Sight and sound with Pete Seeger

PeteSeeger2Jeffrey Weiss of The Dallas Morning News offered an amazing package about Pete Seeger on Saturday and Sunday, including a Q&A about his nominal Unitarianism, another Q&A on his standing up to the House Un-American Activities Committee and his life as a happy lefty; and still another brief feature on his strawberry shortcake recipe. Better still, a DallasNews.com/extra sidebar offers several MP3s in which Seeger, 86, performs at the Beacon Sloop Club's Strawberry Shortcake Festival, voices his disapproval of "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" and offers his advice for reforming the U.N. This package is a good example of how reporters can combine writing and sound without pandering.

Two segments are especially striking. First is the pleasant surprise of Seeger's respect for two staples of modern evangelical music-making -- projecting lyrics onto a wall, and repeating lyrics over and over and over:

Question: Other than performing, what message did you have for the Unitarian Universalist convention in Fort Worth?

Answer: The point I wanted to make to Unitarians is, too often you ask your congregations to sing, and they're supposed to open the hymnbook and turn to page such-and-such. With their noses buried in their hymnbook, they aren't really singing. They're kind of mumbling. I want them to start doing what some evangelical churches do -- they project the words on the wall and everybody has their face up and they're singing out!

Also I've tried to persuade them to have songs with more repetition. This is the great thing about spirituals and gospel songs. More repetition.

And in these paragraphs, Seeger reflects on communism and moral equivalence:

Question: How did you become a communist?

Answer: I joined the Young Communist league in 1937 in college -- because Hitler was helping Franco take over Spain. And [Maxim] Litvinov stood up in the League of Nations -- he was the Soviet representative in the League of Nations -- and said all aggressors should be quarantined, that is, boycotted. He was talking about Japan in Manchuria, Italy in Ethiopia and Hitler and Franco and so on. Well, they just laughed.

Question: But didn't Stalin turn out to be one of the worst despots of the 20th century?

Answer: Well, when it comes to big ones. But there's bad ones all over. And, you know, for 50 years, the United States has helped control the politics of Latin America. And they have the School of the Americas, they call it, in Fort Benning, Ga. Training military -- Latin American military men -- how to torture, how to massacre, how to assassinate.

Question: But the U.S.S.R. really was an enemy of the U.S.A., yes?

Answer: Not necessarily. The communists claimed, I won't say they all believed it, that they would encourage revolutions all around the world. But the people of each country had to make their own revolution. It wasn't Soviet soldiers helping Mao Zedong take over China. They could applaud them and perhaps even help them. But they didn't likewise in Vietnam or Cuba.

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