Turn, Turn, Turn: Pete Seeger's Life & Songs

February 2, 2014

The life and music of folksinger Pete Seeger, who died on January 27, 2014, provides a teachable moment on activism, music, and on nearly every major social movement over the past century.  In this lesson, students learn about his life, read and hear songs from three social movements Seeger was a part of, consider what those songs mean, then share their thoughts about the songs with the class. 

To the teacher:

The life and music of Pete Seeger, who died on January 27, 2014, at the age of 94, provides a teachable moment on activism, music, and on nearly every major social movement over the past century.  Seeger was active in and sang for the labor movement, civil rights movement, anti-war movement (from Vietnam to Iraq) and the environmental movement - among others. Seeger believed that that the activism of everyday people, together with music, could help bring about a better world, and he lived out that idea continually over seven decades.
 

Objectives

  • Students will learn about the life of folksinger Pete Seeger
  • Students will read/hear lyrics of songs from three social movements Seeger was a part of, and analyze what those songs mean: (labor, civil rights, ant-war and movements)
  • Students will share their thoughts about the songs with the class
  • Students will reflect on the power of music and everyday people to effect change

 
Materials

  • If possible, access to videos on the web and/or ability to play music from the web. Many of the songs, and additional songs sung by Seeger, can be heard here
  • 3 handouts below

 


 
Introduction

Ask students if they can think of a song that makes them feel inspired, or makes them feel connected to other people.  What is the song, and how does it make you feel?  

Next read students this list of songs, and ask them to raise their hands if they have heard of them. If students do know a song, ask them if they can remember any lyrics or sing any part of it. 

  •  If I Had a Hammer
  • Where have all the Flowers Gone
  • Guantanamera
  • Wimoweh (the Lion Sleeps Tonight...)
  • This Land is Your Land
  • We Shall Overcome
  • Turn, Turn, Turn (To Everything There is a Season)

Does anyone know who these songs are associated with?
 
If they don't know, tell students that these songs were written, adapted and/or made famous by the folksinger and activist Pete Seeger, who died on January 27, 2014, in New York City. He was 94. 
 
Ask if anyone knows anything about Seeger, and if they do, write their responses on the board.

 


Pete Seeger: Love & Defiance

Tell students that today you'll be sharing some of Pete Seeger's life and songs.  Share the information below with students. 
 
In addition, you may want to show students this slideshow from the Guardian, which includes 14 photos from Seeger's life.
 
 
1.  
Pete Seeger was born in 1919. He came from a family of musicians and was always very interested in learning about and spreading music from different cultures and from around the world. 
 
2.  Seeger believed that the activism of everyday people could help bring about a better world, and he lived out that idea. He was part of and sang for social movements for over 70 years, from the 1940s until his death in 2014.  These included the labor, civil rights, anti-war and environmental movements.  He was famous for getting huge crowds of people to sing along with him.
 
3.  In the 1940s, Pete Seeger met up with the folksinger Woody Guthrie, whose best-known song is "This Land is Your Land."  On his guitar, Guthrie had a slogan that said "This Machine Kills Fascists."  Seeger's favorite instrument was a banjo. He put a gentler slogan on his banjo. It said: "This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender." 
 
4.  Seeger thought music could change the world. He said: "My job is to show folks that there's a lot of good music in the world and if used right it will help to save the planet." 

  • Ask students:  Can music change the world?  Why or why not?

5.  Seeger and his wife Toshi Seeger (who died in July 2013) were married for almost 70 years. They raised their family in a log cabin in Beacon, NY, that they built themselves. Beacon is on the Hudson River, which runs from upstate New York to the harbor in New York City.  During the late 1960s Seeger started a crusade to clean up the heavily polluted Hudson, eventually raising the money to build a 106-foot sloop called the Clearwater. For decades and continuing today, this ship has sailed the Hudson, educating people about the river with events and music.  A river cleanup began. In 2009, after decades of pressure from Seeger and his allies, General Electric began removing the toxins it had dumped into the Hudson, and cities stopped dumping untreated sewage into it. Today the Hudson has made a huge recovery.
 
6. 
Seeger had a gentle manner - he was soft-spoken and cheerful. But he was also defiant. In the 1930s and 40s he was a member of the Communist Party.  In 1955, during the red scare, he was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee. At that point Seeger's folk group, the Weavers, had become very popular, with several hits, including the song "Good Night, Irene."
 
