Pete Seeger: UnAmerican, Communist, and a People’s Songster

By Saswat Pattanayak

 Pete Seeger was not the “American conscience”, as he is being now crowned by the corporate media after his demise. In reality, he was the UnAmerican conscience. And to understand this, it is important to underscore the extent of his internationalism, his commitment towards humanity, his selfless unpatriotic journey as a fervent communist, his lifelong quest against American militarism, adventurism and exceptionalism. Most importantly, to use history as a weapon in the class struggle, as Pete used music as his tool, it is pivotal to not let go of the “unAmerican” label that was imposed upon him by the American power, because he was perceived to be a communist, when in August 1955, he was summoned before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), and he refused to testify against his comrades or to pass on any information regarding the Communist Party that could help implicate any office-bearer of the party.

Saswat Pattanayak with Pete Seeger (Photo: Amrita Misra) Saswat Pattanayak with Pete Seeger (Photo: Amrita Misra)

Unlike many entertainers and intellectuals who gave in to the peer pressures or social benefits, Seeger always stood by his old comrades. Disregarding his own health and limitations, when he arrived at the Tamiment Library of New York University on October 28, 2006 to express his appreciations for African-American civil rights activists James and Esther Jackson at a symposium titled, “James and Esther Jackson, the American Left and the Origins of the Modern Civil Rights Movement”, I had my first privileged opportunity to meet him. What struck me instantly was how humble and accessible a public personality he indeed was, when  he took time out for an exclusive chat with Amrita, where he showered praises on India. What also struck me from his outward appearance was that he not only sang for the working class, he also belonged to the masses. There was not a whiff of elitism about him, not a remote chance of him being perceived as a celebrity. For the few more times that I got to see him after that day, I always noticed him wearing the same shirt, or something quite similar. Nothing fancy about his outfits at all. The only other constant was the way he made sure to engage the audience in the songs he sang. Even a stage appearance for him was an occasion for revolutionary potential. He was a legendary musician, possibly the greatest in his genre; and yet he was not surrounded by bodyguards. Difficult to imagine such a public personality in our contemporary celebrity culture. Maybe because, he never lived a pretentious life boasting extraordinary lifestyles that most celebrities possess today.

Saswat Pattanayak with Pete Seeger (Photo: Amrita Misra) Saswat Pattanayak with Pete Seeger (Photo: Amrita Misra)

The last time I got to see Seeger was at a solidarity event for the imprisoned Native American activist Leonard Peltier, on December 14, 2012. It was a sobering occasion, and Seeger dedicated profound emotions for Peltier. Not only was he used to stand up for the rights of the marginalized and oppressed people of color, he also always expressed his desire for greater racial diversity. In recommending the same for the US Flag, he once wrote:

“My blue is good, the color of the sky.

The stars are good for ideals, oh, so high.

Seven stripes of red are strong to meet all danger;

But those white stripes: they, they need some changing.

I need also some stripes of deep, rich brown,

And some of tan and black, then all around.”

Pete Seeger in support of Leonard Peltier (Photo: Saswat Pattanayak) Pete Seeger in support of Leonard Peltier (Photo: Saswat Pattanayak)

Seeger’s refusal to cooperate with the American ruling class was not one of his own design. He always recognized his stake in being identified as an American.  He never denied the privileges he enjoyed as a white male in America whose “light-skinned ancestors participated fully in the decisions, good and bad, which formed this nation.” And yet, he also acknowledged that it was the stench emanating from American pride that was repulsive to him. He wrote in 1969:

“At midnight in a flaming angry town

I saw my country’s flag lying torn upon the ground.

I ran in and dodged among the crowd,

And scooped it up, and scampered out to safety…

And then I took this striped old piece of cloth

And tried my best to wash the garbage off.

But I found it had been used to wrapping lies.

It smelled and stank and attracted all the flies.”

The lies and deceptions characterizing American hegemony had formed the impetus for revolutionary music that went back to search for answers in the folk traditions. As a key figure in the movement, Pete Seeger relentlessly championed the causes of the oppressed through his emphasis on proletarian music. During the 1930s and 1940s, whereas the political struggles of the Communists suffered owing to sectarianism from within the movement and repression from outside, their cultural journey – firmly founded by the likes of “Joe Hill” and “Hammer Song”, never really subsided. It merely transformed itself into even more radical positions. As a result, 1946-1949 marked the period of People’s Songs, Inc., which provided the crucial glimpse into the potential of cultural workers in American communism. With Paul Robeson in its Board of Sponsors, People’s Songs had clear goals of pursuing the path of socialist realism. In March 1946, People’s Songs elected a national board of directors which included Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Alan Lomax, Bess Hawes, Lee Hays, Millard Lampell, Walter Lowenfels, Felix Landau, Earl Robinson, Benjamin Botkin, Tom Glazer, Waldemar Hille, among others. For all the three years until People’s Songs dissolved, Pete Seeger remained its national director. People’s Songs was followed by People’s Artists and the Weavers – both communist folk collectives, and they continued the tradition of the Old Left through the sixties.

Seeger’s songs were far from merely “protest music”. They were radical communist verses, calling for uncompromising class wars, infused with boundless optimism for a new progressive era that the working class must usher in. Along with Lee Hays, Seeger wrote in 1949:

“O, comrades, come and travel on with me,

We’ll go to our new year of liberty.

Come, walk upright, along the people’s way,

From darkness, unto the people’s day.

From dark, to sunlit day.

Tomorrow is a highway broad and fair

And hate and greed shall never travel there

But only they who’ve learned the peaceful way

Of brotherhood, to greet the coming day.

We hail the coming day.”

