Tuesday 28 January 2014

Can we ever sing We Shall Overcome again?

I was in Portcullis House, in Westminster, a few weeks ago when Parliament was paying tribute to Nelson Mandela.  One of the people I was with was complaining that everyone who spoke in the debate, one after the other, managed to dredge up a claim to have met the man himself.

Well, I never met Mandela.  I never even almost met him.  But I did meet Pete Seeger, who died yesterday at the tremendous age of 94 (though the BBC didn't use his age).

I had been brought up with his singing, in a sense.  The only 45 rpm record that my parents owned when I was growing up was Seeger singing ‘Little Boxes’ (the B side had a strange song by him called ‘Stick Some Stamps on the Top of my Head; I’m a Gonna Mail Myself to You’).

I was speaking at a conference on the future of money almost a decade ago, up the Hudson River which was Seeger’s stomping ground – and there he was at Bard College, tuning up ready for his conference concert.  Not only have I met Seeger, but he heard my lecture about the Wizard of Oz...

I took the opportunity to thank him for being in the corner of my sitting room, and he told me the background to ‘Little Boxes’ – a story for another day.

Seeger was the son of one of the most famous American composers of the century, Charles Seeger, and was old enough to have formed the human link between Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan in the story of American folk music.  He even appeared before the House UnAmerican Activities Committee.

And last but not least, it was his songs – ‘Where Have all the Flowers Gone?’ and ‘We Shall Overcome’ - that formed the background to the protest movement in the 1960s.

I’ve sung those on demonstrations with the best of them.  I have ‘We Shall Overcome’ coursing in my veins.  So I’ve been wondering why I don’t sing it, or demonstrate, any more.

Before we dismiss this as the inevitable symptom of  middle age, bear with me for a moment - because I suppose I became disenchanted with slogans.

I went on the anti-war demonstration in 2003, but then so did everyone else.  As I became disenchanted with the bizarre embrace of a chimera by the right (trickle down), I became increasingly irritated with the simple solutions – the kind you chant on demonstrations – from the left.

I stopped believing we could ever overcome quite like that.  There seemed something mildly intolerant about many of the demonstrations I used to go on.   The French philosopher Jacques Ellul used to say that you get like the people you fight – and this seems to me the fate of the conventional left.

That is not to say that compromise or pragmatism is the solution either.  Or that change isn’t urgent – it is.  Or that I won’t be singing We Shall Overcome to prevent the next nuclear power station being built, or anything else that entrenches central power.  I just don’t believe in the conventional solutions of the left any more. 

The remaining concrete tower blocks are a testament to the phony solutions people sang We Shall Overcome about.  The song has inoculated me about fake radicalism (the Labour Party springs to mind), or any solution that isn’t human.

The reason why the conventional left is in retreat is that, with the exception of We Shall Overcome, their songs are the songs of retreat.

They are defending the status quo, not proposing the solutions we so badly need – or thinking about why the status quo is so threadbare and needs defending so badly.

In short, we need different songs of change to sing, and it is a source of great sadness that Pete Seeger won’t be around to sing them.  And if we can develop the new solutions, which might have some chance of being effective, then maybe we can sing We Shall Overcome again.

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