Most people who were called before the committee invoked the Fifth Amendment, claiming the right to remain silent, which generally kept them from being thrown in jail.   Instead, Seeger knowingly risked a prison sentence by citing the First Amendment, arguing that he and all others should be protected from HUAC under the Constitution.  He told the committee, "We're all Americans. We can associate with whoever we want to, and it doesn't matter who we associate with." When the committee asked Seeger to name names  of those he had associated with, he refused—but said he could sing songs instead.  He irritated the committee chair, Francis Walters by offering, "I know many beautiful songs from your home county, Carbon, and Monroe, and I hitchhiked through there and stayed in the homes of miners."

Seeger was cited for contempt of Congress, indicted, convicted, and sentenced to a year in prison. Eventually the sentence was overturned.  This article in Slate includes the full transcript of Seeger's HUAC testimony.
 
7.  Although Seeger escaped his jail sentence on a technicality, he was blacklisted by the media for many years, so he could not appear or TV or radio. His group, the Weavers, were forced to disband.  Seeger continued to sing around the country, in schools, colleges, and coffeehouses, until his visibility rose again in the 1960s.
 
8.  Seeger carried music from movement to movement.  The Weavers' song If I Had a Hammer became part of the civil rights movement, the anti-war movement, and movements around the world.  (Hear him perform it with a crowd here.)
 
9.  At the age of 92, Seeger, leaning on two canes, led a 2-mile march through New York City in support of the Occupy Wall Street movement.   After the march, Seeger advised people to "be wary of great leaders" and instead "hope that there are many, many small leaders."   

  • Ask:  What do you think Seeger meant by this? 

10.  When the rocker Bruce Springsteen was invited to perform at President Obama's first inauguration in January 2009, he invited Seeger to come with him to sing "This Land is Your Land."  If possible, watch Springsteen telling the story of this performance and honoring Seeger in this 4-minute clip.
 
As Springsteen recalls, Seeger insisted that they sing every verse, including several controversial ones that are often omitted.  Below are all the verses of this song, as written by Woody Guthrie.  Give students the lyrics below and/or play this video of their performance here.   (Springsteen and Seeger are joined on stage by Seeger's grandson Tao Rodriguez-Seeger, who often accompanied Seeger in later years, after he lost much of his singing voice.) 

  • Ask students: Which verses were the ones that Seeger insisted on singing? What is controversial about those verses?  (It's the 5th and 6th verses.)

 
This Land Is Your Land
Words and music by Woody Guthrie

This land is your land, this land is my land
From California to the New York island; 
From the red wood forest to the Gulf Stream waters 
This land was made for you and Me.

As I was walking that ribbon of highway, 
I saw above me that endless skyway.
I saw below me that golden valley.
This land was made for you and me.

I've roamed and rambled and I followed my footsteps 
To the sparkling sands of her diamond deserts; 
And all around me a voice was sounding: 
This land was made for you and me.

When the sun came shining, and I was strolling, 
And the wheat fields waving and the dust clouds rolling, 
As the fog was lifting a voice was chanting: 
This land was made for you and me.

As I went walking I saw a sign there 
And on the sign it said "No Trespassing." 
But on the other side it didn't say nothing, 
That side was made for you and me.

In the shadow of the steeple I saw my people, 
By the relief office I seen my people; 
As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking 
Is this land made for you and me?

Nobody living can ever stop me,
As I go walking that freedom highway;
Nobody living can ever make me turn back
This land was made for you and me



Research and small group discussion

Now divide the class into three groups.  For homework (or in class if you prefer), each group will consider two songs Seeger sang that are part of either the labor movement, the civil rights movement, or the anti-war movement.
 
Give members of each group one of the handouts below. 
 
Either in class or at home, ask students to:
 
1. Study the song lyrics, and if possible watch or listen to their two songs
 
2. For each of the two songs, reflect on these questions: 

  • What do you think this song means?
  • What point of view does it take?
  • Do you agree or disagree with this point of view? Why?
  • What effect do you think this song had on people who were involved in the movement the song is about?
  • Do you like the song? Why or why not?