What the People’s Songs under Seeger had achieved was remarkable and unique in the context of American history. They strove to collect and preserve American folk materials with the aim of disseminating progressive values. This vision was made possible upon their visits to Soviet Union where American artists witnessed first-hand how the socialist state was providing institutional supports to sustain and nurture cultural roots. Pete Seeger himself had been to Soviet Union to verify the fruits of revolution, first hand. In his recollections at a later stage, he once wrote, “What I saw in the Asian republics of the USSR was a great satisfaction to me. I think it proves that Kipling was wrong when he said East is East and West is West and never the twain shall meet. He was wrong, it’s not true, they can meet. And let’s hope that in the world to come they’ll be meeting more and more…. I was surprised by the bright-colored clothing that Soviet people wore. In America I was often told that Russia is a drab country, that everybody dresses in browns and blacks because they’re scared of wearing anything bright. Walking down the average Soviet street, you see the brightest colors you ever saw: reds, yellows, greens, blues, purples, pinks, sometimes all on top of each other. We saw a young man in the Frunze airport with a green hat, a purple jacket, and a red suitcase – bright, all of them, bright….Now it’s perfectly true that the average Soviet citizen can’t, as yet, afford the many luxuries the average American can. The average food on their table is not as fancy. So I was happy to note that even though Russia doesn’t have the stores overflowing with different commodities that American cities have, neither does it have the slums. This is important to me because, while I love my own country, I must confess that there’s not a city I can go to where, in parts of the town, the streets are not littered with trash, the houses are unpainted and dilapidated, and the people live with a sense of demoralization and lack of hope because they think there’s no chance for them ever to get ahead.”

Progressive American artists upon returns from the USSR had helped create the Federal Arts Project which found governmental support in the US not only in archiving and enriching historical materials, but also for the first time, in ensuring that American artists too, like their Soviet counterparts, received compensations for their works which was to be recognized as necessary contributions to society. The WPA Arts Project helped in distribution of folk music, and the group comprised Charles Seeger, Earl Robinson and Herbert Haufrecht. Charles Seeger was the father of Pete Seeger.

Charles Seeger was the founding member of the communist cultural group of the 1930s: Composers Collective, which was an offshoot of Pierre Degeyter Club of New York City – named after the French composer of “Internationale”. Composers Collective was just about as radical as it could get. Their foreword proclaimed:

“Music Penetrates Everywhere

It Carries Words With It

It Fixes Them In the Mind

It Graves Them In the Heart

Music is a Weapon in the Class Struggle.”

Music was indeed a weapon in the hands of Composers Collective – an unpolished, unsophisticated group that was musically catering to the masses, and therefore revolutionary in every sense. According to Charles Seeger, “proletarian music was defined by its militance in text and tune and by its association with the working class.” The collective drew inspiration from a German revolutionary composer Hanns Eisler whose songs were sung by untrained workers on mass marches. The only reason the Composers Collective could embrace specific m
usical legacies, especially of folk, was because of their reliance on the “Mighty Five” Russian composers –  Mussorgsky, Balakirev, Borodin, Cui, and Rimsky-Korsakov. The communists were Americans, and the Americans the communists in the Composers Collective, which gave way to later radical formations, Almanac Singers and People’s Songs. And Charles Seeger’s son Pete Seeger was to carry the burden forward to enlighten, agitate and entertain. He wrote:

“If a revolution comes to my country

Let me remember now

Old dollar bill, you won’t mean much

I better learn right now

What in life has true value

And, oh, if we’d only learn to share

There’d be no more need for revolution

Oh, hear the thunder. . .”

Ably aiding Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger was Alan Lomax who was serving as director of the Archive of American Folks Songs in the Library of Congress. Lomax helped Guthrie, Seeger, Josh White, Burl Ives, and Leadbelly perform across cities and to bring folk music back to the folks, in a progressive, emancipatory  package. Lawrence Gellert’s “Negro Songs of Protest” also helped chronicle the specific plights of black workers in a labor movement that was complicated by race relations. The slogan of the Popular Front during FDR’s time, “Communism is twentieth century Americanism” was inspired by Stalin’s prescription for Soviet Union where nationalism and communism intersected in useful ways. Socialist realism informed American folk musical traditions to the extent that Charles Seeger set standards to judge music: “The main question, should not be ‘is it good music?’ but ‘what is the music good for’?”

Being Charles Seeger’s son, Pete Seeger was not only introduced to the rich traditions of folk music that informed American history, but also to the immense radical possibilities that communism had to offer. Seeger joined the Young Communist League at Harvard in 1937 and decided against becoming a journalist since he refused to make compromises on political fronts. His association with Popular Front during Earl Browder’s leadership of CPUSA remained unflinching. Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie supported the Communist Party’s decisions all the way, including at the most controversial of times, when FDR was addressing American Youth Congress to favor aid for Finland to fight the Soviet Union. Guthrie ridiculed FDR with “Why do you stand there in the rain?” Both of them, along with Lee Hays, Millard Lampell and John Peter Hawes, were part of the Almanac Singers. As unrepentant communists, they vociferously attacked Roosevelt when the communists adopted an anti-war position, and urged him later on to extend support to Soviet Union as an important ally. Here is a stanza that describes FDR as a warmonger prior to Germany’s attack on Soviet Union:

“Oh Franklin Roosevelt told the people how he felt

We damned near believed what he said

He said, “I hate war — and so does Eleanor,

But we won’t be safe till everybody’s dead.”

Comparing FDR to bankers and militarists, Seeger further wrote,

“Franklin D., listen to me

You ain’t gonna send me ‘cross the sea.

‘Cross the sea, ‘cross the sea

You ain’t gonna send me ‘cross the sea.

You may say it’s for defense

But that kinda talk that I’m against.

I’m against, I’m against,

That kinda talk ain’t got no sense.

Wendell Wilkie and Franklin D.,

Seems to me they both agree,

Both agree, both agree,

Both agree on killin’ me.”

After Germany attacked the Soviet Union, the communists needed wartime organizing, and the Almanacs supported the war efforts in no uncertain terms:

“The butcher, the baker, the tinker and the tailor

Will all work behind the soldier and the sailor —

We’re working in the cities, we’re working in the woods

And we’ll all work together, to deliver the goods.”

