A great American passed away the other day. Ordinarily, I never indulge in such chauvinism, but how else can you describe Pete Seeger? Who else has contributed as much to the country’s emotional and spiritual well-being?
I haven’t posted to this site for more than two months, devoting much of my time and energy to some serious health issues; but I felt compelled to put down a few words about Pete. If you’d like to read a comprehensive summary of his life, take a look at Jon Pareles’s obituary in the January 28 New York Times, “Pete Seeger, Songwriter and Champion of Folk Music, Dies at 94.” I’m just going to describe what it meant for me – and probably for many others – to be inspired by him and the songs he wrote and sang.
The first song I associated with him was “Goodnight, Irene,” which he and The Weavers borrowed from Leadbelly and made into a #1 hit on the pop charts in 1951. I learned the song’s lyrics when I was 8 years old – simple and straightforward, like all Pete’s songs – and can still sing the song from beginning to end today. I actually spent yesterday afternoon singing along with YouTube versions of “… Irene” sung by Eric Clapton and Leon Russell. When I saw my wife later in the day, she reminded me that “… Irene” was the first song I sang with her family at one of her Uncle Felix’s backyard sing-alongs. Wonderful memories.
But I love Pete most of all for “We Shall Overcome.”
I first learned to sing it when I returned to the U.S. in 1967 after three years in the Peace Corps – the country had changed and so had I. By then, it had been adopted as the anthem of 1199, the Health Care Workers Union in New York City, of which I was a member for almost twenty years. I last sang the song in public at a meeting of my case management program staff in November, 2008, the day after Obama was first elected president. Most of the case managers were persons of color and women; everybody, regardless of age or ethnicity, knew the words; we joined hands and sang. I cried, so did many others among the 50 persons present.
At this point, one or more readers are asking, “What does all this have to do with mental health and the issues we’re trying to address on Mad In America?”
Well, we took a political beating last year. I’m talking about anyone with a psychiatric diagnosis affixed to them; about psychiatric survivors and those of us who support the efforts to overturn the current mental health system and eliminate its abuses. Since Newtown, the status quo stakeholders — those in government who control the funding purse strings, from Obama on down, and the self-professed mental health advocates and their organizations – all seem to have latched onto E. Fuller Torrey’s proposition that individuals who get labeled with a serious mental illness are dangerous. They, together with the public media and the general public, seem to have embraced the Fuller-Torrey dogma that psychoactive medications and medication compliance are the linchpins of community safety; that those persons with psychiatric labels who don’t take their prescribed meds endanger the larger community’s safety and must be forced to take their meds or be locked up in psychiatric hospitals.
Any evidence to the contrary – that meds do more harm than good; that all DSM diagnoses are fraudulent – are to be regarded as specious. Never mind that scapegoating persons with putative mental illnesses serves to divert the public’s attention from the failure of government to legislate more stringent gun controls and to provide presumed answers to a general public and malinformed media desperate for them.
What to do?
Pete would tell us to get together and sing. To adopt “We Shall Overcome” as our anthem. To write new anthems. He believed that singing together was a great organizing tool. That it built community. After all, he called himself a “communist” with a small “c”. I’d like to think he meant he was a communitarian, someone who believed that ordinary people, like us, when banded together, could bring about the change we needed. Last night’s PBS broadcast presented a tape of him saying that change is brought about by small things not big ones.
I’ve attached a YouTube video of Pete singing “… Overcome”
Actually, no pictures just the words of the song, with Pete teaching us the melody and phrasing, just as he did in any concert he gave. Pareles tells us that Pete borrowed an old Negro spiritual, sung by striking tobacco pickers in the South, and adapted it to be used by the emerging Civil Rights movement. SNCC members were taught the revised song at their founding convention. And the rest, as we say, is history.
I love singing the song – it’s both a hopeful and heartbreaking experience and always brings tears to my eyes. I sang it yesterday along with Pete on YouTube – the ever-hopeful version; with Joan Baez – beautiful and heartbreaking;
And, with the Boss on his Seeger Sessions (2007) – indomitable.
I urge you to assemble friends and family and loved ones, turn on your computer, click on the YouTube link, expand the video to fill your screen and sing with Pete. It will lift your hearts. You’ll be renewed. I promise.
Remember; don’t mourn Pete’s passing, celebrate him.