When students have completed these tasks, have the three groups assemble in different parts of the classroom.  Ask students to:

  • discuss both songs by sharing their responses to each of the five bulleted questions above
  • decide on three things the group wants to tell the class about each of their songs

Next, reconvene the class and ask each group to share their thoughts about the two songs they discussed.  
 


CLOSING: Turn, turn turn

Seeger used words from the Bible's book of Ecclesiastes as the basis for the song Turn, Turn, Turn, adding a few verses of his own. 
 
Share the lyrics and if possible play this audio of Seeger performing the song Turn, Turn, Turn. (Scroll down to find the song.)  
 
 
Turn, turn, turn
 
Chorus:
To everything (turn, turn, turn)
There is a season (turn, turn, turn)
And a time for every purpose under heaven
.
 
A time to be born, a time to die
A time to plant, a time to reap
A time to kill, a time to heal
A time to laugh, a time to weep.
 
(Chorus)
 
A time to build up, a time to break down
A time to dance, a time to mourn
A time to cast away stones
A time to gather stones together.
 
(Chorus)
 
A time of war, a time of peace
A time of love, a time of hate
A time you may embrace
A time to refrain from embracing.
 
(Chorus)
 
A time to gain, a time to lose
A time to rend, a time to sew
A time of love, a time of hate
A time of peace... I swear it's not too late.
 
(Chorus)

Seeger once said, "Can't prove a damn thing, but I look upon myself as old grandpa. There's not dozens of people now doing what I try to do, not hundreds, but literally thousands. ... The idea of using music to try to get the world together is now all over the place."

Ask students:

  • What music needs to be written today to get the world together?
  • What kind of music would that be and what would it say?


 
Handout 1

 
LABOR MOVEMENT

Pete Seeger supported working people in organizing themselves to improve their wages, working conditions, and lives.  He wanted there to be more equality between the rich and poor, and between big corporations and workers.  He often showed up to sing at labor rallies and picketlines.


Song One:  Which Side are You On?

This song was written in 1931 by Florence Reece, the wife of Sam Reece, an organizer for the United Mine Workers Union in Harlan County, Kentucky.  It was written in the middle of a bitter fight between the union and the mine owners.  Seeger sang the song often, and helped to popularize it.
 
Hear the song here:
www.youtube.com/watch?v=msEYGql0drc
 
Lyrics

Which side are you on?
Which side are you on?
Which side are you on?
Which side are you on?

They say in Harlan County
There are no neutrals there;
You'll either be a union man,
Or a thug for J. H. Blair.

(Chorus)
 
My daddy was a miner
And I'm a miner's son,
And I'll stick with the union
‘Til every battle's won
 
[Chorus)

Oh workers can you stand it?
Oh tell me how you can.
Will you be a lousy scab
Or will you be a man?

(Chorus)

Come all of you good workers,
Good news to you I'll tell
Of how the good old union
Has come in here to dwell.
 
(Chorus)
 
Don't scab for the bosses,
Don't listen to their lies.
Us poor folks haven't got a chance
Unless we organize.

(Chorus)
 


Song 2:  Talking Union Blues

In the 1940s, Seeger and folksinger Woody Guthrie joined others to form The Almanac Singers. The group traveled around the country, singing at strikes and union meetings. 
 
The Almanac Singers' song, Talking Union Blues offers a virtual guide to union building.  It was written in 1941 by Seeger, Millard Lampell and Lee Hays, all members of The Almanac Singers.

Hear the song here:
entertainment.time.com/2014/01/28/pete-seeger-best-songs/#ixzz2s6QZLTgb

Lyrics
 
If you want higher wages, let me tell you what to do;
You got to talk to the workers in the shop with you;
You got to build you a union, got to make it strong,
But if you all stick together, now, ‘twont be long.
You'll get shorter hours,
Better working conditions.
Vacations with pay,
Take your kids to the seashore.
 
It ain't quite this simple, so I better explain
Just why you got to ride on the union train;
‘Cause if you wait for the boss to raise your pay,
We'll all be waiting till Judgment Day;
We'll all be buried - gone to Heaven -
Saint Peter'll be the straw boss then.
 
Now, you know you're underpaid, but the boss says you ain't;
He speeds up the work till you're ‘bout to faint,
You may be down and out, but you ain't beaten,
Pass out a leaflet and call a meetin'
Talk it over - speak your mind -
Decide to do something about it.
 