Seeger was never to mince words and he never did, regardless of shifting political positions –

“Now Mr. President, we haven’t always agreed in the past, I know,

But that ain’t at all important, now,

What is important is what we got to do,

We got to lick Mr. Hitler, and when we’re through,

Let no one else ever take his place,

To trample down the human race.

So what I want is you to give me a gun,

So we can hurry up and get the job done.”

Pete Seeger in support of Leonard Peltier (Photo: Saswat Pattanayak) Pete Seeger in support of Leonard Peltier (Photo: Saswat Pattanayak)

It is important to note that Seeger was not driven by pacifism or any spiritual notion of universal peace. For him, peace was an active process needing persistent political efforts towards combating fascism in every creative way possible; and therefore to institute peace, if there was a requirement to turn his music into a weapon, he never hesitated to sing pro-war anthems. With Guthrie’s guitar machine “killing the Fascists”, Seeger joined him and Lampell in expressing their collective hatred towards Hitler in this telling stanza of 1941:

“I wish I had a bushel,

I wish I had a peck,

I wish I had a rope to tie

Around old Hitler’s neck.

Hitler went to Russia

In search of Russian oil,

But the only oil he’ll find there

Is a pot in which he’ll boil.”

Because the American press worked overtime to expose the contradictions in CPUSA stands, and since raid-baiting was a stark reality, Seeger wrote “Talking Unions” to clarify Almanacs’ position –

“Now, you have come to the hardest time;

The boss will try to bust your pocket line.

He’ll call out the police, the National Guard;

They’ll tell you it’s a crime to have a union card.

They’ll raid your meeting, hit you on the head.

Call every one of you a goddamn Red –

Unpatriotic – Moscow agents –

Bomb throwers, even the kids.

But out in Detroit here’s what they found,

And out in Frisco here’s what they found,

And out in Pittsburgh here’s what they found,

And down in Bethlehem here’s what they found,

That if you don’t let Red-baiting break you up,

If you don’t let stool pigeons break you up,

If you don’t let vigilantes break you up,

And if you don’t let race hatred break you up –

You’ll win.”

The House Un-American Activities Committee reported on the Almanac Singers in 1944 and they were viciously attacked in the press as Communist entertainers. No respite followed even after Almanac Singers gave way to People’s Songs and the Weavers. When for the first time, HUAC heard testimony against them in July 1947, they were denounced as “subversive organization”, and a “vital Communist front because of its emphasis on appeal to youth and because of its organization and technique to provide entertainment for organizations and groups as a smooth opening wedge for Marxist-Leninist-Stalinist propaganda.” Against the overwhelming climate of red-baiting, of various left (Trotskyist) oppositions towards the communists and the McCarthy era looming large, Seeger remained defiant, and along with Guthrie, he supported and rallied around Progressive Party candidate Henry Wallace, as per CPUSA line. And Seeger wrote the iconic “Hammer Song” to celebrate the communist symbol:

“If I had a hammer, I’d hammer in the morning,

I’d hammer in the evening — all over this land.

I’d hammer out danger! I’d hammer out a warning!

I’d hammer out love between my brothers & my sisters —

All over this land.”

Seeger’s antiwar sentiments have been much written about. What is less mentioned is that his opposition to war was principled and decisively progressive. His protests against Vietnam War was indeed against American hooliganism and militarism. His call to bring the American troops home was at the same time, an open support for Vietnam’s right to self-determination. He wrote:

“I may be right, I may be wrong,

But I got a right to sing this song,

Bring them home, bring them home.

There’s one thing I must confess,

I’m not really a pacifist,

Bring them home, bring them home.

If an army invaded this land of mine,

You’d find me out on the firing line,

Bring them home, bring them home.

The world needs teachers, books and schools,

And learning a few universal rules,

Bring them home, bring them home.

So if you love your Uncle Same,

Support our boys in Vietnam,

Bring them home, bring them home.”

Seeger did not quite stop there. In a glowing tribute to Ho Chi Minh, he wrote:

“I’ll have to say in my own way,

The only way I know,

That we learned power to the people and the power to know

From Teacher Uncle Ho!”

Seeger always took his communism seriously and he wrote about capitalistic contradictions, but carefully employing a language that was truly accessible to the workers, to the “bottom” uneducated and semi-literate section of society who he remained connected with, all his life. If it was Teacher Uncle Ho at times, it was Karl the Marx at other times that he introduced in his songs. In a poem later in his career, he wrote about the class society in America and resented how the working class was being stigmatized:

“Some say the trouble’s in the Pentagon

Some say the trouble’s in the street

Some say the president’s a paragon

Where’s the trouble at the bottom?…

Some say the trouble’s with the system

Some say the trouble’s in the class

Karl said the trouble is the upper one,

That is the upper, not the bottom.”

Like Robeson, Seeger
had chosen his side in the class war that was, and continues to be, waged. He was deeply affected by the imperialistic aggressions and social unrests afflicting the world. And yet, he was hopeful of resolutions and positive outcomes, and like fellow communist poets Victor Jara and Nazim Hikmet whose songs he also used to adapt post-translations, he too remained at heart a romantic, an untiring lover of humanity. When he dabbled with imaginations for a better world that he, the weaver, could weave, he wrote:

“Oh, had I a golden Thread / And needle so fine

I’d weave a magic strand / Of rainbow design

In it I’d weave the bravery / Of women giving birth,

In it I would weave the innocence / Of children over all the earth,

Far over the waters / I’d reach my magic band

Through foreign cities / To every single land,

Show my brothers and sisters / My rainbow design,

Bind up this sorry world / With hand and heart and mind,

Far over the waters / I’d reach my magic band

To every human being / So they would understand.”

