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Is Obama's land made for you and me? Pete Seeger at the inauguration concert



By Dave Riley

As an old banjo picker, me and Pete Seeger go back a ways. Who could have imagined that Woody Guthrie's This Land is Your Land would be performed on the steps of the Capital before millions of people? And by Pete Seeger.

Not I.

This is not a jingoistic song by any means. It's a song about who owns "this" land: not them but us. It seems a fitting reminder to the impending Obama inauguration and the sheer scale of this concert in terms of freezing bodies celebrating, suggests that expectations are high indeed.

So who does own this land, Mr President?

We could be all very cynical and argue that the Oabama presidency has already bought off the radicals. That the movements have been coalesced into the unconditional support for the new black president.

John Pilger so argues that Obama mania is a trap.

And he's right. This is a US presidential inauguration not a revolution. But I think Pilger misses the significance of what that aspiration now focusing on this one figure represents, and what yearnings this presidency in s likely to awaken in the US body politick.

It's no good standing aside from that and grumbling. If millions are going to go through what will be a very new experience for them, then so too should you (or I).

Let's take Obama as we find him, for their sakes, and as the edifice crumbles, let's not celebrate or try to sustain the man, but encourage all those ideals now seemingly congealed in this one figure into being expressed without the illusory need for a black knight.

But to see the 89 year old Pete Seeger there -- a truly wonderful human being, an icon among artists and activists -- to see this hero of mine -- sing Guthrie with Bruce Springstein before millions.... It's so moving. His voice, once so melodiously articulate, now croaky and limited to speaking the words, can carry the meaning and the feeling for a song he must have sung maybe thousands of times.

But there's a kick coming from this performance that maybe the masses haven't quite got yet.Two verses not often included in the song, are herein performed: one about a "private property" sign the narrator of the song violates, and the other making a passing reference to a Depression-era relief office.

There was a big high wall there that tried to stop me;
Sign was painted, it said private property;
But on the back side it didn't say nothing;
That side was made for you and me.

In the squares of the city, In the shadow of a steeple;
By the relief office, I'd seen my people.
As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking,
Is this land made for you and me?
I very much doubt that some entrepreneurial guy said, "Let's book Seeger and get Seeger to sing Guthrie." I suspect this is Springstein's doing --and you don't mess with the boss.

The irony is that Guthrie's songs are still very much out there and with each generation are embraced and adapted to new conditions. But Seeger, aside from such sentimental favoriters he sung such as We shall overcome, was never the song writer that Woody was, nor, for that matter, as sharply politically observant.

Pete was always the humanist and always freshly idealistic in his persona and advocacy. But what a voice and a musician. Since you are unlikely to be a clawhammer banjo player nor an expert in Pete's own idiosyncratic finger style, here's his extraordinary Goofing off Suite .

The Cohen Brothers used it as a theme for their wicked black comedy, Raising Arizona. Here's a looped segment.



That's my Pete Seeger. I'm not just referring to the sheer extraordinary musicianship, but the Goofing Off Suite encapsulates the man's (to use a Bertie Wooster term) " thingness". That verve and passion had to find its way into the radical movement; had to ally with the Reds; had to "hold the line" (as Pete did at Peekskill at a concert for Paul Robeson); had to be active, to do, struggle, to advocate....

The guy's whole life was a hootenany.

And still is!

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