‘Course, the boss may persuade some poor damn fool
To go to your meeting and act like a stool;
But you can always tell a stool, though - that's a fact;
He's got a yellow streak running down his back;
He doesn't have to stool - he'll always make a good living
On what he takes out of blind men's cups.
 
You got a union now; you're sitting pretty;
Put some of the boys on the steering committee.
The boss won't listen when one man squawks.
But he's got to listen when the union talks.
He better -
He'll be mighty lonely one of these days.
 
Suppose they're working you so hard it's just outrageous,
They're paying you all starvation wages;
You go to the boss, and the boss would yell,
"Before I'd raise your pay I'd see you all in Hell."

Well, he's puffing a big see-gar and feeling mighty slick,
He thinks he's got your union licked.
He looks out the window, and what does he see
But a thousand pickets, and they all agree
He's a bastard - unfair - slave driver -
Bet he beats his own wife.
 
Now, boy, you've come to the hardest time;
The boss will try to bust your picket line.
He'll call out the police, the National Guard;
They'll tell you it's a crime to have a union card.
They'll raid your meeting, hit you on the head.
Call every one of you a goddamn Red -
Unpatriotic - Moscow agents -
Bomb throwers, even the kids.
 
But out in Detroit here's what they found,
And out in Frisco here's what they found,
And out in Pittsburgh here's what they found,
And down in Bethlehem here's what they found,
That if you don't let Red-baiting break you up,
If you don't let stool pigeons break you up,
If you don't let vigilantes break you up,
And if you don't let race hatred break you up -
You'll win. What I mean,
Take it easy - but take it!
 


 
Handout 2


CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT

Pete Seeger was active in the civil rights movement from the beginning, and often sang at civil rights marches and protests.  He was inspired by Martin Luther King's fierce nonviolent approach to ending racism and achieving justice.


Song 1:  We Shall Overcome

This song is based on "I'll Overcome," a hymn that striking tobacco workers had sung on a picketline in South Carolina. A worker at the Highlander Folk School, which trained union organizers, taught it to Seeger, and he sang it with his group the Weavers, adding some verses and words. The Weavers introduced it to the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, including Dr. Martin Luther King.   It became an anthem of the Civil Rights movement.  All of the song's royalties go to the "We Shall Overcome" Fund, administered by what is now the Highlander Research and Education Center, which provides grants to African-Americans organizing in the South.
 
Hear the song here:
entertainment.time.com/2014/01/28/pete-seeger-best-songs/
 
Lyrics
 
We shall overcome,
We shall overcome,
We shall overcome, some day.
 
Oh, deep in my heart,
I do believe
We shall overcome, some day.
 
We'll walk hand in hand,
We'll walk hand in hand,
We'll walk hand in hand, some day.
Oh, deep in my heart,
I do believe
We shall overcome, some day.
 
We shall live in peace,
We shall live in peace,
We shall live in peace, some day.
Oh, deep in my heart,
I do believe
We shall overcome, some day.
 
We are not afraid,
We are not afraid,
We are not afraid, TODAY
Oh, deep in my heart,
I do believe
We shall overcome, some day.
 
The whole wide world around
The whole wide world around
The whole wide world around some day
Oh, deep in my heart,
I do believe
We shall overcome, some day


 

Song 2:  Ain't Scared of Your Jail

This song, sung by defiant Civil Rights protesters in Montgomery, Alabama and written by Lester Cobb, was shared by Pete Seeger at a concert at Carnegie Hall in 1963. 
The recording is here:
myspace.com/peteseeger/music/song/i-ain-t-scared-of-your-jail-28600761-28453733
 
 
Lyrics:
 
I ain't a-scared of your jails
'coz I want my freedom
I want my freedom
I want my freedom
ain't a-scared of your jail
And I want my freedom now!
 



Handout 3
 

ANTI-WAR MOVEMENT

Seeger was an early opponent of the Vietnam War and sang at many anti-war protests, including at the 1969 Vietnam Moratorium March on Washington, DC, when he led  500,000 protesters in singing John Lennon's song "Give Peace a Chance. " Seeger's voice carried over the crowd, interspersing phrases like, "Are you listening, Nixon?" between the choruses of protesters singing, "All we are saying ... is give peace a chance."  Seeger went on to oppose many other U.S. wars, including in Iraq.


