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This Machine Surrounds Hate and Forces it to Surrender

December 8, 2009

Photo by Bruce Mondschain, courtesy of the Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives and Collections, Smithsonian Institution. Pete Seeger, This Machine Surrounds Hate and Forces it to Surrender.

“The songs of the working people have always been their sharpest statement and the one statement that cannot be destroyed. You can burn books, buy newspapers, you can gaurd against handbills and pamphlets, but you cannot prevent singing.” (Lomax, 8)

I think that the most direct way to begin to approach politically charged folk music is through an inspirational intermediary. While individual songs such as If I Had A Hammer, are monumental, timeless, and essentially the property of the American people, they were at one point written by one man, recorded on one record label, and owned by one company. In this instance, the one man happens to be Pete Seeger, arguably the most influential singer/songwriter in American history. While I intend to cover a vast span of history in my future writing on this site, and time line wise, Pete is near the end of an era when labor and union songs had a direct effect on workers, he seems like an intelligent place to begin. While he protested his then current issues, Pete also sang ballads of women and child laborers in early American mills, and about the trials of coal miners, which makes his music all-encompassing and time enduring. In the 1800s, union ballads were sung by those who needed to hear them, in other words, actual union members and mill workers, but once into the 1900s when record labels and companies began to monopolize the music industry, these songs were sung and written by people publicly recognized as musicians. (Dunaway, 127). Singers like Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, and Joe Glazer became the new voices of the people, and united under these single voices, the unions and those concerned had new hope for organization. These musical powerhouses would lead organized workers to new levels and be remembered for their contribution for decades to come.

Pete Seeger’s hopes and dreams for the American working class relied heavily upon the acceptance of the Communist party, a group that mirrored his ideals of a cohesive and classless society. In its earlier years, the Communist party promoted protest and labor songs, and their pro-labor stance provided ample material for the politically minded folk musician. Unfortunately, while Pete sang songs of hope during his time in the military in Saipan, the party changed and the music industry became crippled due to war-induced material shortage and the American Federation of Musicians strike from August of 1942 to the latter years of 1944. (Cohen 24). Upon his return in the early ’40s, Pete found that to be a radical movement leader, he would have to sing his way into the public’s hearts without party affiliation. Obviously, given his current musical status, this was not a major stumbling block in his career. In 1946, Pete Seeger developed People’s Songs, a recording organization based in the Communist beliefs for which Pete had such passion, which both boosted it’s popularity and caused suspicion among officials. In a People’s Songs pamphlet in 1946, Pete stated that, “The people are on the march and must have songs to sing. Now, in 1946, the truth must reassert itself in many singing voices…It is clear that there must be an organization to make and send songs of labor and the American people through the land.” (Cohen, 27).

Pete was also heavily influenced by the civil rights movement, an interest which If I Had A Hammer clearly demonstrates. The civil rights movement and the labor movement were connected by many common values, and also by song. Many songs which applied to civil rights, also applied, and still do apply to labor issues today.

In this first post, I also think it would be prudent to lay down a foundation for what I mean when I refer to a “union song,” or a “protest ballad.” These are songs that express a feeling or feelings of discontent and unfulfilled working dreams; music that conveys a desire, but also, in the simple act of its moving sound, has the power to inspire organization. What Pete Seeger found, was that although he had the best intentions and laborers loved to hear him sing, the true rallying singers were those of old, those who shared a commonality with the workers that he never could; these singers were the workers themselves. As country singer Bill C. Malone so eloquently put it, “The most substantial expression of protest (as opposed to mere commentary) came from humble farmers and workers who poured out their anguish in music.” (Cohen, 10). This statement leads me to the belief that the reason many, if not most of Pete’s recordings involve audience participation is not simply because he is a group performer, but also that he realizes the power of organization lies beyond the realm of picket signs and cruel words. The heart of an effective organization is the commonality of the people expressed in its truest form: song.

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