Pete Seeger & Rise Up Singing!

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.

For Pete Seeger (May 13, 1919 – January 27, 2014)

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

  1. If I Had a HammerPete Seeger      (See above. Pete >Barney.)
  2. Free to Be You and Me   – Marlo Thomas & Friends     In my opinion, one of the best things about being a kid in the 70s.
  3. The PreambleSchoolhouse Rock      Did you know that the U.S. Constitution is one of the first documents to establish universal principles of human rights?
  4. 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.
  5. FreedomRichie Havens         My parents had the Woodstock album.  I think I know this and every other song on it by heart.
From My Youth 
  1.  Sunday Bloody SundayU2       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.)
  2. Holiday in CambodiaDead 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.
  3. 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.
  4. Tell Me Why  – Bronski Beat      I remember this as the first song I heard that directly addressed prejudice against homosexuals. Rock on!
  5. Waiting for the Great Leap ForwardBilly 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.
From My Adulthood
  1. 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.
  2. HurricaneBob 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. MinorityGreen Day      Sometimes I have to remind myself that not everyone thinks the way I do about human rights – yet.
  6. Sons & DaughtersThe Decemberists        This is kind of where I am right now.  With sons and daughter.  Hoping to “Hear all the bombs fade away.”

A Change Is Gonna Come

Sunset after a storm in the Sandwich Ridge mountains, New Hampshire
Sunset after a storm in the Sandwich Ridge Mountains, New Hampshire

I took this photo last year during a family vacation in Center Sandwich, New Hampshire.  A thunderstorm raged all afternoon, but just as we were finishing dinner the storm suddenly ended.  Three generations of extended family went out into the still-damp field to watch the sunset reflected on the lifting storm clouds.  As often happens in the mountains, it was a dramatic change.  At the time, and ever since, the play of setting sun on passing thunderheads makes me think of Sam Cooke and “A Change is Gonna Come“.  Recorded in January 1964, the song became one of the greatest anthems of the Civil Rights Movement.

A Change is Gonna Come

I was born by the river in a little tent.
Ohh and just like the river,
I’ve been running ev’r since.
It’s been a long time, a long time coming
But I know a change gonna come, oh yes it will
It’s been too hard living, but I’m afraid to die
‘Cause I don’t know what’s up there, beyond the sky
It’s been a long, a long time coming
But I know a change gonna come, oh yes it will.
I go to the movie and I go downtown.
Somebody keep tellin’ me don’t hang around.
It’s been a long, a long time coming
But I know a change gonna come, oh yes it will.
Then I go to my brother
And I say brother help me please.
But he winds up knockin’ me
Back down on my knees, ohh
There have been times that I thought
I couldn’t last for long
But now I think I’m able to carry on
It’s been a long, a long time coming
But I know a change is gonna come, oh yes it will.

A singer who blurred the lines between gospel, R&B and pop, Cooke was reportedly inspired to write “A Change is Gonna Come” by Bob Dylan and “Blowin’ In The Wind”.  While on tour in October 1963, Cooke and his band were turned away from a “whites only” motel in Shreveport, Louisiana where they had a reservation. When they protested,  they were arrested and thrown in jail for disturbing the peace.   Not long after, Sam Cooke wrote “A Change is Gonna Come”
“Sam as a writer saw himself almost as a reporter,” said biographer Peter Guralnick said in one interview.  “He took all of those experiences[of racism],” Guralnick says, “but he enlarged upon them and he broadened them to the point that the song… becomes a statement of what a generation had had to endure.”
The song was only a modest commercial success and Sam Cooke only performed it live once.   Yet “A Change Is Gonna Come” has become an iconic symbol of triumph over adversity.  It has been called Sam Cooke’s legacy and “heralded as his magnus opum”.  In 2005, it was voted number 12 in Rolling Stone magazine’s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.  It has also been selected National Public Radio (NPR) as one of the 300 most important songs.  In 2007, it was added by the Library of Congress to the National Recording Registry.  Bettye LaVette performed “A Change Is Gonna Come” with Jon Bon Jovi, at the Lincoln Memorial during the first inaugural concert for President Obama, introducing a new generation to Sam Cooke.   (Watch the video here .)
Sam Cooke died on December 11, 1964 in a shooting at a Los Angeles motel. He was 33 years old.
***
Today is a gray and cold day where I live – a day on the tipping point between winter and spring.   To fight the doldrums, I took my two youngest children swimming at the our local YMCA pool.  As I looked at all the kids laughing and playing in the pool, the splashing water sparkling on skin that was black and white and every shade in between, I realized that this was a scene that wasn’t even possible in most of the United States when Sam Cooke wrote “A Change Is Gonna Come” in 1964.  And while we still have a ways to go, Sam Cooke was correct.  The storm clouds will pass and the sun will come out.
“But I know a change is gonna come, oh yes it will.”
IMG_0365
This post is a response to the Weekly Photo Challenge: Change.  You can see more responses here.

Rise Up Singing!

Pete Seeger died yesterday at the age of 94.  I can’t remember a time before I knew his voice; his songs are part of the soundtrack of my childhood.  I began listening to Pete Seeger’s music again more recently, when my own children were young.  Together, we sang 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 during my lifetime, I only saw him in person once.   He was not on a stage.   Pete Seeger was standing alone in the rain on the side of the highway near his home in New York’s Hudson Valley.  He was holding not a banjo or guitar, but a 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.

And I realized that his mouth was moving because – alone in the rain, on the side of a highway- Pete Seeger was singing his heart out for peace.

I’m thankful to Pete Seeger for his music and his activism – and for being someone who 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

  1. If I Had a HammerPete Seeger      (See above. Pete >Barney.)
  2. Free to Be You and Me   – Marlo Thomas & Friends     In my opinion, one of the best things about being a kid in the 70s.
  3. The PreambleSchoolhouse Rock      Did you know that the U.S. Constitution is one of the first documents to establish universal principles of human rights?
  4. 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.
  5. FreedomRichie Havens         My parents had the Woodstock album.  I think I know this and every other song on it by heart.
From My Youth 
  1.  Sunday Bloody SundayU2       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.)
  2. Holiday in CambodiaDead 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.
  3. 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.
  4. Tell Me Why  – Bronski Beat      I remember this as the first song I heard that directly addressed prejudice against LGBT persons. Rock on!
  5. Waiting for the Great Leap ForwardBilly 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.
From My Adulthood
  1. 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.
  2. HurricaneBob 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. MinorityGreen Day      Sometimes I have to remind myself that not everyone thinks the way I do about human rights – yet.
  6. Sons & DaughtersThe Decemberists        This is kind of where I am right now.  With sons and daughter.  Hoping to “Hear all the bombs fade away.”