Seeger was always resolute and optimistic. He possibly could not afford to be otherwise. For someone with the burden of carrying the legacies of several generations of radical songsters, he had to convince the world that he was going to be there every step of the way. And he knew more than any of us, that the march towards a Soviet America was a long and tiring one. But it had to begin with changing the hearts of the people, with expanding the scopes for their imaginations. It was going to be a long process, step by step. In his words, therefore:

“Step by step, the longest march can be won, can be won

Many stones can form an arch, singly none, singly none

And in union what we will, can be accomplished still

Drops of water turn a mill, singly none, singly none.”

Advertisements

Post-Miley Feminism

 

 

(Written for Kindle Magazine, December 2013)

 

By Saswat Pattanayak

A wealthy white woman used specific “ghetto” elements from the black culture to materially profit from those insincere projections. And much of the world media ignored this aspect entirely, while castigating her instead for wearing indecent attires. And finally, when this attracted the attention of white feminists, they rallied behind her to protest slut-shaming.

Following her memorable performance at VMA in August, Miley Cyrus helped generate what Mikki Kendall had earlier hashtagged as, “Solidarity Is For White Women” (in lambasting the ways white feminists had been protecting the disgraced Hugo Schwyzer).

In conveniently overlooking the serious nature of cultural appropriations, what suddenly reemerged within the feminist discourse is how race intersects with feminism itself. It became quite apparent that feminism – or for that matter, any radical politics – was not going to make any headway, if it was not explicitly going to embrace intersectionality. In other words, was Cyrus going to find support from only a section of feminists, on issues that had direct implications for them? Does feminism often work this way? If yes, should it?

The images of Cyrus that night were compelling for various reasons. Her sexy outfits were the least of them all, in an era of a virtually saturated landscape so far as sexualized visual images go. What stood apart was how she used black women as props on the stage that night, reminiscent of the days of slavery when white masters used slaves as stand-alone objects/accessories for amusement of their guests. What stood apart was how she created an atmosphere of a circus, with herself as the ringleader motorboating black women as the dancing bears.

That she wanted to live out her fantasies and feel sexually empowered were all defensible propositions, but the fact that she had to degrade black women as objects in order to play those out, while in real life she does not have to experience the racist society as a black woman does, was what made it all so irrefutably disgusting. Likewise, while the white feminists upholding her right to rub herself on Robin Thicke was an acceptable defense, what became a profound contradiction was their remaining silent over her own treatment of backup dancers. Indeed, when black women pointed this out, they faced the charges of misconstruing feminism – thus, it remained no longer a Cyrus moment. It demanded critical reflections on part of all those who identify with feminist, progressive and revolutionary politics.

Batty Mamzelle wrote, “Historically, black women have had very little agency over their bodies. From being raped by white slave masters to the ever-enduring stereotype that black women can’t be raped, black women have been told over and over and over again, that their bodies are not their own. By bringing these ‘homegirls with the big butts’ out onto the stage with her and engaging in a one-sided interaction with her ass, (not even her actual person!) Miley has contributed to that rhetoric. She made that woman’s body a literal spectacle to be enjoyed by her legions of loyal fans.”

What the Cyrus episode brought to the fore was not just the need to apply intersectional analysis to feminism in the US, but by its very extension and logic, to have it applied everywhere. In much similar vein, argument can be made about the selective solidarities displayed among Savarna feminists in India, who remained eerily silent throughout the protest marches against rape and murder of a Dalit woman in Jind district of Haryana. The level of indifference was so staggering that the mainstream media which had gone agog to report extensively on rape culture since Nirbhaya, entirely ignored a three-day conference organized by Dalit women to question the casteist nature of Indian justice system. In a bold move to oppose what I would term, after Kendall, as “Solidarity Is for Savarna Women”, the organizers (AIDMAM) exclaimed: “The silence from all corners is deafening and this particular case of alleged rape and murder of a 20 year old Dalit girl in Jind is only another one in a long list of cases of sexual violence on Dalit women. Today, we do not even know what to ask for! Should we make a claim for a separate State for Dalit women? A State that will give us a life of security? A separate State that will allow us to live our lives peacefully? A State that will permit us to go to schools? A State that will allow us to go to the toilet without fear? A State that will give us the basic right to life? Dalit women have lost all hope in the Government, in the police, the judiciary, the elected representatives and with civil society. We do not want to just trigger the conscience of the system and the people, but seek all voices for justice for Dalit women in India.”

While the defense of “sluttiness” remains the primary – and, valid – agenda for white feminists in the US, the demand for police protection of nightlife in Delhi remains a legitimate concern of savarna feminists in India. At the same time, what the racial implications of the powerful images of Cyrus that night suggests, the peripheral realities can no longer be kept under wraps. While defending Slutwalk, it is necessary that white folks do not appropriate slavery, just as while deploying additional police force to ensure “Bekhauf Azadi” for urban women, it is necessary to make the legal system work efficiently to render justice for Dalit women whose priorities may vary qualitatively.

Solidarity across race and caste is a possibility only when the histories of unique struggles by the historically oppressed are duly recognized, and sufficient consciousness-raising efforts are undertaken by the historically privileged.

Tribute to Woody!

Woody Guthrie, the labor organizer and agitator who redefined the entire genre of folk music through his political philosophy was an unrepentant Marxist-Leninist, an avowed supporter of Joseph Stalin and a lifelong adherent of Communism.

By today’s standard, it certainly is not a flattering introduction to the man America has glorified to a postage stamp and whose centennial is being celebrated across corporate media in full flair without any mention of his political legacies. But to understand Woody Guthrie’s contributions, it is critical to explore why he has been stripped of all the aspects he held closest to heart. If he is exalted as the father of protest music, it is crucial to know what exactly was he protesting against, and who prevailed upon eventually. Even Nora Guthrie, his daughter who curates Woody’s archives insists today that he could not have been a communist. The Richmond Organization, Woody Guthrie’s publishers deny biographers any permission to quote Guthrie’s songs which praise Stalin. And more famously, “This Land is Your Land”, an authentic narrative of class society analysis is officially bereft of its most critical communistic verses when it is presented for consumption by American children. Like Paul Robeson, Woody Guthrie has been rendered an entertainer, a national icon, a talented songwriter, and an American Legend – after registering a collective denial about their involvements with Communism.

