Troubadours for troubled times

PASSAGE - Ed Maranan (The Philippine Star) - March 17, 2014 - 12:00am

An issue of the Los Angeles Times carried two articles about the death of American folksinger and three-time Grammy Award winner Pete Seeger. I was in LA when I read about his quiet passing on Jan. 27 at the New York Presbyterian Hospital, at the age of 94. The front-page article, “Balladeer with a Banjo was America’s Conscience,” written by Claudia Luther, was a lengthy and moving tribute to a legendary American whom she described as “the iconoclastic singer, songwriter and social activist who influenced generations of performers, including Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen.”

It needed no mention that Seeger himself became an American icon of the protest counter-culture that has a long history going back to the anti-slavery movement, labor unionism, the civil rights campaign, the peace and anti-nuclear movement, and the resistance against America’s wars of intervention from Latin America to Southeast Asia, particularly Vietnam.

In a separate section of the LA Times, another author, Randall Roberts, wrote an appreciation of the bard, “Troubadour with a Steady ‘Hammer,’” an allusion to one of Seeger’s best-loved compositions, If I Had a Hammer (or The Hammer Song).

Seeger had been enthralled, as early as the 1930s, by banjo music accompanying timeless ballads heard in the poverty-stricken Appalachians. Luther quotes him in her article: “Compared to the trivialities of most popular songs, the words of these songs had all the meat of human life in them…they seemed frank, straightforward, honest.” She mentions the two great influences on the young aspiring singer. One was Huddle “Lead Belly” Ledbetter who played the 12-string guitar and, as a “a living archive of black American music…broadened Seeger’s musical horizons.” The other one was Woody Guthrie, composer of the classic This Land Is Your Land, and the best-known folk singer of the Depression Era, who was later hailed as the “Dust Bowl Troubadour.” His son, Arlo Guthrie, would follow in his footsteps as a folk musician and would also perform alongside Seeger as his father used to do.

In his own tribute, Randall Roberts describes the impact of one of Seeger’s adaptations: “It’s hard to imagine a song more steering and stirring than We Shall Overcome…the work long ago became less the domain of Seeger than a sacred text owned by anyone longing for justice.”

I guess you might say Seeger was part of my growing-up years, during which I evolved from clueless conservative and callow young fellow into a political activist. I heard his songs for the first time on the last days of 1962 at Sarah Lawrence College, during the orientation week for the delegates of the 1963 New York Herald Tribune World Youth Forum, as sung by an American high school student who was one of the American delegates and only a year older than me. David “Dave” Bromberg — these days a well-known performer in the US, described in Wikipedia as a “multi-instrumentalist, singer, and songwriter…an eclectic artist, (who) plays bluegrass, blues, folk, jazz, country and western, and rock and roll equally well” — helped out in the orientation of the youngsters eager to absorb American culture. And what an experience it was for us, listening to the future big band leader accompanying himself on the guitar as he sang Seeger’s If I Had a Hammer, Where Have All the Flowers Gone, Turn, Turn, Turn (To Everything There is a Season) — adopted from the Book of Ecclesiastes — as well as other popular American folk songs such as Hedy West’s Five Hundred Miles and the much older And The Cat Came Back.

These songs had the effect of opening up a whole new world for me, a product of European missionary education and brought up in a social environment steeped in Western culture and kept ignorant about the roots of crisis in my Third World country — a perfect specimen thus of that race of people witheringly described as having been brought up in the convent (or under the bells) and later fed Hollywood pap.

Some years ago, I was surprised to learn that Pete Seeger had been living most of his senior years, up to the time of his death, near Beacon, a city along the Hudson River in upstate New York. That is where my American host family used to live, before they moved to other places in the Empire State. I had lived for several months in Beacon with the Shupes in 1963 (the World Youth Forum delegates were hosted by American families), unaware that the musician who would play a role in the birth of my own generation’s social consciousness was just nearby.  I had been meaning to make a pilgrimage to his Hudson home ever since I learned where he lived. I have visited my American host family twice during the past twenty years, but each time there was no opportunity to drop by and pay homage to the man (and have a selfie with him, of course). 

Coming back from that Forum, I was hooked on American protest and folk songs, and had many opportunities to listen to them when I entered UP. They were regularly sung at the Butterfly bistro by Lester Demetillo, Becky Demetillo, Mario Andres and other performers. Sometime in the 1980s, there was a gathering of UP faculty members —many of them political activists since the First Quarter Storm — in the house of economics professor Dr. Gonzalo Jurado on the Diliman campus. What a pleasant surprise: he was into folk and protest music, and his collection of vinyl records included Guthrie’s “Dust Bowl Ballads,” Seeger’s songs, and other memorable pieces of the genre.

 During those early years, we looked up to Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs, Joan Baez, Peter Paul and Mary, Bruce Springsteen, and so many others as troubadours of troubled times who inspired and spurred on voices of protest around the world, including the Philippines. Then came the time when we rediscovered our own revolutionary songs from the Spanish and American eras, and composed our own native songs of protest and struggle, especially in the years leading up to the First Quarter Storm, the declaration of martial law, the EDSA People Power revolt, and up to the present unsettled times in which society remains fundamentally unreformed.

 The marginalized America of Pete Seeger’s generation was not unique in having discovered the transformative power of protest music, as witness the popularity of singer-composers in the Third World whose songs carry social themes and political messages, epitomized by the likes of Victor Jara and Violeta Parra in Chile, and in our own country, by Jesus Manuel Santiago, Pol Galang, Heber Bartolome, Chikoy Pura, Joey Ayala and Bagong Lumad, Popong Landero, Lolita Carbon and Asin, Rody Vera and Patatag, Gary Granada, Noel Cabangon, Rom Dongueto, Lester Demetillo, Edru Abraham, Inang Laya’s Becky Demetillo and Karina David, the Apo Hiking Society, and so many others, including the late and well-loved Susan Fernandez, regarded by many as the “nightingale of the Philippine protest movement,” as well as Joel Costa Malabanan of Cavite, today’s prominent figure in the protest concert scene and leading exponent of “textual” or militant poetry sent through cell phone SMS.

In times of darkness — en la noche de nuestros abuelos, as Recto once wrote — these singers and musicians never rested but raised their voices, giving hope to a people weighed down, to paraphrase Edwin Markham, by the burden of centuries-old oppression.

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