Pete Seeger at the Obama Celebration…After All These Years

Monday, January 19, 2009
Pete Seeger testifying at the HUAC Hearings, 1955

Like billions of people around the world, I was prepared for the emotional moment in which the United States, after 220 years, inaugurated its first African-American president. But there was one powerful event two days before that caught me by surprise. That was when, at the Obama Inaugural Concert in front of the Lincoln Memorial, 89-year-old Pete Seeger led the audience—including Barack Obama—in singing the Woody Guthrie song “This Land is Your Land,” and sang the original radical version rather than the nice, but watered-down one we learned in school.

Many of the media reports, probably unaware of the backstory here, did not even mention Seeger’s presence at an event that included Beyoncé, Sheryl Crow, Mary J. Bilge, Bono and Garth Brooks. For those who are not familiar with Pete Seeger, here are a few notes.
—A member of the American Communist Party, Seeger enlisted in the U.S. Army and served in the Pacific during World War II. (He later apologized for not denouncing Stalin earlier.)
—Performing with The Weavers, he had a #1 hit song, “Goodnight, Irene,” in 1950.
—He wrote many classic folk songs, including the anti-war “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?,” “Turn, Turn, Turn (To Everything There is a Season)” and “If I Had a Hammer.”
—In 1955 Seeger testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee. He refused to name names and he refused to plead the Fifth Amendment, instead invoking the First Amendment protecting freedom of speech. As a result, he was indicted for contempt of Congress.
—In 1967 he performed his song “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy” on the “Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour,” but CBS, unnerved by the not-so-subtle lyrics condemning the Vietnam War, refused to air it. Under pressure, they finally relented the following year.
—Seeger is co-copyright holder of the song “We Shall Overcome.” All royalties go to the We Shall Overcome Fund.
So, on January 18, 2009, there was Pete Seeger, after all these years, accompanied by his grandson and Bruce Springsteen, sticking to his principles and throwing in the following verses from the original version of “This Land Is Your Land”:
One bright sunny morning, in the shadow of the steeple,
By the relief office I saw my people,
As they stood there hungry, I stood there wondering if,
This land was made for you and me.

Was a big high wall there that tried to stop me,
Was a great big sign that said, "Private Property,"
But on the other side, it didn't say nothing,
That side was made for you and me.

Nobody living can ever stop me,
As I go walking my freedom highway,
Nobody living can make me turn back,
This land was made for you and me.
The smile on Seeger’s face as he completed the song and ran off the stage (at 89!) was something I don’t think I’ll forget.
“This Land is Your Land”: Pete Seeger and Bruce Springsteen at the The Obama Inaugural Concert (YouTube)
David Wallechinsky


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