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Good Night, Pete Seeger

Pete SeegerDoesn’t everyone have at least a song with special significance… a telltale from some event or happening in the past?  The song “Goodnight, Irene” has that significance for me; more specifically the version sang by The Weavers in the 50’s, my unannounced introduction to Pete Seeger, the folk singer, as a Weaver.  It would be a decade later, however, that I would learn about this later-to-be iconic singer-songwriter and, more importantly for me, his sociopolitical activist persona.

Here I am this evening, trying to start with the digestive process of yet another speech of milquetoasty flag-motherhood-and-apple-pie things that need to be heard by most Americans at this annual, meaningless, State of the Union address.  As irate as I would get years back at this whorish, political display… I’ve come to realize that truth is not in the political parlance of communication between politicians and the American public.  So, I take it in stride and say amen.  But the thing that sticks heavily in my mind from the long address is Obama’s reiteration of his desire to close Guantanamo, putting an end to a depravity that has soiled the American soul in cruel fashion for almost a decade.

And here I am, also trying to make sense of how two paths have crisscrossed today: randomness and coincidence.  Last night Pete Seeger died peacefully in his sleep… perhaps getting ready to lead us in song today to his much beloved “Guantanamera” on the 161st anniversary of the birth of José Martí, the Cuban poet, hero and founding father from whose poetry, “Versos sencillos,” the lyrics for the song developed; a song with national-anthem status for Cubans, just like “God Bless America” is for us. And, with a crown of glory, Guantanamera has found a level of universality, immigrants to the United States singing it.  Both music and lyrics command much respect and love for the song; but it took the genius of Pete Seeger to discover it for us back in 1963.

I am trying to reminisce on the life of this great American folk singer and humanist as I play his video online singing Guantanamera at Wolftrap (1993) with his grandson, Tao Rodriguez-Seeger.  And the four stanzas of the song, each containing four verses, are finally defining for me who this talented and honest man we have just lost was/is: a truthful man, whose feelings must find shelter; always seeking friendship and solidarity; always, always identifying and casting his lot with the poor of this earth.

Seeger has been a progressive purist all his life; to the very end.  Creative activism in song dates back to his late teens and his support for the Republican forces during the Spanish Civil War (1936-9)… to his efforts as recent as two years ago, when at the ripe age of 92 he added his hands-on support to the Occupy Movement, as part of a march with Occupy Wall Street to Columbus Circle in New York City, where he performed with his grandson Tao, Arlo Guthrie and other celebrated musicians.

For a man of his stature, his death is receiving the minimal obligatory news in most of the corporate press; after all he was a true vocal progressive, not much of a fan of the two ruling parties, a critic of predatory capitalism, and even held membership – from which “he drifted away” – in the Communist Party USA (CPUSA).

I can’t help but think what the State of the Union address might have been like if composed and sang by a folk-singer, and humanitarian, such as Pete Seeger.  He might even have recommended that the US leave the Guantanamo military base – and all the unpleasant memories of the last decade – returning it to the Guantanameros.    

Although Seeger did not know Spanish, he preferred singing Guantanamera with its original Spanish lyrics, always manifesting his love for bilingualism.  And, in our desire to eulogize his life among us, and his legacy to music and humanity, we’ve added a fifth stanza to Guantanamera… in Spanish… and untranslated:

“Pit Siguer soy, busco entereza,
Quiero mostraros mi alma…
Unirme a vuestra pobreza,
Y en esa unión, hallar calma.
Guantanamera, guajira Guantanamera.”

Good night, Pete Seeger… we wish for your soul (alma), “calma eterna.”

© 2014 Ben Tanosborn


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