And yet, for Woody Guthrie, the Communist Party was his life’s foundation, his moral basis, the reason for his intellectual being which used to get translated once in a while into a song he would dedicate to the workers of the world. “I owe the Party the only guidance and recognition and pay that I’ve ever tasted,” Guthrie wrote. Not just the CPUSA, he was a lifelong admirer of Stalin. “The whole world cannot trick Joseph Stalin because he is too scientific for them,” he used to say.

When the world of communism was crumbling under intense hypocritical pressure tactics from the capitalistic warmongers following Treaty of Non-Aggression between Germany and the Soviet Union, Guthrie remained steadfast a defendant of Stalin’s decision. Guthrie detailed his arguments for Stalin in his regularly published columns in the “Daily Worker”, the party newspaper. He reasoned why he felt Soviet Union could never trust the western liberal countries that betrayed her during the Munich Agreement a year ago. The British and the French had merely used the Soviet Union as a pawn in that betrayal. The West had collaborated with Hitler to annex Czechoslovakia, and Stalin was clearly aware that when time comes, they would not stop at handing over Soviet Union to Germany either. This is the reason why Stalin had signed a non-aggression pact with Germany, which clearly irked the warmongers of the West.

Following Hitler-Stalin pact, when Roosevelt’s militarist face was exposed, and despite the non-aggression pact between Stalin and Hitler, America was sent to war, Guthrie could see how FDR was no friend of the revolution; he was merely a champion of American capitalism. Guthrie thundered, in ‘The Ballad of October 16th’ –

“Oh Franklin Roosevelt told the people how he felt
We damned near believed what he said
He said, “I hate war — and so does Eleanor
But we won’t be safe till everybody’s dead.”

The Nazi-Soviet pact, however, was short-lived because as Stalin predicted, Hitler had war on his mind. But thanks to the Treaty, Stalin had availed to Soviet Union some time to prepare for the onslaughts. A country deeply ravaged by years of Civil Wars that were perpetrated against Soviet people by the West for decades, could simply expect no active assistance to fight Hitler from the Munich Agreement allies. Germany started its attacks by invading Poland, a week after signing the non-aggression treaty with Soviet Union, and Stalin came to Poland’s rescue. And Woody Guthrie translated the War in his songs. In his morning radio program “More War News”, he sang:

“I see where Hitler is a-talking peace
Since Russia met him face to face–
He just had got his war machine a-rollin’,
Coasting along, and taking Poland.
Stalin stepped in, took a big strip of Poland and gave
the farm lands back to the farmers.
A lot of little countries to Russia run
To get away from his Hitler man–
If I’d been living in Poland then
I’d been glad Stalin stepped in–
Swap my rifle for a farm…Trade my helmet for a sweetheart.”

His support for Stalin lost him his radio program on KFVD, and lost him his professional patron J. Frank Burke, the Roosevelt supporter who he owed his radio career to. But Guthrie was neither politically naive nor was he acting on emotions alone. Quite the contrary. He was an ardent and studious philosopher of communism. His purpose was not to merely entertain people through performing folk songs or become famous on the radio programs funded by liberal cronies. His idea was to “make all the thoughts of Marx and Engels and Lenin and Stalin…fly down and roost” in his brain, as he wrote inside a book he possessed: Lenin’s ‘Theory of the Agrarian Question’. Likewise inside Marx’s ‘Capital’, he reminded to himself that he would “memorize contents in a week or so…and try to write all of these things down in short words.” And through his songs and essays he did exactly that and remained uncompromising a comrade. He relentlessly towed the ‘party line’, stood in solidarity with Soviet Union, and understood the radical strategies of a difficult time.

After Stalin was proved right in his dealings with Hitler, and Soviet Union heroically fought the Nazis, FDR extended his friendship to the communists. Stalin was revered as “Uncle Joe” in American textbooks, and Guthrie changed his stance towards Roosevelt. And in “Dear Mrs Roosevelt”, he paid FDR a glowing tribute, following his demise:

“I sent him ‘cross that ocean to Yalta and to Tehran;
He didn’t like Churchill very much and told him man to man;
He said he didn’t like DeGaulle, nor no Chiang Kai Shek;
Shook hands with Joseph Stalin, says: “There’s a man I like!”
This world was lucky to see him born.”

In a society holding scientists to objective yardsticks and artists to subjective experimentations, Woody Guthrie was a social scientist and a realist artist. He was far from a romantic dreamer. And he was certainly not a pacifist for the sake of it. But he was a constant learner and he could discern between values, including his own socially conditioned ones. In his early years, he was just another racist white man. But after receiving a letter from a black young listener, he read it out for all his radio audience and acknowledged his own racism, subsequently emerging in later years as a civil rights champion of his era. Although Hal Ashby’s film “Bound for Glory” portrayed Guthrie as “Saint Woody” in an attempt to dissociate his communistic activisms, Guthrie was no saint. He was a radical, a revolutionary who believed if imperialists raised their ugly heads, it was time to battle them in bloody struggles. To the Fascists, he had the ultimate warning:

“I’ll bomb their towns and bomb their cities
Sink their ships beneath the tides.
I’ll win this war, but till I do, babe,
I could not be satisfied.”

Guthrie’s ‘machine’ indeed ‘killed Fascists’, for reactionary seeds, just as revolutionary ones, are sowed first in the minds. And he appealed to human reasoning through radical folk renditions that have founded the landscape of protest music worldwide. And he never faltered from why he needed to sing what he sang. And who but Guthrie himself could have provided a better rationale:

“I could hire out to the other side, the big money side, and get several dollars every week just to quit singing my own kind of songs and to sing the kind that knock you down still farther and the ones that poke fun at you even more and the ones that make you think that you’ve not got any sense at all. But I decided a long time ago that I’d starve to death before I’d sing any such songs as that. The radio waves and your movies and your jukeboxes and your songbooks are already loaded down and running over with such no good songs as that anyhow.”

