Friday, January 31, 2014

What Would Pete Do?

Singing with children in the schools has been the most rewarding experience of my life. –Pete Seeger

One of my personal heroes died this week. Pete Seeger, troubadour, evangelist for folk music, teacher and political activist, passed at the age of 94. I can say without hyperbole, that Pete was one of the most important Americans of the 20th century. Without Pete much of our rich culture of people’s songs  would have been lost. Without Pete there would have been no folk revival in the 50s and 60s. Without Pete there would be no Bob Dylan; no Peter, Paul and Mary; no Bruce Springsteen. Pete’s songs were the soundtrack of the labor movement, the civil rights movement and the anti-war movement. Pete’s instruction books taught generations of kids to play the banjo and the guitar. Pete’s example taught many of us how to live.

My favorite Pete Seeger story, involves his appearance before House Un-American Activities Committee in 1955. Like many young people growing up during the Depression, Pete joined the Communist Party. Later, horrified by the reign of Josef Stalin, he disavowed his membership and quit the Party in 1949. He would later say he waited too long to quit. Called before the House committee, Pete brought along his banjo and offered to play the songs that he sang to people at the meetings he was being questioned about.

            I am proud that I have sung for Americans of every political persuasion, and I have never refused to sing for anybody because I disagreed with their political opinion, and I am proud of the fact that my songs seem to cut across and find perhaps a unifying thing, basic humanity, and that is why I would love to be able to tell you about these songs, because I feel that you would agree with me more, sir.

The flummoxed inquisitor pushed ahead trying to get Pete to name names of people he sang with, organizations he sang to, and places he had sung. It must be remembered that this was in an atmosphere where famous people from all walks of entertainment, including Pete’s friend Burl Ives, were cooperating with the committee and naming names for fear of jail and a ruined career. Pete refused to answer the questions in a beautiful statement of the rights of every American.

            I am not going to answer any questions as to my association, my philosophical or religious beliefs or my political beliefs, or how I voted in any election, or any of these private affairs. I think these are very improper questions for any American to be asked, especially under such compulsion as this. (You can read Pete’s full testimony here).

For his refusal to answer, Pete was found in contempt of Congress and eventually sentenced to a year in jail. His sentence was thrown out on a technicality, but Pete had fully expected to go to jail. He was blacklisted and his career was put on life support. All during the folk revival, the single most important figure in that revival was banned from appearing on national television. Pete slung his banjo on his back and made his living going from college campuses to coffee houses to summer camps, singing to anyone who would listen.

It is telling that when the blacklist was finally broken by the Smothers Brothers and Pete performed on their show in 1967, Pete chose to sing his anti-Vietnam war song, “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy.” Pete Seeger was not going to back down.

More than anything else, Pete Seeger believed in the power of people, the power of community and the power of song to bring people together. In concert, Pete did not so much present a performance as he did get everybody in the room up and singing. He believed in the transformative power of song.

So, as a teacher and advocate for public education, when I ask myself what actions I should be taking for my fellow teachers, for my fellow believers in public education and for the public school children of today and of the future, I ask myself, “What would Pete do?”

I think that Pete would advocate for community action. Actions such as we are seeing in New York where parents, community members and advocacy groups like Class Size Matters and Lace to the Top are rising up to protest the rushed and faulty implementation of the Common Core and Common Core aligned tests. The kind of community action we are seeing in Newark, NJ, where parents and administrators are fighting the turnover of the public schools to the charter school privatizers. The kind of community action we are seeing from the parents group Stop Common Core in Tennessee. And the kind of community action we are seeing from the incredible growth of the Badass Teachers Association, some 35,000 strong.

If Pete were able, I think he would be attending meetings of these groups to lead the singing of songs like this:
            We shall not
            We shall not be moved
            Just like a tree that's planted by the waters
            We shall not be moved

And in a time when teacher unions are under attack and hard won working conditions and benefits are being stripped at the whim of reformy governors and legislatures, Pete would advise that this is no time to split apart into warring factions.

            Oh, you can't scare me, I'm sticking to the union,
            I'm sticking to the union, I'm sticking to the union.
            Oh, you can't scare me, I'm sticking to the union,
            I'm sticking to the union 'til the day I die.

And as to our prospects for ultimate victory over the powers of reform? Well, Pete would have a hopeful message for us all.

            We shall overcome.
            We shall overcome.
            We shall overcome someday.
            Oh, deep in my heart
            I do believe,
            We shall overcome

Pete Seeger was the quintessential American optimist. He was the Johnny Appleseed of folksong. He was a believer in the power of good people to do good work together and to overcome oppression.  I can think of no better role model for us all as we work to stop the corporate takeover of public education.

I cannot sing or play the banjo, but I can write a little bit, so that will be my contribution to the fight. What will you do?

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