Monday, January 19, 2009

Maybe this land was made for you and me after all

I have pretty successfully fought off Obama-fever for the past two years. He was my second choice early on, then my first, but I had not felt the thrill running up my leg like Chris Matthews did. Seeing him on television or hearing him on the radio, I found myself saying, "Yes, that's right" and agreeing with most of what he said, but it was more like watching a comedy movie and saying, "That was funny" rather than laughing out loud. Though I approved, I hadn't connected emotionally with him or his campaign, even on election night.

But it got me today. Lovely Wife and I listened to the concert at the Lincoln Memorial on the radio and then drove out to Costco (of all places) because we needed a pallet of pasta, a barrel of olive oil, or a side of beef or something. We enjoyed the music, but some of the readings seemed a little melodramatic and some of the music too show-bizzy for our tastes. Obama's speech was a good one, though, when it ended as we exited I-394 near the store.

Then Bruce Springsteen came on for the closing number and as he was talking we heard one unmistakable twang of a banjo and immediately knew that he was introducing Pete Seeger. (Isn't it funny how some musicians you can recognize after a single note?)

We'd heard Pete was attending the concert, but knowing that his voice is nearly gone we weren't sure he'd be performing. But then Bruce introduced him. (What did he call him? The grandfather? godfather? Father of American folk music?) and Pete rasped, "I'll say the words and you sing 'em" and then started, "As I was walking that ribbon of highway. . . ."

That's when the tears came.

Pete Seeger, 89 years old, who I first heard about when some right-wing Lutherans tried to keep him from singing at a Walther League convention in 1964 or so, who I first heard live at the Capitol in May 1971 singing Last Train to Nuremberg, who was blacklisted from radio and television but who nevertheless taught a generation -- nay, three or four generations -- to sing, song by song, campus by campus, demonstration by demonstration, during times of deep political and social darkness now singing with his grandson and a children's chorus and a half-million people at the inauguration of the President of the United States. We were just stunned with joy.

But what topped it off was that he didn't just sing the familiar four verses of This Land is Your Land that we all learned in grade school. He actually skipped a couple of those but did sing two verses Woody wrote that weren't printed in the school song books because they added a bit of social criticism to his otherwise safely patriotic song:

In the square of the city, in the shadow of the steeple,
Near the relief office, I saw my people.
As they stood there hungry, I stood there whistlin',*
This land was made for you and me.

A great high wall there tried to stop me.
A great big sign there said "Private Property."*
On the other side, it didn't say nothin'.
That side was made for you and me
* As sung. Woody's published lines are a little different.

That's when I really lost it and just sat there and wept. In the Costco parking lot, for heaven's sake. I felt gratitude for Pete Seeger -- and many others like him -- who for years were plugging away, little by little, sometimes with little to show for it, but persevering in spite of it all. God Bless the Grass indeed.

I finally felt, for the first time, really, some measure of hope for this country. Not because Barak Obama is any kind of all-wise and powerful superman who will make everything all right, but because the nation that managed to elect him as its president has some redeeming virtue left in it after all. As he said during the campaign, it wasn't about him, it was about us. I felt like calling to volunteer.

UPDATE: Thanks to Peggy & Songbird and finally figuring how how to embed a You-Tube file, here's Pete and Tao and Bruce and their fellow countrymen.


Unknown said...

You couldn't see it on the radio, of course, but Pete Seeger appeared wearing a multi-colored knit cap, so un-Hollywood, so real. And the guy with him (other than Springsteen, that is) singing the high harmony, was his grandson, Tao Rodriguez-Seeger. I sang along, despite the baleful glances of my 13-year-old. Pete's joyful expression made it impossible not to! I kept thinking, "He lived to see it! He lived to see it!"

Paul L said...

Yes, he lived to see it. Exactly what Lovely Wife and I said to each other in the car. Isn't that interesting?

But, as she just pointed out to me as I read her your reply, there's still a lot of work to be done . . . .

And thanks for the description of visual, especially the cap.

Anonymous said...

It's up on youtube.
search seeger springsteen
made me cry.
I thought he looked great!

Peggy Parsons

Paul L said...

Thanks, Peggy. It was great to see. (And it gave me the chance to correct the lyrics as actually sung. . . .)

And was that Toshi on the tamborine??

Martin Kelley said...

Just watching it on Youtube now. I break out in tears all the time now. I know I can look forward to be terribly disappointed by Obama, but the sight of Pete there in front of the Lincoln Memorial and it's a celebration, not another protest, and he's there at the invitation of the incoming President of the United F-ing States of America, it's just... It's hard to maintain my well-earned sense of cynicism in all this. It's all just so beautiful.

anj said...

Thanks for posting this, I have been wanting to see it. Tears are hanging pretty close these days, how amazing is that to see him leading another generation in this song.

Amelia said...

That song, the full version, brings tears to my eyes as it is...