For Pete’s sake
We Shall Overcome Singing and Fighting
by Andre Marais
During a recent concert performance on the Cape Town leg of his SA, tour, Bruce Springsteen took time out to pay tribute to the legendary American folk-artist Pete Seeger, who passed away earlier that day. The puzzled, largely white audience in the crowd gathered at the Bellville Velodrome that night must have wondered who the hell he was talking about, but decided to cheer anyway.
After all, Pete Seeger was not exactly a red-hot item on the latest groovy fragmented corporatised MTV or radio playlists, nor was he a instantly recognisable ‘name’ in the highly formulaic recycled mangled world of the download and the instantly disposal.
Instead, here was someone who spent most of his life using music to rail against the inequities of capital privilege, racism and oppression and in so doing, created and handed down a repertoire of great struggle songs to the progressive movement worldwide. Here was an artist on permanent loan to the revolutionary movement. Pete Seeger put his heart and talent at the service of those engaged in struggling for a better world, against apathy, conformity and hypocrisy. Music for him was an expression of the class struggle.
I first encountered Pete Seeger’s music through the politically charged atmosphere of high-school variety concerts and cultural events at Oaklands High in Lansdowne, Cape Town, in the early 1980s. Out of that context emerged RAAKWYS, a hugely popular ‘struggle band’ that build its reputation at political rallies, covering popular tunes by everyone from Bob Marley and Bob Dylan to Joan Baez, Linton Kwezi Johnson, Victor Jara and Abdullah Ibrahim. And, of course, Pete Seeger, with a uniquely tailored Kaapse Goema twist and sensibility – so very similar to what Seeger himself was doing in a different context in faraway America in the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s.
With great foresight, our teachers introduced us to their well-worn vinyl record compilations of Seeger’s music, recorded two decades before, and we ate it up. On my initial hearing I think the strength of his material lay in its simplicity of voice, with guitar and harmonica accompaniment always open to musical and vocal interpretation. At the same time Seeger’s banjo music was at odds with our generation, reared on fast-paced disco and Michael Jackson, but we stuck to it. The hook must have been those catchy sing-alongs, the repetitive and melodic nature of his delivery along with the combination of humorous, dark and serious song themes. But most of all it was easy to learn and to teach others in preparation for the political rallies that were so much part of our lives then.
For us budding, impressionable DIY two-guitar-chord anti-apartheid struggle musos, Pete Seeger was perfect with his improvised take on conscience raising tunes from all continents. Seeger in many ways was a forerunner of what eventually morphed into that dreadful new-fangled, sterilised, musique shop, marketing schtik labelled ‘World Music’. Just remember Pete done it first!
His musical output included borrowed and revised renditions of Zulu miners’ work songs, Biblical psalms, Latin American folktales, Russian poems, Irish rebel songs, labour tunes, Black American slave spirituals and gospel, as well as songs from the German anti-Nazi resistance, US civil rights and ecological movements, often recovered from the mists of time. His live recordings were always preceded with a rap acknowledging the origin and history of a song, which was an education in itself. His popular anti-war anthem ‘Where have all the flowers gone?’ was inspired by a Russian poem. Fast forward to the 1980s, with RAAKWYS’ rendition of this chestnut with its blend of home-grown politically driven ghoema/funk jams at a packed anti-conscription ECC rally at UCT. Retrospectively they were following a tradition without realising it.
For me an enduring image will always be when Apartheid police brutally suppressed a march consisting of clergy, students and activists, all singing ‘We shall overcome’ in reaction to the 1985 Trojan horse massacre in Athlone. The enduring image edged in my memory was a bloodied priest being dragged off by the security police but continuing to sing Seeger’s famous civil rights hymn.
Pete Seeger dies at a moment when both in South Africa and worldwide our new fledgling social movement groundswell is yet to produce a repertoire of good new protest songs for a generation grappling with a multitude of new and complex issues. But that will come, in fact it’s already here – we can hear echoes of its rhythms in the distance, with its melodies and harmonies coming together on the wind in the march of the poor and the marginalised. In the meantime we have Pete Seeger and others to draw on and their magnificent example of crafting our pain and joys into celebratory song to carry us through the struggles ahead – as powerfully as any leaflet or intellectual treatise or manifesto. As fellow folkie Tom Paxton said, Seeger was first to recognise his limitations as a singer/songwriter, but his songs were always about ordinary people and the poor, and he believed all his life in the power of music.
Tot siens, Pete.
Where have all the flowers gone?
Long time passing
Where have all the flowers gone?
Long time ago?