I come from a conservative little ratfuck town from upstate New York. The town has since swung slightly Democratic, but for the duration of my tenure there it was reigned over by mean-spirited Republicans. Of course, this meant that they were some of the biggest cheerleaders for the Iraq war. I was home from college during the shock and awe phase and witnessed patrons of a local gas station frothing at the carnage like it was a backwoods air show.
After undergraduate studies, I headed home rather than continuing on. I had a few friends who were doing weird noise and art shows and we were trying to start a non-profit based around bolstering the experimental arts community in the area. Thus, I plunged myself from the liberal utopia of Amherst, MA back into this disheartening northern corridor of Dubya Bush country. While waiting for our arts venture to pick up followers or backers or any traction, I held down a few jobs, including one at a local Barnes and Noble with my friend Jeff, patron of many of the local noise bands and shows.
On the way into work, Jeff and I traveled down Route 9, which like other Route 9s of the world was bathed in corporate logos, one of those shitty rabid stretches that consumes all that is novel and distinctive in its path to homogenize the landscape into an opaque, ubiquitous portrait of a completely colonized West. Last year, the best sushi place I've ever eaten at was slash-and-burned, the soil tilled for some kind of Panera or an Arby’s no doubt. It should come as no surprise then that there were also two malls on this road, located adjacent one another, leading to an adolescence with such wildly diverse hangouts as “the good mall” or the mall with the cheap movie theater.
One interesting thing about the malls was that occasionally a handful (and by handful I truly mean less than 10 people) would gather outside of them to hold protest banners at oncoming traffic, either pissing off the frothing jingoist natives or eliciting supportive honks from an exhausted few. One cold winter day in early 2005, Jeff and I were feeling down from the general dystopian atmosphere of George Bush America’s and decided that we’d go offer to bring the protesters outside of the mall some coffee and show our support by sticking around with them a bit before work to shout at cars or whatever it was that they were doing. I had protested the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq several times at college, even before those wars had started, but winter of early 2005 was at a time when even the liberal establishment was still largely supportive of the war, so we figured the shivering old hippies could use a few extra bodies, even if it was only for an hour or so before our $7.50/hr obligation to corporate capitalism called us.
Expecting very little out of the visit, we were shocked to find that among the 6 or so folks at the protest that day was none other than the Pete Seeger. I’d heard he had some farmland up in Beacon at one point, but figured he probably didn't get out much. The guy was in his late eighties after all, so I had relegated him to the kind of celebrity who’d only garner an occasional supermarket citing like the other ones who weirdly owned property in the area (Steve Martin, Liam Neeson, Ric Ocasek, Uma Thurman, et al.). Not only was Seeger a regular down in front of the galleria though, he was also incredibly warm and cordial, welcoming and excited to see young blood passionate about the anti-war movement. I initially felt bad for him, standing in the freezing cold way too old to be doing this sort of thing, mucus encrusted to his face showing that he was fighting some kind of cold. But this wasn't just a stop-off on the way to the office for him. This was where he lived. Not at the mall, but on the streets, outside the system, railing from the outside at whatever was in. It was clear that if the corporate state the military industrial complex was not taking a day off, he wasn't either.
We eventually called in late. We were having a blast waving signs and singing songs. Nowhere in my head did I think it was changing hearts and minds, but I think in that wholly colonized vista, being the one billboard for something that was not on the menu elsewhere was still an important task and I think Seeger would agree.
His profile was low later in life. Even as Springsteen gathered a ton of celebrities to commemorate the man on his 90th Birthday (in which a gaggle of Vietnam era yuppies who stood by complicitly as the 21st century slaughters began paid for expensive tickets to see what they could have gotten for free on the side of the road on any weekend in Poughkeepsie), the coverage of it was oddly neutered of any political dimension. A New York Times article even weirdly insinuated that with Obama’s inauguration, Seeger’s ilk had won, which only further proves how marginalized and invisible the actual left has become in the neoliberal age. Yet, rather than retire in this hostile environment, Seeger continued on at the most grassroots level- perched aside the road while passersby yelled and spat at him.
There’s very little in my life that’s much cooler than having had the opportunity to sing “Down By The Riverside”, “This Land is Your Land”, “If I Had a Hammer”, and “We Shall Overcome” with Pete Seeger, just as millions had done before. The world has certainly changed since he had started singing them 70 odd years ago, but Seeger was wise enough to know that this was not reason enough to accept the world at face value. If anything, this is why the idiom of folk music, which is not a progressive medium at all but rather one built on an unfaltering and somewhat conservative tradition, is still a useful idiom; it presupposes a persistent underclass bonded by the commonality of song. When the forces of popular historicism try to alienate the urban poor of neoliberal Detroit the destitute Appalachians of the turn of the century, folk as medium was invented to bond them in populism (which is why hip-hop, which privileges the voice, a much easier instrument to learn than the banjo/guitar, has regularly been touted as a "new folk" since the 80's).