To follow up on the Pete Seeger video I posted below, my friend Joe Kille wrote an e-mail to a couple mutual friends and me about Seeger and his particular approach to folk music. Joe basically argued that Seeger was advocating for the homogenization of folk music by trying to standardize the folk repertoire a la Rise Up Singing. To Joe’s credit though, he was also moved by the whole “This Land Is Your Land” singalong, so he’s no party-pooper. I wanted to quote the whole e-mail, but the formatting was just insane, so here’s a taste (in order print this here, Joe wanted me to note that he did not edit this at all – hence overuse of parentheses, typos, etc):

I know it was the 60’s reformed communist dream that we could all understand each other through some uni-culture but that does a lot to whitewash peoples/music/cultures. Kind of kills the whole Lomax / Lost Sounds idea (of which some people say seeger was involved…what?)

Seeger travelled the country singing other people’s songs. His contributions to the folk cannon are notable (turn, turn, turn; where have all the flowers gone?; if I had a hammer) but lack any real teeth. Pete Seeger (more than dylan) made a career aping Guthrie’s legacy. Where Guthrie was singing specifics, Seeger is singing generalities.

Maybe I’m a prematurely crusty old man, but I think that the idea that any song can be song by a huge group of people can only go so far (despite the fact that This Land Is Your Land should be our national anthem). As irritating as it is when they do it, the Carolina Chocolate Drops do it best when they sing other people’s songs, which is to give an exhaustive measure of where you can hear the original (or earliest recorded) version of the song and from what musical tradition it came. Even then, they wind up putting their own spin on the songs they sing (even if just instrumentation wise) and recognize it. If you’ve ever read Pete Seegers Folk Singer guide you get the impressions that he’s laying out the way that people should perform by themselves and with a group and that’s it. As a country, we don’t need directions for how to perform music. It will just happen by itself. As Big Bill Broonzy said (when asked if what he was singing was considered a folk song) “It must be, I’ve never heard a horse sing it.”

First off, I’m obviously with him on the awesomeness of the inclusion of the “lost” verse of “This Land Is Your Land” at the inaugural concert. His major point, besides dissing Seeger’s lame voice and playing (and I’m with him on that) is that he is basically advocating for a standardization/homogenization of folk music, something that is almost inherently heterogeneous. I agree that folk music is in many ways a spontaneous, improvised experience rooted in distinct cultural traditions. In a country like the United States where many different traditions and folk musics eventually became intertwined to the point where we can legitimately talk of American folk music that includes blues, old time, zydeco, corridos, etc. This is especially true since many of these divisions were created by record executives who were maybe not directly of the cultures from where these folk traditions came.

Seeger was similar to these executives in terms of his relative outsider status, but engaged in similar manipulation of what “folk” really meant. I do think that almost anybody talking about this engages in some kind of manipulation of what is basically a not-entirely-definable term, so to say that Seeger manipulated its meaning is not necessarily a bad or evil thing. So even if Seeger is maybe aesthetically lame, the fact that he popularized much of this music was an important contribution, especially since he did not actually succeed in his drive to standardize what he saw as a folk canon of sorts.

Also, it’s worth considering the alternative. Many different parties are constantly trying to define what America means. Both of us might agree that a search for a clean and tidy national definition is a stupid, pointless quest to begin with. That in and of itself might explain your problem with Seeger. He’s trying to define the indefinable. But if there are going to be others defining it by “I’m Proud To Be An American” and all other kinds of vaguely objectionable drivel that is often part of the conversation when it comes to American music, it’s nice to know that someone fought for a definition of this country that could include not only “This Land Is Your Land,” but a host of other blues and old-time standards. These are songs that were presented in a particularly lame, and perhaps harmful (with regards to Seeger’s overeager attempts to standardize a folk canon), but can at least provide an opening for many Americans to explore the real folk traditions of this country. I know that growing up in the house of South African immigrants, Seeger was a way for my parents to introduce me to the music of a country who folkways they only kind of understood themselves.

And anyway, without Seeger, that singalong at the Lincoln Memorial could’ve been “God Bless America” instead of Guthrie’s response.

