Remembering Pete Seeger in the Era of Trump

Pete Seeger performing "Turn! Turn! Turn!" at Great Hudson River Revival in 2011
Pete Seeger performing "Turn! Turn! Turn!" at Great Hudson River Revival in 2011

With all of the recent protests in reaction to the inauguration of Donald Trump, including last weekend's Women’s March on Washington, I was reminded of legendary American folk singer and social activist Pete Seeger. Today marks the third anniversary of Seeger’s death in 2014 at the too-young age of 94. Throughout his life Seeger supported civil rights, the labor movement, racial equality, anti-militarism and international peace. He performed for Eleanor Roosevelt at a racially integrated Valentine’s Day Party in then-segregated Washington D.C. in 1944, and believed in the power of songs to help bring about political change.

Seeger is perhaps best known for his re-emergence in the 1960s with the folk-music revival and his support of the Civil Rights Movement, youth counterculture and environmentalism. There is no doubt that if Seeger were alive today, he would be vehemently opposed to Donald Trump and his administration, out participating and performing at protests against Trump and his policies.

Here are a few select Seeger songs that are perhaps more relevant than ever in the era of Trump.

"Talking Union"
“Talking Union” was written back in 1941 by members of folk group Almanac Singers, including Lee Hays, Millard Campbell and Seeger, who wrote the ending of the song. Woody Guthrie, the group's other member, did not help write this one. The song encourages listeners to join or start their own union for better pay, better hours and all-around better treatment at work; President Trump has been opposed by union leaders, who spent nearly $100 million campaigning against him. Trump famously attacked an Indiana union leader on Twitter and selected fast-food chief executive Andrew Puzder as his choice for secretary of the Department of Labor; Puzder is a strong union critic who is against the minimum wage and has called for fast-food workers to be replaced by machines. Puzder’s corporation, CKE Restaurants, is a frequent labor-law violator.

"To My Old Brown Earth"; "Sailing Up My Dirty Stream"
These are just two of several pro-environmental/anti-pollution songs Seeger wrote. Trump has said he does not believe in man-made climate change, plans to slash 75 percent of the Environmental Protection Agency’s regulations and has ordered the EPA to delete the climate page from its website and to not give social-media updates. Trump also has reversed President Obama by reviving the Dakota Access and Keystone XL oil pipelines, angering environmentalists and Native Americans and gearing them up for many more protests ahead.

"Bring 'Em Home"; "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?"
Seeger was against the war in Vietnam, as he states in his song “Bring ’em Home,” though he did declare that he himself was not a pacifist in the song as well and would defend America if it were attacked. He was no hawk by any stretch, though, and lamentingly asks, “Where have all the soldiers gone?” in his classic song “Where Have All The Flowers Gone? Though “Flowers” was written back in 1955, it too became popular during the Vietnam era. Seeger criticized many American presidents for their military interventions while he was alive; though Trump has vowed to end U.S. intervention overseas, he has also called for nuclear expansion, huge spending on a military buildup and increased troops, actions that Seeger would have been opposed to. Trump made headlines recently during a speech at C.I.A. headquarters when he said that the U.S. should have taken Iraq’s oil and “maybe will have another chance.”

"If I Had a Hammer (The Hammer Song)"
If Pete Seeger were alive today and had a hammer, he sure wouldn’t volunteer to build Trump’s wall along the Mexican border; the song, which was written in 1949 with Lee Hays, is actually in support of the Progressive political movement, more Bernie Sanders than Donald Trump, obviously. Seeger first recorded it with folk-music quartet The Weavers; the song was a hit for both Peter, Paul and Mary in 1962 and Trini Lopez in 1963.

"Turn! Turn! Turn! (To Everything There Is a Season)"
Seeger wrote the peace anthem “Turn! Turn! Turn!” in the late ’50s, using lines from the Bible’s Book of Ecclesiastes, only adding the “Turn! Turn! Turn!” to the chorus and the closing line, “A time for peace, I swear it’s not too late.” The song became a huge hit for The Byrds when they released their version in 1965, and many folks assume to this day that they wrote it. Many of the lyrics are as relevant today as ever in light of the political divide the nation is now facing; now seems to be both a time to embrace as well as a time to refrain from embracing, as the song states, depending on your political views and who you supported in the election.

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"We Shall Overcome"
“We Shall Overcome” is a gospel song dating back to the original version, titled “I'll Overcome Some Day," a hymn by Charles Albert Tindley published in 1900. A number of versions were developed throughout the years by various performers, with Seeger, Frank Hamilton and Guy Carawan adapting theirs in 1959. The tune became a protest song and anthem of the Civil Rights Movement and has been used in a variety of protests worldwide ever since, including protests over the inauguration of Donald Trump as President. One can be assured we have not heard the last of this song in this current era and going forward.

The social ills that Seeger sang about started long before Trump. It should be noted that, although Seeger would not have supported our current president, he really believed in the power of the people themselves to bring about change and didn’t have use for most politicians. “Be wary of great leaders,” Seeger is quoted as saying. Ditto for not-so-great leaders, we might add.

BONUS: Bernie Sanders Sings!
Bernie Sanders recorded an album titled We Shall Overcome in 1987 with 30 Vermont musicians and singers; "We Shall Overcome" and "Where Have All The Flowers Gone?" are among the tracks.


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