ESSAY- Pete Seeger's last war

Nearly three years ago, on the day Ronald Reagan died, an atypically modest tribute to the patriarch of the right appeared at the foot of a veteran's monument in Wappingers Falls, a quiet town in upstate New York. A rough-cut chunk of granite dedicates the site to a local Marine lost in action during the Vietnam War; a wreath of fading red, white, and blue carnations was left over from Memorial Day. The pole of a dollar-store American flag was stuck in the earth, and a portrait of Reagan cut from a magazine and taped onto a piece of cardboard, lay on the ground.

If you had pulled out of the parking area the monument shares with Shorty's Pizza and driven south on Route 9 for two miles, you would have found a contrapuntal scene that afternoon: about a dozen people gathered at an intersection to protest the Bush administration's military policies.

A steel post was decorated with a peace symbol, made from a coat hanger, and an American flag like the one at the veteran's memorial. A young woman sat in a folding lawn chair, holding a sign asking, "Vietnam all over?" A teenage boy held up a bill imploring, "Stop the War!"

An old man with a white straw broom of a beard stood in their midst wearing stained, torn blue jeans and a polo shirt that had probably been a color like burgundy, perhaps 10 or 15 years and a few hundred washings ago. He stood straight-backed, his arms at his sides, turning his head left to right, left to right, in rhythm as he watched the cars pass. His mouth moved silently, as if he were singing to himself or trying to send messages through the windshields. He wasn't holding a placard and needed none: his very image is a symbol of political dissent.

Pete Seeger, who lives near Wappingers Falls, has been protesting the Bush administration's actions in Iraq at these Saturday peace vigils, organized a few months before the invasion— and at dozens of other anti-war events of all sizes around the country— with the passion, if not the vigor, of a person one-fourth his age.

Indeed, after an extended period of low-key concentration on local issues, during which Seeger was most visibly absorbed with cleaning up the Hudson River, the grand old lion of the American left had, in his 85th year, again taken to challenging the state of world affairs. This is the latest— and perhaps the last—of his great missions, a crusade with resonant echoes of his work in the eras of the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War.

In 2003, Seeger led thousands in song at the New York City arm of the Global March for Peace. The veteran protest songwriter has since rewritten and rerecorded his Vietnam-era broadside, "Bring Them Home," with three of his musical acolytes, Billy Bragg, Ani DiFranco, and Steve Earle:

"Now we don't want to fight for oil / Bring 'em home, bring 'em home / Underneath some foreign soil / Bring 'em home, bring 'em home."

And in mid-2004, as violence in Iraq erupted in anticipation of the formal transfer of authority to an interim Iraqi government, Seeger prepared to lead a performance of antiwar songs at the Clearwater Festival, the annual Hudson River event to raise social, political, and environmental consciousness (and funds) that he and his wife, Toshi, launched 35 years earlier.

The effort struck some of his critics as quixotic, the tragicomic vagary of a clinging, misguided anachronism. A lifelong Marxist blacklisted during the McCarthy era, Seeger has long been an easy target for conservatives. (Seeger's early group, the Almanac Singers, released an album of songs against American involvement in World War II, but recalled it and replaced it with anti-Axis songs when Hitler attacked the Soviet Union.)

Since the fall of the Iron Curtain, Seeger's little-changed politics have proved vexing even to former like-minded souls such as Ronald Radosh, a fellow at the Hudson Institute and author of Commies: A Journey Through the Old Left, the New Left and the Leftover Left. A red-diaper baby who took banjo lessons from Seeger and organized his first concert at the University of Wisconsin, Radosh said then, "I have known Pete for most of my life, and I think he's a national treasure for his contribution to American music culture, for acquainting America with its own indigenous music. But Pete doesn't understand that this is not the '60s, and Iraq and the war against terrorism are not the war in Vietnam. He looks at things through his old lens, and that's more than unfortunate. It's sort of sad and silly."

To those he still rallies to dissent and activism, however, Seeger remains an inspiration, the unwavering embodiment of progressive idealism. After all, he has been using music to stand up for the disenfranchised and to mobilize their sympathizers since the days of the original American folk-music revival in the 1930s.

Once Woody Guthrie's partner and traveling companion, later the composer of "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?" and "Turn, Turn, Turn," now a friend and mentor to young artists such as DiFranco (who was born after "Turn, Turn, Turn" was written), Seeger has lived the whole history of activist culture as we know it.

With the rebirth of the Prism where Pete Seeger's brother Mike has played (see this week's cover story), we republish this essay which first appeared in Mother Jones magazine. Pete Seeger last appeared locally at the Culbreth Theater during the 2001 Virginia Festival of the Book.