they were coming for a concert, but after a few hours on the river, they left hankering to bring the river back to life. Seeger’s tremendous pride is evident as he tells how crowds of school children were changed by a single boat ride. They had never before felt a connection to a place, or to nature. What they experienced was literally life altering. Little by little, through the use of gentle persuasion and lots of music, Seeger, and those he swept along with him, worked together and – voilà – the river was cleaned up.
“Turn, Turn, Turn!” was one of my favorite songs from the ‘60s. I hadn’t realized that Seeger wrote it. Few songs have so aptly captured the last several chapters of our recent history – spanning the McCarthy era, the other war, and the Civil Rights Movement. It is amazing how what was once deemed sinister and unpatriotic can be rightly seen, once the hysteria recedes, as the finest expression of love of one’s country. Speaking out, dissenting, can involve great personal risk. As I watched the film, I thought of how more recently the Dixie Chicks were excoriated and excommunicated by the country music network of media and fans for a single, critical comment about the President and his war. It was fitting that Natalie Maines was one of the musicians interviewed in the film. In a perfect illustration of what goes around comes around, President Clinton honored Seeger for his life’s work. The President dubbed him “an inconvenient artist who made history with his music.” Throughout it all, Seeger has never lost his conviction that music has untold power to change lives and the world around us. In his case, it has proved to be true. We can all take his message to heart. Each of us has talents waiting to be tapped for a larger cause. I think we would all agree that now is the time to put those energies to work.
Bill Moyers’ speech was my personal favorite of the conference. He is an old friend of Norman Lear’s, the conference honoree, and was invited to introduce him. I have admired Mr. Moyers for decades. He has always been a symbol of tremendous and unimpeachable integrity. That is not the word that first springs to mind when describing his colleagues. In the dark days after the 2004 election, out of desperation, I began a letter-writing campaign. It morphed into my “Invisible Ballots” lending library project and Mr. Moyers was one of the first to respond. More recently, with his permission, I sent him a copy of David Earnhardt’s recent documentary “Uncounted: The New Math of American Elections.” I had not heard anything from him, whether he had watched it, what he thought, how we could go from there to bring about public awareness, outrage and ultimately change. Once I knew Mr. Moyers was at the conference, I couldn’t wait to hear him again and to perhaps make a more personal connection.
As always, he wielded his words like a scalpel, slicing away at the overlay of spin that has distorted the national conversation. My pen flew across the page, but I simply couldn’t capture it all. I was of two minds – I wanted to sit back and absorb his words, his turns of phrase were so masterful. I also wanted to record them, to remember, but also to report. As one who struggles with every word, I was caught up in admiration with the medium as well as the message. I’m hoping that he will send a copy of his speech so that I can post it at OpEdNews. He said several things that particularly stood out. He called the present administration “gravediggers of democracy.” Deregulation has led to a system that “limits suffrage to those who raise millions” in government-enshrined social Darwinism. Regressive tax policies, an anti-Labor bias, a plundered stock market – all have led to a wealth disparity not seen since the Gilded Age. He poignantly declares our children the big losers. They are being cheated of our history and “their imaginations have been disenfranchised.”
His introduction was a perfect segue to Norman Lear, who was very funny. He also does a fabulous imitation of his mother, who has obviously kept him from getting too big a head. Mr. Lear is well known to Baby Boomers for the plethora of television shows that he produced – especially All in the Family, which humorously examined the destructive forces of racism, sexism and homophobia. Mr. Lear has clearly not been resting on his laurels since his retirement from his television career. He founded People for the American Way to counter the influence of the Religious Right. As he said in his speech, “Can we stop being a punching bag of the Right?” And “neoCons, TheoCons and Big Business were the threesome to end all threesomes.”
He bought one of the few surviving copies of the Declaration of Independence and made it accessible to the public by taking it on the road, crisscrossing the country for four years. He established a program called Declare Yourself, whose goal is to register every 18-year old before the 2008 election. His success in one field has led to a tremendous second career – working on behalf of the American people, to restore the freedoms that made our country great. His recent documentary on Pete Seeger is a perfect melding of his values and those of this folk hero. In terms of inspiration, it’s a dynamite combination.
Yesterday, I was cutting up veggies for a big salad. I took a pepper and sliced off the top, preparing to discard the seeds. The pepper was somehow filled with water that gushed out, overflowing onto my cutting board, the counter, and then floor. From the outside, the pepper had looked perfectly normal. It seemed like a perfect analogy for what I’m trying to do. (Did you really think I could write two articles without even mentioning the dismal state of our electoral process?) The infrastructure of our elections is clearly broken, even though the process is now shrouded in layers of opacity, making it difficult to observe or evaluate. When I say “clearly,” I should specify that it is crystal clear to a growing number of us out there who have been listening, reading, and watching closely. Evidence is piling up and becoming increasingly difficult to spin, although the spinmeisters continue to ply what has been a winning strategy. Animals have the uncanny ability to detect natural disasters before they manifest themselves. We voting integrity advocates are like the canary in the mine. The rest of our country is either willfully dismissive or oblivious. Ignore us at your peril! Instead, try this: inform yourselves, get mad, and get busy working for change!