Monday, January 26, 2009

trash irony at solemn moments

Continuing the series of posts related to Pete Seeger's participation at the inauguration. These are two of the finest pieces I have read (and I've read scores).

Kudos, Barista and Hak Pak Sak!

trash irony at solemn moments

Woody Guthrie and his famous gittar

Obama is President, inaugurated behind so many layers of glass and love that not even kryptonite could hurt him, and he has whacked Guantanamo Bay and returned the US to the Geneva Convention.

It feels more decisive than Our Kevvy, but then were a few more egregious things that he could put to a short, sharp stop with the 21st century equivalent of a sharpened stake through the heart.

Being the curmudgeon that I am, what moved me was the monumental stuff-ups created by HBO. Well, “stuff-ups” only works as a description if you still have some faith in the audience. Here is a piece from Screen Hub, inspired ultimately by Crooked Timber. And the fact that a Pete Seeger album was just about the first LP I ever bought, right back in 1968. After Donovan, I think.

HBO, broadcasters of the ‘Concert for Obama’, must be really hoping the mainstream editorials don’t find this particular mistake. Letting freedom ring, indeed..

The concert for Obama has a few media snafus which will be remembered. Probably to counter the use of a homophobic pastor in the actual ceremony, the concert opened with a blessing from a gay bishop.

HBO failed to run it, leaving an important section of the entertainment community royally pissed off.

But it gets worse… bear with me for a little background here.

Pete Seeger is closely associated with ‘This Land is Our Land’, which was originally written by Woody Guthrie in 1940. Most versions, as sung in schools and at treacly patriotic moments, drop two contentious verses, which go

“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 the steeple
Near the relief office – I see my people
And some are grumblin’ and some are wonderin’
If this land’s still made for you and me.”

Seeger, now almost ninety, half sang and half spoke it at the concert, as the audience bellowed along, and he grinned like a demon through the extra verses.

The clip has been posted on YouTube, with its lines on private property.

HBO has ordered YouTube to take the clip down, on the grounds that they own the recording. True enough, but they could have blinked, or even put the whole concert up themselves. Instead, they created a fine mess.

To make matters worse, HBO has not gone after other clips - the Springsteen piece is still there, undisturbed, with “Let Freedom Ring”.

Various people have reposted it, so HBO has been playing whack-a-mole across YouTube.

You can still find the clip on the net, courtesy of its German broadcasters. The Seeger performance is here. I guess the Europeans bought the internet rights in the package and HBO doesn’t have technical control over that part of the borderless internet.

Thereby hanging several tales on the one epic moment.

The concert, by the way, was supposed to feature a trained eagle flying overhead as Obama arrived, but it crashed. It was so cold it seems the poor bird just went thud.

That mildly pretentious “This machine kills fascists” image of Woody Guthrie has been posted many times on Flickr, along with pictures of variations used as stencil art on public walls. Almost all the posters refuse to use a Creative Commons license, which is like a teeny, teeny version of the HBO brainfart.

Crooked Timber’s commenters were onto it early.


Hak Pak Sak

Pete Seeger, The Machine that Kills Fascists

What I am writing in this post is old news to many in America but not so well known abroad. One of the highlights of the US presidential inauguration celebration last week was a final act of the day-long outdoor public concert held on the Washington Mall — nonagenarian (may he live to be 120!) folksinger legend Pete Seeger joining pop star Bruce Springsteen to lead an audience of tens of thousands in a rousing performance of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land.”

Guthrie, a rural- turned urban-folksinger during the Great Depression wrote” This Land is Your Land” in 1940 as a people- rather than divinity-based popular front alternative to Tin Pan Alley composer Irving Berlin’s maudlin “God Bless America.” Berlin’s song, originally written as a Broadway entertainment ditty, made it into the mainstream in the late 1930’s when it became one of the theme songs of North Carolina-born radio singer Kate Smith. By the late-1980s, the song had morphed — beyond anything Russian-Jewish immigrant Berlin might have ever imagined — into an unofficial anthem of the political right. Indeed, at the start of the “War Against Terror” (sic) some Republicans and fellow religious-right-ers wanted to have “God Bless America” declared the US’s official national anthem (not that Francis Scott Key’s bellicose “Star Spangled Banner” isn’t long overdue for replacement). “This Land is Your Land,” on the other hand, has the this-world sentiments that one would expect from a singer-composer whose guitar was emblazoned with the text “This Machine Kills Fascists.” Yet, over the years, the song’s lyrics were bowdlerized into mainstream political acceptability and stripped of a number of sentences and sentiments that once made it an ode to egalitarianism and a challenge to the failings of the status quo.

Pete Seeger is one of the people who has kept American folksong alive and for almost 3/4 of a century. He has also been one of the people who has kept America’s conscience and progressive spirit alive — from his early days using song to challenge America’s economic takeover of Latin America, to his stint with the the politically-hounded Almanac Singers and the less controversial Weavers, to his courageous defiance of the House Un-American Activities Committee and years of house arrest, to his pro-civil rights and anti-Vietnam War years, to his decades as an environmental activist.

And so it was only fitting that on the day of Obama’s inauguration Seeger should lead black and white, young and old, and rich and poor in singing aloud that “This Land is Your Land.” It was no less fitting that he should also present Obama and the country with a challenge and a renewal of activism by reinserting into Guthrie’s song its very timely, long-omitted closing stanzas:

In the squares of the city - By the shadow of the steeple
By the relief office - I saw my people
As they stood there hungry, I stood there wondering
If this land’s still made for you and me.

There was a big high wall there - that tried to stop me;
Sign was painted - it said private property;
But on the other side - it didn’t say nothing;
That side was 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.

Due to censorship in at least one of the countries in which this weblog is read, I am including two links to videos of Seeger’s Inauguration Day performance. The first is on and the second is on the weblog NYC Public School Parents.

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