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American patriotism

Yesterday I had to explain to my startled children why their dad just about jumped out of his seat with joy when Pete Seeger showed up on stage. To those not of a particular generation and of a particular swipe through that generation, it is indeed a mystery…

I was born in 1950 to parents who agreed more about politics than anything else. My father was a WWII vet and a graduate of Harvard Law who, rather than going into private practice, went to work as a lawyer for the New York State Labor Relations Board. He believed working people needed the power of unions to fight exploitation. And he was right.

My mother was a folksinger — she taught guitar but did not have enough confidence, or I imagine, my father’s support, to perform — starting in the early 1950s, before the the pop acculturation of that form. Folk music back then was a mix of art, anthropology and politics. During an era of smooth, mass market, commercial singers — think of a Perry Como Christmas Hour — the folklorists were out in the fields, preserving the raw, bottom-up songs of the least among us. Folk music stood in the fields against the great lawn mower of commercial entertainment.

A labor lawyer and a folksinger. My parents were the very definition of what others called “commie symps” (communist sympathizers). Pink, not red. They had no love for Russia, but they also saw America’s sins for what they were: Racist, misogynist (my mother but not my father was something like an early feminist), crass, bullying, and sexually obsessed with atomic bombs. They believed in America’s stated principles and promise, and had the ACLU membership cards to prove it. But they had also lived through a time when lynchings went unpunished, and Joseph McCarthy had twisted the legislature around his accusatory finger.

Pete Seeger was of my parents’ generation. In our household, he was the example of what a patriot looks like. A man of the people. Someone who had suffered for his political views in the McCarthy years. A hero who had stayed true to his ideals. A person who felt connected to the worst off, who appreciated their culture and who worked for their aspirations. A quiet person who never boasted. A character who never bowed to fashion or the expectations of others. A singer happiest in a small circle of like souls. Someone whose life and songs celebrated the greatest of America’s democratic ideals: The ineffable value of the ordinary person.

So, when Pete Seeger came out on stage in his rainbow Smurf hat, to sing before our new president, our new black president, I lost it. What my parents would have thought. What Pete Seeger must be thinking. But most of all, the proof of how steeply history can arc.

Pete Seeger: American patriot.

[Note: This post is also up at Huffington. Feel free to comment there.]

words and music by Woody Guthrie

[Note the second-to-last verse, the one that begins “As I was walkin’ – I saw a sign there.” It’s a lot of people’s favorite — dw]

This land is your land, this land is my land
From California, to the New York Island
From the redwood forest, to the gulf stream waters
This land was made for you and me

As I was walking a ribbon of highway
I saw above me an endless skyway
I saw below me a golden valley
This land was made for you and me


I’ve roamed and rambled and I’ve followed my footsteps
To the sparkling sands of her diamond deserts
And all around me a voice was sounding

This land was made for you and me


The sun comes shining as I was strolling
The wheat fields waving and the dust clouds rolling
The fog was lifting a voice come chanting
This land was made for you and me


As I was walkin’ – I saw a sign there
And that sign said – no tress passin’
But on the other side …. it didn’t say nothin!
Now that side was made for you and me!


In the squares of the city – In the shadow of the steeple
Near the relief office – I see my people
And some are grumblin’ and some are wonderin’
If this land’s still made for you and me.

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