After Barack Hussein Obama took the oath of the office of the presidency for the first time, cannons blasted mere yards away from me in the 21 gun salute common to the inauguration of every new president of the United States. The pageantry that often marks off a capital “H” Historic moment was loud and clear in my ears. The new president took a podium looking out over us 2 million onlookers and implored my generation and our seemingly cashed and failed preceding ones to give a chance to government and to give a chance to ourselves. A skeptic — wow, that’s an understatement — of presidential politics for my adolescent and young adult life under the Bush administration, I found myself willing to open myself to this new presidential figure if at least momentarily. To hear a United States president speak of our commitment to developing nations, acknowledge non-believers as equals in our national spiritual compass, and note, with bittersweet pride, the blood of slaves that was spent bringing him to this podium, rang true for me in a way unique to this new president. Even as his rhetoric occasionally echoed the words Bush used throughout his presidency, his tone indicated a more ambitious, less vengeful, more fundamentally decent understanding of the world. It was fitting, then, that both Rev. Joseph Lowery and poet Elizabeth Alexander both clung to “love” as the value to cherish under this presidency, something surely limited to the dregs of hippie-dom at most other times in modern political memory.

I, along with my girlfriend, clawed through crowds in the fabled purple ticket holders “line” to our obstructed view spot on the Capitol lawn beginning at 5:15 am, reaching a spot at about 11 am, and, like a vast majority of the country and much of the world witnessed the oath, the cannons’ blast and heard a speech that I found uniquely inspiring, particularly in its call for individual work and decency. These are not themes unique to Obama as far as inaugural speeches go, but in conjunction with my time on his presidential campaign, as well as my longtime following of his writings and career, I believe that his inclinations as a politician are uniquely geared towards rewarding the realization of those values.

What I had not considered was how much of this pageantry drove the days proceedings. The parade of former presidents had the assembled crowd display their relative affections for the respective aging politicians. I relished joining the rest of the crowd in showering Bush with boos and a rendition of “na na na na, na na na na, hey hey, goodbye,” but by the time Obama had begun to impose his new sense of decency as presidential prerogative, I felt shamed into letting go of my urge to shame the thankfully former president. Then again, perhaps a little shaming was in order.

It is hard to fathom a crowd as large as that which assembled on Tuesday in Washington, DC, especially for the ones who were in it. Suffice to say, a willingness to give up personal space and physical well-being was a necessity. While I was legitimately inspired to witness the inauguration of the country’s first black president, it was clear that there was an aspect of perhaps less inspiring celebrity worship that permeated the events. This was especially true at the official Southern inaugural ball, where I worked as a volunteer escorting journalists around the floor of the DC Armory to interview ball attendees. A significant number of the 10,000 attendees arrived only to immediately stake out a spot in front of the podium where the VP and President would dance with their wives… for one verse each of a song. The scripted grace of both couples was great to see, though hilarious in its acknowledgment of how ridiculous some of this pageantry is. Can you imagine going to ten different dances in one night and asking thousands of random people, “How beautiful is my wife?” In any other world but that of the absurd official balls, you’d have to say Obama was just being a self-important horndog!

The city was packed with visitors for the inauguration at every turn. Even as we drove back to Philadelphia the next night, a rest stop in northeastern Maryland was packed with travelers donning their newest Obama buttons, hats and t-shirts. There are obviously people who aren’t on board the Obama train, even after all of this pomp, circumstance, and a bit of substance. But to not at least be willing to give it a chance as observers and participants in Obama’s calls for work, responsibility, decency, and opportunity would be the work of a cold heart indeed. In a world where those things are possible, I can still hold out even the slightest bit of hope for progressive, dare I say liberal change in this country. Or at least health care!

If you heard the performance by Bruce Springsteen and Pete Seeger of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land” at the Obama inaugural concert that just finished, they sang the verse about private property that at another time would have gotten everybody involved right onto the top of the blacklist!

Was a high wall there that tried to stop me

A sign was painted said: Private Property,

But on the back side it didn’t say nothing

This land was made for you and me

It’s been a long time coming!

—- Update —-

I’ve now found the video:

— Update #2 —-

The link I posted to a video was taken down, but thanks to commenter Alline Anderson for posting a new link.

I can’t get over this week’s cover of The Nation. Imagine Cesar Chavez, Eugene Debs, Nelson Mandela, Steven Biko and Rosa Parks at the Capitol…

Well imagine no longer because here it is. John Mavroudis of Zen Pop put it all together. The link above has a key to all the people depicted.

More on the inaugural poet from Ta-Nehisi Coates:

When Clinton picked Maya Angelou it was revolutionary for a lot of young black kids in schools across the country–we had to study that poem in English class. Picking Alexander is a much more subtle move which I hope folks won’t miss. Put bluntly, the whole “competence aesthetic” has been extended to the poets also. I’m not dissing Clinton here, or giving undue credit to Obama–this is about the moment in history. So much has changed since then.

I’m not sure why I’ve gotten on this kick about the inaugural, but I guess I’m interested in how this new presidency will or won’t embrace the arts – something about which the Bush administration never gave a damn.

