Around a hundred old hippies will gather at Fort Benning’s Main Gate on Saturday to deliver the same old message. The SOA Watch will protest a school that no longer exists. Once upon a time, thousands came, joining a symbolic funeral march led by Father Roy Bourgeois. From time to time, actor Martin Sheen came. So did Susan Sarandon and The Indigo Girls. And in 1999 the late Pete Seeger was there. Younger reporters did not know who he was, but I wanted to talk with him. His voice was shot, but his spirit was glowing. This is the story that followed.
Like a gray-bearded scarecrow, Pete Seeger ambles on to the put-together stage, strumming on a banjo that looks as old as he does. No one introduces him. No one needs to. The voice cracks, quivers and shakes, but his spirit is as passionate as it was 60 years ago when he sang for a summertime milk strike in upstate New York.
Hearing aids are stuck in each ear and a green kerchief is stuffed in the back pocket of his Levis. His floppy canvas hat is stained by years and perspiration. There’s neither an ounce of fat nor stardom on his lanky body, and when he talks about Woody Guthrie, John and Yoko or about how he ought to send Peter, Paul & Mary royalties every year, he’s talking about friends, not dropping names.
“Guantanamera,” he sings, leaving most of the melody to his grandson, Tao Rodriguez. But when they get to the chorus, he forgets his age, stomping his foot and reaching an 80-year-old hand toward the threatening skies.
More than 5,000 people were shoulder-to-shoulder on the median in front of him. They knew the words as well as Seeger did. For him, every generation brings with it a movement and a cause. Saturday he was singing on a stage less than a yard from a chalk line in the dirt that kept protesters against the Army’s School of the Americas from trespassing on Fort Benning soil.
“Haven’t been here in 57 years, since I got inducted into the Army. I came here on a bus filled with white guys from Scottsboro, Alabama. They had another bus for the black fellows. I haven’t been back since. Course I sing about Columbus all the time. ‘Way Down in Columbus, Georgia . . .’ he sings, from the opening lines of “Columbus Stockade Blues.”
“Woody Guthrie taught me to sing that song,” he says.
Seeger has been a tuning fork for most of the movements of the past . . . from union rallies to civil rights to the Vietnam War. Never concerned by the tyranny of anybody’s Top 40, he sings for his supper and his beliefs — just like Thomas Jefferson, a noted flute player and founding father. “This is just what he was talking about,” Seeger said. “I feel like old Tom is looking down on us today and smiling.”
That music is usually in the background of social struggles isn’t an accident, Seeger believes. “Music is ambiguous. It isn’t as specific as words. It can bring us together when words tear us apart.”
He made music in a country church in Mississippi just after the congregation was told that the bodies of three civil rights workers had been found. He stood before his biggest crowd on the steps of the Washington Monument at a peace rally in 1969 singing the simple chorus “let’s give peace a chance” for more than eight minutes. Standing in a federal court, he once offered to sing the federal judge a song — an offer that was declined with the swing of an off-key gavel.
Saturday afternoon, he wandered on and off the stage. He played banjo or 12-string with the unknown musicians who performed between speakers who were bearing witness to atrocities and hunger in Latin America — planting the seed for today’s peaceful crossing of that well-defined Fort Benning boundary.
Always there was music.
• Steve Jacobs paraphrased a song about the local lockup by being “way down in the Fort Benning stockade.”
• Anne Feeney asked, “Have you been to jail for justice,” and if you have “then you’re a friend of mine.”
• Translating the old black gospel song into Spanish, a stage full of musicians sang “We Shall Not Be Moved.”
All day long, the sound system buzzed with speakers and singers — except for an acoustical interlude when the generator ran out of gas. When power was restored, SOA Watch co-director Carol Richardson said, “That’s proof positive we can’t be silenced.”
Seeger isn’t silent either. Even a voice that retired before he was ready can’t stop him. “Strange thing about it, I’m selling more records today than I did when I could sing,” he laughs.
Selling records hasn’t been what he’s about anyway. He shrugged when someone asked how his political leanings affected his musical career. “I don’t like that word ‘career,’ because that says you’re seeking fame. Besides, when I worked with the establishment it didn’t come out too well.”
His father was a musicologist and his mother taught the violin, so music has been with him every day of his 80 years. “I was a musician before I learned to read music. But my father said you shouldn’t do that until you learn to love it because music is more than steps on a scale. It’s full of swerves and curls.”
His life has had its share of swerves and curls. He was black-listed in the McCarthy era. He was kept off network TV and lost his only major record deal. But like the causes he sings about, he’s still there.
The permit to demonstrate had almost expired for the day and it was beginning to rain, but there he was singing “If I Had a Hammer” one more time. Military police were on the other side of the line. More than 40 Columbus police officers were on duty. But for a moment, the crowd was singing instead of protesting.
Pete Seeger had done his job. And so had the music.