Never in his life did he live in the gray. He unlearned his racism as much as he learnt his communism. He chose his progressive comrades and he fought for the collective principles. He picked his radical songs and he used them as effective weapons. He taught us that an artist must not be confined to the world of imaginations alone. The battlefield is the unequal world and the war against injustice is absolutely on. And until this war is won, the artist must not be satisfied!

(Saswat Pattanayak, 2012)

Gil Scott-Heron :: Revolutionaries Live Forever

The brother who prophesied that the revolution won’t be televised is no more.

Many of us did not believe in his cautionary words. Some of us caricatured the concept of revolution as manifesting in fast cars and expensive elections. Those in Egypt claiming themselves to be revolutionaries even held up signs to proclaim revolution was indeed being televised. Some Iranian protesters claimed revolution was being Twitted. Indeed, during his lifetime, Gil Scott-Heron was ridiculed, neglected and relegated to a hopeless corner. After his passage, he will probably be obliterated from prospective history narratives, as our liberalized society continues to glory itself in post-racial illusions.

After all, Gil Scott-Heron was not a gem or an ornament in any literary tradition. In obituaries he will probably be called a Godfather of Rap, but he consciously distanced himself from such tags. Naturally enough, he was neither a millionaire nor a philanthropist. He was not a best-selling poet on New York Times lists either. And certainly he was not counted among Time Magazine’s most influential persons of the century. He was not a charismatic leader or evangelical preacher providing hope pills and change promises on television channels. It is critical to remember who he was not, in order that we can identify with the actual tradition and legacies of Scott-Heron.

He was never a pawn in their game. Scott-Heron, an extraordinary poet of radical consciousness never became a sale-out. Besides, he was determined, not to. He cared more for his free mind than anything else in the whole world. When he died today, he died penniless, and homeless. He was still searching for a place to call his home in a country whose consciousness he strived to influence throughout his life. Some called him a hero, some a godfather, some a genius. But none could dictate him what to write, say or express. He was as Gwendolyn Brooks called him: a “chance-taker, street-strutter, untamed proud poet, rough healer, he is his”.

The rough healer that he was, Scott-Heron had a prescription for America’s oppressed: “Free will is free mind. Free to evaluate the systems that control our lives from without and free to examine the emotions that control our perspectives from within. We have things to do for tomorrow. Our children will have to deal with all the mistakes we make today. To live in dignity they will have to erase many of the personal compromises we made. We must actively search out the truth and help each other.”

Brother Scott-Heron’s attempts at truth-seeking were exceptionally radical. They were so fundamentally trenchant that they would shame the contemporary progressives. He was unforgiving towards the lousy liberals who equate electoral systems with democracy. Voting as an act of resistance is deeply imbued in the culture of the oppressed, especially considering the long struggles on part of African-Americans, among other racial minorities, for political rights. But Scott-Heron always warned against the accompanying complicity coherently characterizing the basic fabric of the so-called free world. Every four years, the theater of the oligarchs seduce the majority masses into reposing a manufactured faith in an inherently flawed and politically illiterate, disempowered system. Scott-Heron without mincing words, declared the American democracy phony and rigged a system. He wrote:

“How much more evidence do the citizens need
that the election was rigged with trickery and greed?
And, if this is so, and who we got didn’t win
let’s do the whole Goddam election over again!”

His methods as a poet-activist were intrinsically incisive, and relied upon substantial amount of topical realisms. “The Revolution will not be Televised” is a much-cited classic in this genre, but there are less prominent works of his that are equally powerful tools of social justice struggles.

In a scathing criticism of the military-industrial complex, Scott-Heron declared Eisenhower as “politically dead” and wrote:

“The military and the monetary
Get together whenever they think its necessary
They have turned our brothers and sisters into mercenaries
They are turning the planet into a cemetery.”

Peace is a merely wishful thinking if the efforts towards attaining peace are not made with levels of ferocity usually reserved for war preparations and escalations. Scott-Heron was never the one to subsume under prevailing doctrines of war hypocrisies that positioned peace as a status quo, wars an aberration. In fact, quite the contrary. Scott-Heron, like Langston Hughes before him, argued that war is the normative of our times, peace is simply absent from our lives.

He wrote:

“We’ve got to work for peace.
If we all believed in peace, we could have peace.
The only thing wrong with peace is that
You can’t make no money from it.
…….Peace is not (merely) the absence of war
It is the absence of the rumors of war the the threats of war
And the preparations for war.”

Unlike many pacifists, Scott-Heron was not delusional about the prospects of peace. For him, “peace ain’t coming this way, we’ve got to work for peace.” To that extent, he expressed staunchest oppositions against imperialistic tendencies. If Reagan did not escape his radar those days, Obama would not have today. Both of them were architects of war against Libyan peoples, among others. Scott-Heron lambasted America’s war-mongering obsessions in no uncertain terms –

“We hounded the Ayatollah religiously,
Bombed Libya and killed Qadafi’s son hideously,
We turned our back on our allies, the Panamanians
Watched Ollie North selling guns to the Iranians
Witnessed Gorbachev slaughtering Lithuanians
So we better warn the Amish, they may bomb the Pennsylvanians.”

