Pete Seeger: We shall overcome

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Few musicians combined music and a lifetime of struggle for social justice like Pete Seeger, the legendary American folksinger who died January 27 at the age of 94.

As a union activist, I particularly appreciate his songs that evoke the sacrifice of battling entrenched power to improve people’s lives. In “Talking Union,” Seeger sang,

Now, boys, you’ve come to the hardest time
The boss will try to bust your picket 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 meetin’, they’ll hit you on the head
They’ll call every one of you a goddam red

The song may be more than 70 years old, but it is just as relevant today as governments here and around the world increasingly resort to old police-state tactics to repress popular movements. Seeger knew of what he sang.

Subpoenaed by Senator Joseph McCarthy’s infamous House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1955, Seeger refused to cave in to a bullying and bigoted interrogation by US Congressmen during his hearing. “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… make me any less of an American,” he told the committee as he refused to implicate others much less renounce his work for progressive causes.

As a result, mainstream America blacklisted him until the late 1960s. He paid the price but his example showed how to stand strong in the face of hysterical abuse, how to speak truth to power.

It’s the same spirit that led him to support the struggle against the Great Whale hydroelectric project in the early 1990s. He joined 60 Cree and Inuit on the Journey of the Odeyak down the Hudson River all the way to New York City, a turning point in Cree history and self-affirmation. As Matthew Mukash noted, Seeger also performed several benefit concerts to help draw American attention to the environmental and political threat the project posed to Cree and Inuit.

Michael Poslun’s book Voices of the Odeyak chronicled the epic journey and its symbolic impact in the struggle over Great Whale. Seeger penned the foreword to the book, noting that the US media gave the impression that Americans didn’t care about Cree lands if it meant cheaper electricity.

“You would think that American people are not concerned about the land that they are taking from the Indians up in the north of Canada so that they can have cheaper electricity,” he wrote. “I think the newspapers are wrong. I think the television doesn’t tell us the whole story. I think there are millions of Americans who will say ‘No.’

“When they realize that we are taking the homes of people who have lived there for thousands for years, people who took care of the land as they hunted and trapped and fished and who want to keep on living on their land – there are Americans who will say “No. That’s not fair to take their land. We may have to spend a little more for our electricity. But we’ll find something. We can learn how to use solar power. We can start using wind power.” There are a whole lot of things we can do rather than to take away the land that belongs to these people.”

Seeger was right. “We shall overcome, some day,” he famously sang. We’ll walk hand in hand. We shall live in peace. We shall all be free. We are not afraid. We shall overcome, some day.

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