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Forcing Hate to Surrender with Pete Seeger

The great Jamaican singer-songwriter Bob Marley once said that the one good thing about music is that “when it hits you, you feel no pain.” I was a depressed and semi-suicidal kid in high school, and although I was lucky and blessed in many ways, I was a bit of a lost soul. It wasn’t until I randomly picked up a copy of Stevie Wonder’s Original Musiquarium I, that I had a moment of clarity. I kept playing the record over and over, and it somehow provided a cool, soothing relief. The only other time that I felt that way was when I had unrelenting nausea and vomiting due to a burst appendix, and I was given the drug demerol (a painkiller that is no longer on the market due in part to its high risk of abuse because of its pleasurable mood altering effects). I remember thinking that if music can make me feel joy, perhaps there were other things in life that could do the same. In other words, music and the genius of Stevie Wonder, relieved my pain, and gave me hope.

Legendary social activist and musician Pete Seeger provided relief, hope and inspiration to millions of people for decades by crisscrossing the United States and sharing his music and progressive, anti-war message wherever he traveled. Mr. Seeger once proudly proclaimed that he sang in hobo jungles, and for the Rockefellers, and that he never refused to sing for anybody. In his lifetime, Mr. Seeger performed for Eleanor Roosevelt, Martin Luther King, Jr., and countless others.

Here is a wonderful clip of Pete Seeger on the Smothers Brothers Show (apparently, this episode was considered controversial as CBS deleted one of his songs for being too political). Incidentally, I was lucky enough to attend a Pete Seeger concert many years ago, and even though he was an elderly gentleman, he still brought the house down. 🙂
Click here for the video.

Pete Seeger wrote many classic songs, including “If I Had a Hammer,” “My Dirty Stream,” Turn! Turn! Turn!,” “Kisses Sweeter Than Wine,” “Goodnight, Irene”, and my personal favorite, “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?”

Where Have All the Flowers Gone Lyrics:

Where have all the flowers gone?
Long time passing.
Where have all the flowers gone?
Long time ago.
Where have all the flowers gone?
The girls have picked them every one.
Oh, When will you ever learn?
Oh, When will you ever learn?
Young girls
They’ve taken husbands every one.
Young men
They’re all in uniform.
They’ve gone to graveyards every one.
They’re covered with flowers every one.
Young girls have picked them every one.
Oh, when will we ever learn?
Oh, when will we ever learn?

“I still call myself a communist, because communism is no more what Russia made of it than Christianity is what the churches make of it.” – Pete Seeger

Pete Seeger was also a target of the US Federal government due to his progressive political views, anti-war activities, and other associations. According to Mother Jones, Mr. Seeger had an FBI file of over 1,800 pages (with 90 pages withheld) and he first landed on the FBI’s radar after he wrote a letter protesting the deportation of all Japanese American citizens and residents when World War II ended.

Here is a copy of the letter that 23 year old Army private Pete Seeger wrote in 1942 to the California chapter of the American Legion:

Dear Sirs,
I felt shocked, outraged, and disgusted to read that the California American Legion voted to 1) deport all Japanese after the war, citizen or not, 2) Bar all Japanese descendants from citizenship!! We, who may have to give our lives in this great struggle—we’re fighting precisely to free the world of such Hitlerism, such narrow jingoism.
If you deport Japanese, why not Germans, Italians, Rumanians, Hungarians, and Bulgarians?
If you bar from citizenship descendants of Japanese, why not descendants of English? After all, we once fought with them too.
America is great and strong as she is because we have so far been a haven to all oppressed.
I felt sick at heart to read of this matter.
Yours truly,
Pvt. Peter Seeger

During the Red Scare (the state’s fear of the potential rise of communism or leftist ideologies), Pete Seeger was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) to be interrogated. Here is what Pete Seeger politely shared on that day in 1955:

“I am not going to answer any questions as to my associations, my philosophical or religious beliefs or my political beliefs, or how I voted in any election or any of these private affairs. I think these are very improper questions for any American to be asked, especially under such compulsion as this…I decline to discuss, under compulsion, where I have sung, and who has sung my songs, and who else has sung with me, and the people I have known. I love my country very dearly, and I greatly resent this implication that some of the places that I have sung and some of the people that I have known, and some of my opinions, whether they are religious or philosophical, or I might be a vegetarian, make me any less of an American. I will tell you about my songs, but I am not interested in telling you who wrote them, and I am not interested in who listened to them.”

Wow. In addition to all of his other passions, Pete Seeger also did tremendous work cleaning up the Hudson River. According to Robert Kennedy, Jr., “The Hudson was saved by a lot of people, but for a lot of us, Pete was the first guy. He started the train, and we all jumped on the moving train…Pete saw the Hudson as an emblem of some of the failures of our democracy because it was taken over by large corporations who were using it as a conveyor for disposal. But he always pointed out that the constitution of New York state said the Hudson was owned by the people of New York state, and he used to say the Hudson river belongs to all of us.”

Pete Seeger was a creative force, and an inspiring, and compassionate man. I don’t know what the answer is, but if he were alive today, I would want to ask him why there is a clear disconnect with so many seemingly caring environmental, anti-war, and human rights activists and our food system. I read that although Pete Seeger was a vegetarian, he still enjoyed eating cheese, and lamb (apparently, the term vegetarian was defined differently back in the day). In Mr. Seeger’s defense, Industrial agriculture had yet to fully dig its destructive teeth into our food system during the early part of his life, but worker and animal suffering, and animal factories/slaughterhouses had long existed even before his birth in 1919, as evidenced in 1906, by Utpon Sinclair’s classic book The Jungle. The Jungle was an immigrant workers’ and animal rights book that according to its author, “hit people in their stomachs, rather than in their hearts.” According to Sinclair, “… murder it was that went on there upon the killing-floor, systematic, deliberate and hideous murder—and there was no other word for it, and nothing else to be said about it. They were slaughtering men out there, just as certainly as they were slaughtering cattle; they were grinding the bodies and souls of them, and turning them into dollars and cents.”