Song 1:  Where have All the Flowers Gone?

 Seeger composed this song in 1955. It became one of the most familiar songs of the anti-Vietnam War movement.
See him performing the song here:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7pZa3KtkVpQ
 
Lyrics
 
Where have all the flowers gone, long time passing?
Where have all the flowers gone, long time ago?
Where have all the flowers gone?
Young girls have picked them everyone.
Oh, when will they ever learn?
Oh, when will they ever learn?
 
Where have all the young girls gone, long time passing?
Where have all the young girls gone, long time ago?
Where have all the young girls gone?
Gone for husbands everyone.
Oh, when will they ever learn?
Oh, when will they ever learn?
 
Where have all the husbands gone, long time passing?
Where have all the husbands gone, long time ago?
Where have all the husbands gone?
Gone for soldiers everyone
Oh, when will they ever learn?
Oh, when will they ever learn?
 
Where have all the soldiers gone, long time passing?
Where have all the soldiers gone, long time ago?
Where have all the soldiers gone?
Gone to graveyards, everyone.
Oh, when will they ever learn?
Oh, when will they ever learn?
 
Where have all the graveyards gone, long time passing?
Where have all the graveyards gone, long time ago?
Where have all the graveyards gone?
Gone to flowers, everyone.
Oh, when will they ever learn?
Oh, when will they ever learn?
 
Where have all the flowers gone, long time passing?
Where have all the flowers gone, long time ago?
Where have all the flowers gone?
Young girls have picked them everyone.
Oh, when will they ever learn?
Oh, when will they ever learn?

 


Song 2:  Waist Deep in the Big Muddy

Seeger wrote this song in 1967.  It's about a captain ( "the big fool") who drowned while leading a platoon on maneuvers in Louisiana during World War II. The song's  lines, "We are waist deep in the Big Muddy and the big fool says to push on"  could be interpreted as an allegory of President Johnson as the "big fool" and the Vietnam War as the danger he refused to avoid. Seeger performed the song during a taping of a popular television program, The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour in September 1967, but it was cut before the show was broadcast. After the Smothers Brothers publicized the censorship, Seeger returned to perform the song for broadcast in February 1968.  The blacklist was over.

See his performance here:
entertainment.time.com/2014/01/28/pete-seeger-best-songs/ INTERNATIONALISM?

Lyrics

It was back in nineteen forty-two,
I was a member of a good platoon.
We were on maneuvers in-a Loozianna,
One night by the light of the moon.
The captain told us to ford a river,
That's how it all begun.
We were — knee deep in the Big Muddy,
But the big fool said to push on.

The Sergeant said, "Sir, are you sure,
This is the best way back to the base?"
"Sergeant, go on! I forded this river
‘Bout a mile above this place.
It'll be a little soggy but just keep slogging.
We'll soon be on dry ground."
We were — waist deep in the Big Muddy
And the big fool said to push on.

The Sergeant said, "Sir, with all this equipment
No man will be able to swim."
"Sergeant, don't be a Nervous Nellie,"
The Captain said to him.
"All we need is a little determination;
Men, follow me, I'll lead on."
We were — neck deep in the Big Muddy
And the big fool said to push on.

All at once, the moon clouded over,
We heard a gurgling cry.
A few seconds later, the captain's helmet
Was all that floated by.
The Sergeant said, "Turn around men!
I'm in charge from now on."
And we just made it out of the Big Muddy
With the captain dead and gone.

We stripped and dived and found his body
Stuck in the old quicksand.
I guess he didn't know that the water was deeper
Than the place he'd once before been.
Another stream had joined the Big Muddy
‘Bout a half mile from where we'd gone.
We were lucky to escape from the Big Muddy
When the big fool said to push on.

Well, I'm not going to point any moral;
I'll leave that for yourself
Maybe you're still walking, you're still talking
You'd like to keep your health.
But every time I read the papers
That old feeling comes on;
We're — waist deep in the Big Muddy
And the big fool says to push on.

Waist deep in the Big Muddy
And the big fool says to push on.
Waist deep in the Big Muddy
And the big fool says to push on.
Waist deep! Neck deep! Soon even a
Tall man'll be over his head, we're
Waist deep in the Big Muddy!
And the big fool says to push on!