Political poetry aiming towards social justice was the crux of Scott-Heron’s relentless, powerful, and unwavering declarations. His poetry did not follow rules, did not clamor for awards, or literary reviews. His poetry was anti-poetry. His was satire, radical satire, turning the world upside down, turning the world we have come to know through corporate media upside down, turning the world as we would like to believe in through our normalized selves upside down. There is no “good old days”, Scott-Heron announced. Those who want to experience the “good ole’ days” are the ones who mock the movements for social justice. They are the ones who decry the progresses made on the basis of absolute rejection of the halo that zealously protects the heritage of the days gone by. Those that want the “good old days” back declare everything that clamors for change as necessarily evil. Scott-Heron in his “B Movie The Poem” wrote-

“Civil Rights. Gay Rights. Women’s Rights. They’re all wrong! Call in the cavalry to disrupt this perception of freedom gone wild. First one of them wants freedom and then the whole world wants freedom! Nostalgia. That’s what America wants. The good old days. When we ‘gave them hell!’ When the buck stopped somewhere and you could still buy something with it! To a time when movies were in black and white and so was everything else.”

Scott-Heron had no illusions about the ghastly past that the racist liberals and conservatives alike have been wishing for. Sure, America had its golden days in the past in its harvests, and economy; but the golden days were white days, days of the nobles and the lords, of the capitalist pigs, of an extremely limited America, the days when the black folks would not dare mingle with the elites. Sure gas prices were low and the average American household had savings and a house. But the racial minorities were not owners of either their houses or their businesses. America did not belong to all. Neither does it belong to all, even now. And that is why there is a need to reverse the psychology of slavery and servitude, and there is a need to destroy any association of fancy and glory with the collective memories of the “good old days”.

What is even more depressing about today is that the good old days Scott-Heron despised is alive and well. American power continues to prevail as brutally as it did during the cold war era. And the power trip is embraced by the people, the electorate, without much opposition, as it is sugar-coated with the Hollywood cliches. Be it Kennedy, Reagan or Obama, there is a style to the substance in the packaging of war machinery. There is a Marlboro effect. Scott-Heron said the military tune of American war on countries that need to be silenced is the tune of “Macho Man”. America wanted to eliminate Qadafi during Reagan and Bush, and now its the wish of President Obama. Scott-Heron wrote, our Presidents are likely to quote from Hollywood: “Tall in the saddle. Like ‘Riding on or off into the sunset.’ Like ‘Qadafi, get off my planet by sunset.’ More so than ‘He died with his boots on.’”

Even as American imperialism is taking over the world, and still aiming Qadafi in a Reagan-isque manner, there is a parallel revolution that is going on, and that is not being televised. Like all revolutionaries, Scott-Heron was an optimist, one who had undying desire to showcase the untold struggles. Revolution begins with the heart, and it is the duty of the revolutionary to acknowledge the unsung protagonists of the undercurrent. He wrote, “There is a revolution going on in America/the World; a shifting in the winds/vibrations, as disruptive as an actual earth-tremor, but it is happening in our hearts. A change as swift as blackening skies when the rains came, as fresh and clear as the air after the rain. The seeds of this revolution were planted hundreds of years ago; in slave ships, in cotton fields, in tepees, in the souls of the brave. The seeds were watered, nurtured and bloom now in our hands as we rock our babies…There are bitter winds born in the knowledge of secret plans hatched by Western Money Men that backfired and grew out of control to eat its own…No one can do everything, but everybody can do something. We must all do what we can for each other to weather this blizzard. Now more than ever all the family must be together, to comfort, to protect, to guide, to survive because…there is a revolution going on in America/the World.”

As much as his poem reminding us that the revolution will not be televised is indeed truer than before, beloved late brother Gil Scott-Heron’s message that the revolution is going on at the same time is equally relevant a reminder. And the poet might have departed us, but the revolutionary is still alive in spirits…

“Don’t give up,” he said. “It’s time to stop your falling. You’ve been down long enough. Listen to the spirits calling! Remember the spirit of brother Malcolm X. And know that you can leave all your mistakes behind, The day you really make up your mind…”

(Saswat Pattanayak, 2011)

On Obama’s Refusal to Acknowledge Michael Jackson

By Saswat Pattanayak

Obama’s constant denial to acknowledge racial tensions in the United States has refused him an ability to officially respect Michael Jackson’s demise. Michael- the most famous black man and the most popular black entertainer in the world history passed away. And only the fans must do all the mourning. The fans must keep Michael’s memories alive. The United States system has apparently no obligation to commemorate the occasion. President Obama has refused to issue a written statement to mourn the passing of Michael even as world over, millions of people are heartbroken.

As a perpetuator of the liberal Zionist media spin, President Obama relegated his press secretary Gibbs, a thoroughly disgusting communicator considering his role of responsibility, to convey the musings to the media. And how did Gibbs respond to a series of sincere questions about why the White House would not release a written statement? He laughed and said to the press: “You know, I think I did a good job”.

He implied celebrating a national hero is not the job of the President. The president is apparently busy. He is too busy to join the huge majority of the earth to respect the most celebrated black man. After all, he is in constant denial about the significance of the black freedom struggle in the United States. A freedom struggle that continues to this day. A freedom struggle which was being waged by even the most “successful” artist of color.

President Obama acknowledges there is an economic crisis. He is trying his best to help the Wall Street magnets reclaim their power corridors. He is making sure that the corporate banking conglomerates get the “bailout” money needed to re-strengthen their stature. But he refuses to acknowledge that the economic crisis does not affect everyone equally. He refuses to acknowledge that in the United States, the society has been unequal along the racial divides. The corporate CEOs’ luxury vacations out of frustrations at economic stagnation should not be confused with the thousands of black educated men and women who have been unjustly abandoned from their workplaces.