I am not picking on Pete Seeger, who despite being a “vegetarian”, was certainly not alone when it came to the overall dismissal of our food system. I know that he did some solid work in promoting healthier food, but clearly, there was still a disconnect. I guess I am just more surprised when fellow activists (even the most talented and influential), refuse to see the glaring connections between some of the biggest issues of injustice and inequality in the world, and our food system. Animal/Industrial agriculture and our diets, are arguably, the most important social justice issues of our lifetime, and most “environmentalists”, human rights, and anti-war activists don’t care. It has been my experience that most of these “activists” have zero interest in looking in the mirror, and honestly examining the implications of their diet, and our food system.

Eleanor Roosevelt is one of the few political figures in US history who I truly admire in many respects. I am pretty sure that if I knew her, I would have loved her, and if she had asked me to jump, I would have asked how high. Having said that, I can’t tell you how disappointing it was to learn that she was a pitch person for hot dogs and margarine in the late fifties and early sixties. It was bad enough over the years seeing this amazing political force and human rights champion parading around in fur coats, and what appeared to be dead animals draped around her neck (apparently, she preferred mink), but a shill for the meat and dairy industries too? What a bummer.

“You can’t call yourself an environmentalist and eat meat. Period.” – Howard Lyman

And what about the “environmental” or other influencers of today, who claim to know stuff about the climate crisis, and yet refuse to acknowledge that animal agriculture is the most destructive industry facing our planet, and likely the biggest threat, along with nuclear war, to the survival of our species? I am thinking of Michael Moore, Naomi Klein, Paul Hawken, Al Gore, Bill Gates and many others who simply refuse to go there (Bill Gates is a criminal who takes it to a whole other level. Click here for more information). Think about it, industrial agriculture is the biggest driver of the climate crisis, and the “food” it creates is the number one contributing factor to the development of chronic disease, and premature death in the US. And animal welfare? Fuhgeddaboudit! Seventy five billion animals live lives of complete misery and are slaughtered each year (worldwide) in order to support our catastrophic food system. And none of these well known influencers of today will talk about it in an honest way. Why? Cognitive dissonance? Carnism? Perhaps, but my guess is that there are other factors in play too, including greed, politics, ego, etc. But tell me a story that we haven’t heard before. 🙂

And that is one of the reasons why so many of us love Pete Seeger, and are forever grateful for his contributions. He was genuine, and he led with his heart, and sang from his soul. He also wasn’t afraid, and he always fought the good fight. Like each of us, he was a work in progress, but man, what’s not to love? Thank you Pete Seeger, and RIP. 🙂

“The easiest way to avoid wrong notes is to never open your mouth and sing. What a mistake that would be.” — Pete Seeger

**Note: As the years march on, I am more frequently reminded of the wonderful song, “Little Boxes”, by Malvina Reynolds (first recorded by Pete Seeger). Born in 1900, Ms. Reynolds was 62 when she wrote the song, which addressed the conformity and consumerism of most Americans, young and old. Unfortunately, the lyrics are as relevant today as they were back in 1962.

Lyrics for “Little Boxes”:
Little boxes on the hillside
Little boxes made of ticky tacky
Little boxes on the hillside
Little boxes all the same

There’s a pink one and a green one
And a blue one and a yellow one
And they’re all made out of ticky tacky
And they all look just the same

And the people in the houses
All went to the university
Where they were put in boxes
And they came out all the same

And there’s doctors and lawyers
And business executives
And they’re all made out of ticky tacky
And they all look just the same

And they all play on the golf course
And drink their martinis dry
And they all have pretty children
And the children go to school

And the children go to summer camp
And then to the university
Where they are put in boxes
And they come out all the same

And the boys go into business
And marry and raise a family
In boxes made of ticky tacky
And they all look just the same

There’s a pink one and a green one
And a blue one and a yellow one
And they’re all made out of ticky tacky
And they all look just the same

Thank you too Malvina Reynolds! RIP. 🙂

Click here for Harry Belafonte giving one of the most memorable tributes you will ever hear (along with Arlo Guthrie), as they induct Pete Seeger into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
Click here to learn more about Pete Seeger’s FBI file from Mother Jones.
Click here to learn more about Pete Seeger’s work to clean up the Hudson River.
Click here for Pete Seeger’s version of Wimoweh.
Click here for Pete Seeger’s song My Dirty Stream (Song of the Hudson River).
Click here for Joan Baez’s tribute to Pete Seeger.
Click here to learn more about Eleanor Roosevelt at the FDR Museum in Hyde Park, NY.
Click here to learn more about Eleanor Roosevelt.
Click here to learn more about the image above, as well as Eleanor Roosevelt’s Folk Filled Valentine’s Day.
Click here to learn more about Pete Seeger.
Click here for a clip of Pete Seeger singing Malvina Reynolds’s wonderful song, Little Boxes.  
Click here to see Pete Seeger in the Smithsonian National Portrait Society.
Click here for a terrific short film from Amnesty International on Pete Seeger.
Click here to learn more about Upton Sinclair’s classic 1906 book, The Jungle.
Click here for Stevie Wonder LIVE!
Click here for a Bob Marley classic.
Click here to learn about Carnism and Cognitive Dissonance.

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