Tribute to Pete Seeger

We were sat well back, almost up in ‘The Gods’, as we called the highest stalls in theatres. There was me, ‘Jack’ Handley and Ron Boyd, the hard core trio that formed ‘The Clevelanders’ folk group, from Darlington. It was late 1963, if my memory serves me right, and Jack had driven us up to Newcastle to the Flora Robson Theatre for a folk concert. There was only one act, there only needed to be one act that night – Pete Seeger.

Pete was on his world tour – to get an idea of what he played and sang, try to get a hold of his CBS recording ‘We Shall Overcome’ at Carnegie Hall as part of that  tour. He inspired me that night and the inspiration has stayed with me for over 50 years. I still have that LP; I still have a copy of his book on how to play the 5-string banjo. Whenever energy flags, his is the voice to turn to, in order to recharge the batteries.

When I heard the news today that Pete had died, for once I was not moved to tears, big as that loss may be. This is a time to celebrate a wonderful life and a wonderful man and his enormous legacy.

There are many stories about him that demonstrate flaws in his character, but one of them was never inconsistency. You knew exactly who he was. What you might not see, because he didn’t show it, did not matter. For a shy man, as it is said, to have led such a public life, to have faced down the House Un-American Activities Committee like he did, to have suffered the violence of the right wing mobs at Peekskill like he did, to have built an environmental movement against some local hostility in his own backyard persistently and generously over decades like he did, to have been standing there when it mattered like he did – well, what more inspiration to shy, timid people can there be?

Some people have criticised him for staying loyal too long to the Stalinist CP-USA and for not speaking out against Stalin’s evil deeds as outspokenly as he might. He chose rather to focus on doing positive, hopeful things for change for a better, more peaceful world. Some like me also spent time in the CP in the 60s until the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 and, frankly, compared with the alternatives I have since experienced, there was more freedom and more opportunity to speak out in the YCL and CP then than in most of the Trotskyist and (allegedly libertarian) socialist or anarchist sects purporting to represent the alternative – bar none. So, let’s move on from that dead, old argument and get ourselves out of the dustbin of history until we find our way again. We have to build the movement anew, from the roots.

And, if you want inspiration on that journey, listen to Pete singing and I defy you not to join in. He certainly got us singing up in Newcastle on Tyne back in 1963. As the title of his autobiography (How Can I Keep from Singing?) implies, maybe singing is as good a place as any to start from. I hope that on some cloud, up there somewhere, encouraged by his beloved Toshi, Pete has organised a band of angels.

Sing up Pete, so we can all hear!

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1914-18 and all that (1)

Sooner or later some voice from the narrowly nationalist right wing of British politics was going to break cover on the debate as to how we should commemorate the First World War and play the ‘Patriot Game’. There is an Orwellian logic that the Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove, should be the one to parade his personal ignorance. In the process he has kicked off what has been described in some quarters as ‘the history wars’. I doubt this will be the ‘war to end all wars’, any more than was the subject of his infantile broadside – just the latest of his attempts to impose on schools his bigoted version of British history.

In promoting a narrowly ‘patriotic’ approach to the commemorations, he has totally missed the point. For most people it is not about which individual party was to blame, nor about which side won (if anyone did), nor even about the conduct of the war at either a political or military level. For most people who have any interest at all, it is because they have a relative who died or was severely traumatised by the war and their families, over several generations, have had to deal with the emotional and psychological fall-out. Gove’s comments are an insult in that context and lack any sound intellectual foundation.

Firstly, the 1914-18 War was the first global conflict of the 20th century. Thinking about it from a purely British standpoint is rubbish. The experiences and consequences profoundly impacted on millions of people across the globe. The consequences still impact on us to this day – in the Middle East, the Balkans, Africa and the Caucasus (to name a few).

Secondly, the war itself arose out of conflicts that had gone on before in Europe, Asia, Africa, the Pacific and the Americas. It was about the imperial territorial expansionist ambitions of Britain, France, Belgium, Germany, Italy, Austria, Japan, Russia and the USA (among others). Britain, having got in early on that particular act, was largely on the defensive, trying to keep control over its fractious overseas dominions, especially close to home in Ireland. They made sure they got in on the post-war land grab.

Thirdly, despite the rhetoric, it had nothing to do with the rights of small nations – something that was opposed and contradicted by all the imperial powers, including the USA seeking their own spheres of global influence. Serbia had ambitions of expansion in the Balkans at the expense of the Austrian Empire and its own neighbours. ‘Plucky little Belgium’ had its own, particularly bloody colonies, in central Africa.

Fourthly, and most definitely, it was not a war for liberal democracy – there were none at the time. Only Germany had anything like universal suffrage in 1914 and that did not extend to women at all. Voting in the UK was restricted by property qualifications and the years before the war had seen cruel and despotic suppression of the women’s suffrage campaign. The USA came late into the war, once it could decide which side represented the best opportunity to advance its own interests, and it too denied women the vote and happily bullied smaller nations – a practice that continues to this day.

Sadly, there will be others who choose to peddle Gove’s narrow viewpoint or something like it. Even worse will be those who (as during the War itself) see an opportunity to make a quick buck. This is already happening in Suffolk, where the appropriately named commercial enterprise, ‘Khaki Devils’, is peddling its wares round the county and anywhere else, and have successfully visited on one small village near Bury St Edmund’s a crass ‘First World War Experience’ where the punters can pay for the privilege of playing at soldiers in trenches and, no doubt, buy all the tacky souvenirs the firm can muster. It will of course be stripped of all such inconveniences as dysentery, scabies, lice, rats, and the constant hazard of gas attacks, trench raids and artillery barrages – and the inconvenience of having to stay in them for two weeks at a time in the same clothes without leave. Personally, I hope they do get one of the problems – a trench six feet deep in rain water and mud. It is an insult to people like my grandfather and local people who have supported this idea should be ashamed of themselves.

Much as I might have preferred something different, as someone who has written about the First World War, I guess this will only be the first of many such blogs over the coming years.