Unlike Obama’s election rhetoric which denies racial inequalities in America, the fact is, there is a Black America and there is a White America. This is something which Michael Jackson painfully realized and publicly acknowledged. The way in which the White America creative industry overwhelms the Black American artistic endeavors was properly articulated by Michael: “All the form of popular music from Jazz to Hip-Hop, to Bebop, to Soul – all these are forms of black music…you talk about different dances from Catwalk, to Jitterbug, to Charleston, to Break dancing – all these are forms of black dancing. We (black artists) are the real pioneers who started these. These things are very important but if you go to the bookstore down the corner, you will not see one black person on the cover, you’ll see Elvis Presley, you’ll see the Rolling Stones.” Michael challenged the legacy of white musical legends such as Elvis and Beatles. He said, “Otis Blackwell was a prolific phenomenal writer who wrote some of the greatest Elvis Presley songs. And this was a black man, but he died penniless. I met his daughter and I’m so honored. It was the same level as meeting the Queen of England.”

Is it because Michael Jackson was vocal, nondiplomatic and accurate in his depiction of the racial divides in the American entertainment industry which irked President Obama? Or was it because Obama has simply no faith in the American judiciary system which despite having caused enough damages to Michael during his life, despite subjecting him to inhumane police brutality, clearly declared him innocent of each and every allegations brought forth against him. Michael was almost bankrupt and he could not even buy the judiciary system like many politicians simply raise funds to become political candidates. Michael was too private when it came to meeting the press so he could not influence the mass media unlike many politicians who simply use the force of empty rhetoric and press relations to declare untested popularity. Where did Michael fault so much as to not deserve a national statement upon his death?

President Obama never hesitated to offer a written statement for Omar Bongo – an infamously corrupt politician of Gabon – when he died, just two weeks before Jackson’s demise! Obama’s written statement said: “I am saddened to learn of the death of President El Hadj Omar Bongo Ondimba of Gabon. President Bongo played a key role in developing and shaping the strong bilateral relationship that exists between Gabon and the United States today. President Bongo consistently emphasized the importance of seeking compromise and striving for peace, and made protecting Gabon’s natural treasures a priority. His work in conservation in his country and his commitment to conflict resolution across the continent are an important part of his legacy and will be remembered with respect. On behalf of the United States government, I offer my condolences to his family and to the people of Gabon.”

Clearly President Obama has no elementary knowledge of the cold war history, else he would never make such a statement praising Bongo! Unless of course he has only consumed the noncritical liberal press that makes hero of anyone who praises interventionistic tactics of the United States. Bongo, right on! Michael Jackson, hell no!

Obama has never failed to issue official statements just to denounce the decision of a magazine to honor Louis Farrakhan. “I strongly condemn the anti-Semitic statements made by Minister Farrakhan. I assume that Trumpet Magazine made its own decision to honor Farrakhan based on his efforts to rehabilitate ex-offenders, but it is not a decision with which I agree.”

The White House released official statement from the President regarding shooting at DC’s Holocaust Museum, which left one security guard dead: “I am shocked and saddened by today’s shooting at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. This outrageous act reminds us that we must remain vigilant against anti-Semitism and prejudice in all its forms. No American institution is more important to this effort than the Holocaust Museum, and no act of violence will diminish our determination to honor those who were lost by building a more peaceful and tolerant world.”

To such statements – be it in honor of Bongo or the Holocaust Museum, or in opposition to honoring Farrakhan, there need not be any controversy. As a human being, Obama is entitled to honor or dishonor them. But when it comes to Michael Jackson, whose contributions to the world of music is unlike any other, and which is duly acknowledged by everyone – and whose death was mourned by world leaders from Nelsn Mandela to Hugo Chavez, what did Obama have to lose?

More importantly, what has United States got to lose if we officially show respect to MJ – the most well known and acknowledged man of color. Will we never commemorate his death with a national week of mourning? Will we never celebrate his birthday officially? Will we never remember that black artistry must be celebrated above all else? It is true we have not duly acknowledged many great black artists in the past. The question is shall we continue this trend?

United States machinery has appropriated the gains from Michael’s “We Are The World” to help America put a human face on its cold war strategies. In America’s war against drugs, Michael has been used as the most influential and positive role model. To implement humanitarian causes that secured politicians such as Al Gore Nobel Prizes and Bill Clinton immortality, Michael’s legacy was used to the max. And most notably, in the past, all American Presidents have issued official statements mourning great artists. Here are just a few:

Jimmy Carter’s written Statement by the President on the Death of Elvis Presley on August 17, 1977

“Elvis Presley’s death deprives our country of a part of itself. He was unique and irreplaceable. More than 20 years ago, he burst upon the scene with an impact that was unprecedented and will probably never be equaled. His music and his personality, fusing the styles of white country and black rhythm and blues, permanently changed the face of American popular culture. His following was immense, and he was a symbol to people the world over of the vitality, rebelliousness, and good humor of his country.”

John Lennon was remembered after his death by both President Carter and incoming President Reagan through written statements.

Frank Sinatra’s death was mourned by Bill Clinton through a detailed written statement to the press:
“Hillary and I were deeply saddened to hear of the death of a musical legend and an American icon, Frank Sinatra. Early in his long career, fans dubbed him ‘The Voice.’ And that was the first thing America noticed about Frank Sinatra: that miraculous voice, strong and subtle, wisecracking and wistful, streetwise but defiantly sweet. In time he became so much more. Sinatra was a spellbinding performer, on stage or on screen, in musicals, comedies and dramas. He built one of the world’s most important record companies. He won countless awards, from the Grammy — nine times — to the Academy Award, to the Presidential Medal of Freedom. And he dedicated himself to humanitarian causes. When I became president, I had never met Frank Sinatra, although I was an enormous admirer of his. I had the opportunity after I became president to get to know him a little, to have dinner with him, to appreciate on a personal level what fans around the world, including me, appreciated from afar. Frank Sinatra will be missed profoundly by millions around the world. But his music and movies will ensure that ‘Ol’ Blue Eyes’ is never forgotten. Today, I think every American would have to smile and say he really did do it his way. Hillary and I would like to offer our condolences to Frank’s wife, Barbara, and to his children, Nancy, Frank Jr., and Tina. Our hearts are with them today.”

What has stopped President Obama and the US administration from honoring Michael Jackson, who has emerged even greater in his death?