Once I’m already discussing the day’s proceedings and their symbolism, it would be absurd not to mention the pick of Rick Warren to give the invocation at the inaugural. Like many, I call shenanigans on this move. Sure, Obama wants to seem inclusive, but a guy who thinks gays are the equivalent of pederasts is not the way to do it. The counter-balance of Rev. Joseph Lowery (a powerful religious advocate on GLBT issues) is small consolation. It’s important to stand up to bigots even – and perhaps especially – if they carry the Obama imprimatur. If we’re so inclusive, where’s the token anti-semite to take part as well?

George Packer weighs in on the Obama inaugural team’s selection of Elizabeth Alexander as the poet for the big day:

Judging from the work posted on her Web site, Alexander writes with a fine, angry irony, in vividly concrete images, but her poems have the qualities of most contemporary American poetry—a specificity that’s personal and unsuggestive, with moves toward the general that are self-consciously academic. They are not poems that would read well before an audience of millions.

Obama’s Inauguration needs no heightening. It’ll be its own history, its own poetry.

So is Packer’s argument that a certain style (Alexander’s or, for that matter, anything “contemporary” or “academic”) is bad for an inauguration or is the idea of poem itself generally bad for such an event? Either way, I’m still holding out hope for a last minute addition of Bob Dylan.

So apparently the Obama inauguration team is trying to choose which poet should read from their work on the big day. First off, I’m curious as to why the last few Republican presidents haven’t chosen to have poets read at their inaugurations. It’s one thing to be anti-intellectual, which has been at least one strain of the Republican rise – and hopefully fall – over the last half century, but can’t we all just agree that poetry is for everybody. Maybe there isn’t a Republican poet who’s any good? I don’t know – I don’t claim to be an expert on the state of American poetry.

John Lundberg, in that Huffington Post piece to which I linked above, has an interesting suggestion:

[Philip] Levine might be the most poignant choice, given the country’s current economic struggles. Raised in a blue collar family in Detroit, Levine writes poetry that champions the working man. Here’s an excerpt from his poem “Drum,” which begins by describing a blue-collar scene:

We sit
for lunch on crates before the open door.
Bobeck, the boss’s nephew, squats to hug
the overflowing drum, gasps and lifts. Rain
comes down in sheets staining his gun-metal
covert suit. A stake truck sloshes off
as the sun returns through a low sky.
By four the office help has driven off. We
sweep, wash up, punch out, collect outside
for a final smoke. The great door crashes
down at last.

Later in the poem, Levine conflates working class and classical imagery, making the scene seem heroic and even timeless.

…In the darkness
this could be a Carthaginian outpost sent
to guard the waters of the West, those mounds
could be elephants at rest, the acrid half light
the haze of stars striking armor if stars were out.
On the galvanized tin roof the tunes of sudden rain.
The slow light of Friday morning in Michigan,
the one we waited for, shows seven hills
of scraped earth topped with crab grass,
weeds, a black oil drum empty, glistening
at the exact center of the modern world.

If Obama is concerned about the inauguration taking on a tone that’s too ethereal for these tough economic circumstances, Levine’s unpretentious writing might prove an effective foil. Levine’s message suits Obama’s focus on the middle class and on the hard work and sacrifice it will take to get through a deepening recession. It seems wise to choose a poet who has long lived that life and sung within it.

I can’t decide whether it would be too hard to take a poet singing the Michigan ‘working man’s blues’ as Obama promises to ‘renew America’s promise’ – the theme of the entire inauguration proceedings. Regardless, it could be powerful stuff.

One thing that I’ve been thinking about for a while is how Obama uses seemingly more universal language as a way to avoid discussing race (i.e. health care isn’t a black problem, it’s an American problem; lack of equality – economic (?) – isn’t a black problem, it’s an American problem; lack of equal pay for women isn’t a black problem, it’s an American problem, etc). It’s not that I don’t really disagree with the logic of any of those points or others that he ends up addressing through similar arguments, but it seems like there are aspects of all of these social problems that are rooted significantly in racial disparities. This is not really an either/or proposition. We should be able to note the universal and particularized aspects of these kinds of problems.

So when it comes to deciding which poet should speak at the inauguration (assuming it’s only one and I’m not sure if that’s a correct assumption), I wonder whether the poet should somehow represent the deracialized / universalized working class, the focus of both Obama’s policies and rhetoric, or the more particular African American historic nature of the inauguration. I would be surprised if Obama did not refer to the day’s special significance to African Americans and their history, but I imagine one debate right now among inauguration planners is how much to be explicit about this aspect of the day. The real tightrope walk is how to have the inauguration – whether it be the choice of poet or Obama’s speech – address a seemingly universal (read: deracialized) historic moment, while simultaneously pointing to the fact of its universality precisely because it is so tied up in its racial dimensions.