Saturday 15 February 2014

Pete Seeger, Plato, and Greek Rhetoric

With Bruce Springsteen celebrating Obama's Inauguration
Lecturing yesterday in Berlin, on Plato, Aristotle and the transformative power of music, prompts my belated obituary for Pete Seeger, great American and folk singer whose views on race and the environment were decades ahead of his time.  Convinced that getting people to sing together could play a crucial role in promoting peace and economic equality, he stressed often, as here on youtube, ‘I usually quote Plato, who said, It is very dangerous to allow the wrong kind of music in the Republic.’

He spent two years at Harvard as a Sociology major, but dropped out when his professor told him, ‘Don’t think you can change the world. The only thing you can do is study it.’ In Seeger’s interviews the ancient Greeks are more prominent than any Sociologists.

Anaphora and Civil Rights
On Thistle Radio in 2008 he explained the power of ‘poetry in what the Greeks called anaphora, which means that the beginning of each line has the same word, or same phrase.  The line may not rhyme at all, but it's poetry because it has this regular form… look at Dr King's great speeches, "I have a dream, da-da-da, I have a dream, da-da-da-da, I have a dream."  Or "Give us the Vote, da-da-da, Give us the Vote, da-da-da-da, Give us the Vote!"’ Seeger advised using anaphora ‘whenever people get pessimistic about the world,’ as in his version of Ecclesiastes:
       A time to be born, a time to die
A time to plant, a time to reap
A time to laugh, a time to weep
A time to kill, a time to heal

The anaphoric people’s anthem We Shall Overcome will forever be associated with Seeger on the 1965 march from Alabama to Washington alongside  Martin Luther King Jr, but Seeger said his sole contribution to the anthem was to change the second word from ‘will’ to ‘shall,’ because it ‘opens up the mouth better.’ He encouraged everyone to sing with their heads tilted upwards, pouring out their open vowels together to the heavens. He preferred to sing out of doors and on the road: some of his most influential appearances were in the enormous outdoor Greek theater of Los Angeles in summer 1969.
The Greek Theater, Los Angeles
Perhaps there is a book to be written about American Agit-Folk and the Greek and Roman Classics. No doubt Seeger did not just learn how to jump between train roofs from his mentor Woody Guthrie, but sang with him (back in the days when popular songs had not yet pointlessly confined themselves to the narrow topic of romantic love), the hilarious and moving lyrics to Biggest Thing That Man Has Ever Done:


I'm just a lonesome traveler, The Great Historical Bum.
Highly educated from history I have come.
I built the Rock of Ages, 'twas in the Year of One
And that was about the biggest thing that man had ever done.

I worked in the Garden of Eden, that was the year of two,
Joined the apple pickers union, I always paid my due;
I'm the man that signed the contract to raise the rising sun,
And that was about the biggest thing that man had ever done.

I was straw boss on the Pyramids, the Tower of Babel, too;
I opened up the ocean let the migrant children through,
I fought a million battles and I never lost a one,
And that was about the biggest thing that man had ever done.

I beat the daring Roman, I beat the daring Turk,
Defeated Nero's army with thirty minutes work,
I fought the greatest leaders and I licked them everyone
And that was about the biggest thing that man had ever done.

I stopped old Caesar's Romans, etc…

No comments:

Post a Comment