I can’t remember a time before I knew his voice. Pete Seeger’s songs are part of the soundtrack of my childhood. When my own children were young, we sang together his songs “Goodnight, Irene” and “We Shall Overcome” and “If I Had a Hammer. Yet, in spite of the fact that Pete Seeger gave thousands of performances, I only saw him in person one time. He was not on a stage. He was not with a crowd. Pete Seeger was standing alone in the rain on the side of the highway near his home in New York’s Hudson River Valley. Pete Seeger was holding neither a banjo nor a guitar, but instead a large sign protesting the Iraq War. As we drove by, I noticed that his mouth was open and moving. “Hey, I think that’s Pete Seeger!” I said, turning in my seat to continue watching him through the foggy car window.
And I realized that his mouth was moving because – alone in the rain, on the side of a highway – Pete Seeger was singing. He was singing his heart out for peace in our world.
What I saw that day made me especially thankful to Pete Seeger, not only for his music and his activism, but for his courage and conviction. Pete Seeger is someone who really does make me believe, deep in my heart, that we SHALL overcome one day.
Rise Up Singing!
(Originally published on October 14, 2011 and updated on January 28, 2014)
History shows the incredible power of music to inspire and influence, to energize and heal. The power of song can be seen in its impact on movement-building, from the anti-slavery and labor union movements in the 1800s to the civil rights and anti-war movements in the 1960s. Liberation music has been important throughout the world, including songs of resistance during the anti-Apartheid struggle in South Africa. Most recently, music has been part of this year’s Arab Spring. In protests against Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, for example, music was a powerful way to convey the voice of the people. (NPR story did a great story on The Songs of The Egyptian Protest)
I absolutely love Rise Up Singing, the folk music group singing songbook. The book contains the chords and lyrics to more than the 1200 songs. When you flip through it, you get a sense of how many songs there are out there that speak to such a wide variety of social justice issues. Rise Up Singing grew out of Peoples Songs, Inc., Sing Out! The Folk Song Magazine and the post-World War II American folk song movement led by Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie, and many others who sought to combine political activism with music.
But music that inspires me to stand up for human rights is not just about protest songs or folk music. Music speaks to the individual. Inspiration is personal. In 2006, I was in Geneva with representatives from dozens of U.S. human rights groups to participate in the UN’s review of US compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. We were all working on different issues and we came from all over the country, from Florida to Hawaii.
As an icebreaker at our first meeting, we were asked, “What is your favorite human rights song?” I remember being amazed as we went around the room at the tremendous variety in terms of songs, genres, languages, meanings that had inspired this group of activists. I told the group that my song was “If I Had a Hammer”. (My kids were still quite young at the time and we were listening to a lot of Pete Seeger, who is my own personal antidote to Barney.)
Since then, I’ve been making a mental playlist of the songs that have inspired me over the years. My list of songs is actually long enough for several playlists, but I decided to pull out just a few songs from each of the eras of my life so far. This was a real challenge and there are a lot of obvious omissions. Maybe I’ll just have to do another playlist someday. In the meantime, I’ve got the HUMAN RIGHTS WARRIOR PLAYLIST for you on YouTube. You can also link to each song individually below. Enjoy!
From My Childhood
- If I Had a Hammer – Pete Seeger (See above. Pete >Barney.)
- Free to Be You and Me – Marlo Thomas & Friends In my opinion, one of the best things about being a kid in the 70s.
- The Preamble – Schoolhouse Rock Did you know that the U.S. Constitution is one of the first documents to establish universal principles of human rights?
- Star Wars Main Title/Rebel Blockade Runner - John Williams People say Star Wars was a Western set in space, but I saw the Empire for the police state that it was. Extrajudicial execution of Luke’s family, arbitrary detention of Han Solo et al. Not to mention the genocide on Alderaan.
- Freedom – Richie Havens My parents had the Woodstock album. I think I know this and every other song on it by heart.
- Sunday Bloody Sunday – U2 I first heard this on my high school radio station WBRH. I went right to the library and looked up the 1972 Bloody Sunday Massacre in Northern Ireland. (Yes, I’m a nerd. I know.)
- Holiday in Cambodia – Dead Kennedys I went through a big DK phase in high school. Also, I knew a family that had fled the Pol Pot regime. I still think of them when I hear this song.
- Talkin’ Bout a Revolution - Tracy Chapman Growing up in Louisiana, I had seen poverty. But it didn’t prepare me for the mid-80s urban poverty I saw when I went to college in New Haven. This song still rings true 25 years later.
- Tell Me Why – Bronski Beat I remember this as the first song I heard that directly addressed prejudice against homosexuals. Rock on!
- Waiting for the Great Leap Forward – Billy Bragg The lyrics have changed since I first bought Worker’s Playtime (on cassette!) in college, but I think it is possible that I have listened it to 1,000,000 times.
- All You Facists (Are Going to Lose) – Lyrics by Woody Guthrie, Music by Billy Bragg & Wilco From the Mermaid Avenue album. Yes, the Facists are bound to lose some day.
- Hurricane – Bob Dylan Rubin “Hurricane” Carter did an event for us to help raise money for our Death Penalty project. If anyone ever wants to make a movie about your life, he highly recommends that you ask that they get Denzel Washington to play you.
- Living Like a Refugee – Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Star Band I spent the first 5 years of my career working with asylum seekers. This song captures many of the things I heard about their experiences.
- Face Down – Red Jumpsuit Apparatus Violence against women is the most common human rights violation in the world – 1 in 3 women will experience abuse in her lifetime. In the US, a woman is beaten or assaulted every 9 seconds. Kudos to these guys for singing about it.
- Minority – Green Day Sometimes I have to remind myself that not everyone thinks the way I do about human rights – yet.
- Sons & Daughters – The Decemberists This is kind of where I am right now. With sons and daughter. Hoping to “Hear all the bombs fade away.”