Monday, 15 December 2014

The Bible and the Almanac

We lament the departure of this great artist and human being yesterday.

When Seeger wrote If I had a hammer in 1949, Bono was but a twinkle in his father's eye.
But that song has become like our International anthem.

I wrote the tribute below in 2007 - to my own father on the occasion of his winning of the
Order of Canada for humanitarian service. It was never before posted as a C4L Bulletin, so
this is not a re-run. All I can say is this gives you some idea of the stature of Pete Seeger -
the yardstick against which I measure greatness.


In the 1940s, two musical groups were formed which would have a great influence on my
life. One was called the Med's Gospel Team, in Canada, because the members were all
studying medicine. One of the team members would later get married and become my father.
The other was called the Almanac Singers, in the USA, which included Pete Seeger and
Woodie Guthrie. Obviously the emphasis of these groups differed – one was evangelistic and
the other was social/cultural. The better known group (by far) had chosen its name out of its
belief that most farm homes had two books – a Bible and an almanac.

Maybe this explains why my two favorite forms of music are hymns and protest songs? I
love to hear my father playing hymns on the piano, and I still agree with Pete Seeger's
comment at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival – when he said he wished that he had an axe to
cut the cord of Bob Dylan's microphone! This because Dylan had just been accompanied by
the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, and no one could hear the message in his music.

As a young man, Pete Seeger embraced the conviction that songs are a way of binding people
to a cause. John and Charles Wesley were the minister and the musician that launched
Methodism. Seeger's father - a music academic - wrote that the necessary question to ask
was not “Is it good music?” but “What is the music good for?”

Pete Seeger's influence is amazing. Dylan was not just Seeger's heir apparent, perhaps more
of his legitimization. Johnny Cash was but a teen idol until he re-recorded his song Folsom
Prison Blues in a new setting – not in a concert hall or recording studio, but live at Folsom
Prison. Songs like Man in Black, that influenced me personally, put deeper meaning in the
music and that placed Cash (the other JC in my life) in a whole new league. He in turn
influenced others - like Bono, who in the Cash tradition usually dresses in black. And Bruce
Springsteen, who was asked to record a tribute album to Seeger in 1997. In the end, he
recorded but did not include the song that has surely influenced my life more than any other...
it just asserted itself too forcefully among the others in his collection:

It's the hammer of justice

It's the bell of freedom

It's the song about the love between my brothers and my sisters

All over this land

No wonder Bono would be named Man of the Year by TIME magazine, for following
Seeger's lyrical advice - and example. I have certainly tried to live my life in alignment to
these lyrics. Recently, Seeger was introduced at a “pro bono” school concert with these
words: “He's probably the person who's done more for this country than anyone I can think

You need both spirituality and activism – Bible and almanac. Upon graduation from medical
school, the members of the Med's Gospel Team all became medical missionaries. They
headed for three continents - into Ecuador, Zambia and China. However, en route to China
my father stopped in Europe to study tropical medicine. During that year (1949) the Bamboo
Curtain came down and missionaries were no longer able to enter. So he diverted to the
Belgian Congo, where I was born.

The principle that both groups shared is that all human beings are created equal. In the mid-
20th century, this meant either you could either become a missionary or a socialist – Bible or
almanac, I suppose. The medical missionaries exerted huge influence in remote parts of the
Third World. Meanwhile, Seeger got called up before Congress's Un-American Activities
Committee. For pleading the First Amendment (not the Fifth) he was indicted for contempt
of Congress, but this was later overturned by an appeals court. Advocacy is seen by many as
a higher calling than service provision, but it often comes at a cost in terms of your
reputation. But having a bad reputation does not always mean that you lose your influence.
Medical missionaries in countries that joined the Second World (communist bloc) often lost
their reputation when they were called reactionaries, but this seldom diminished their

Here is a story recorded by Alec Wilkinson in the New Yorker (April 17, 2006). It is told by
a man named John Cronin, who is the director of the Pace Academy for the Environment, at
Pace University. Cronin has known Seeger for thirty years. “About two winters ago, on
Route 9 outside Beacon, one winter day, it was freezing – rainy and slushy, a miserable
winter day – the war in Iraq is just heating up and the country's in a poor mood,” Cronin said.
“I'm driving north, and on the other side of the road, I see from the back a tall, slim figure in
a hood and coat. I'm looking, and I can tell it's Pete. He's standing there all by himself, and
he's holding up a big piece of cardboard that clearly has something written on it. Cars and
trucks are going by him. He's getting wet. He's holding the homemade sign above his head –
he's very tall, and his chin is raised the way he does when he sings – and he's turning the sign
in a semi-circle, so that the drivers can see it as they pass, and some people are honking and
waving at him, and some people are giving him the finger. He's eighty-four years old. I
know he's got some purpose, of course, but I don't know what it is. What struck me is that,
whatever his intentions are, and obviously he wants people to notice what he's doing, he
wants to make an impression – anyway, whatever they are, he doesn't call the newspapers and
say, “I'm Pete Seeger, here's what I'm going to do.” He doesn't cultivate publicity. That isn't
what he does. He's far more modest than that. He would never make a fuss. He's just
standing out there in the cold and the sleet like a scarecrow. I go a little bit down the road, so
that I can turn and come back, and when I get him in view again, this solitary and elderly
figure, I see that what he's written on the sign is Peace.”

Advocacy is legitimized by social activism. It is important to be out there, doing your part,
not just speaking on talk shows and stuff. Which brings me to the purpose of writing these
reflections. My father is almost as old as Pete Seeger, and he is still an activist too. Already
in 2007 he has spent two months overseas, helping out his favorite cause. It was good to
observe him back in a position of influence – helping to bring about intellectual and
attitudinal change...

But best of all, for a career that has included both overseas and domestic health service, and
for his example of serving others through faith-based organizations, he was awarded the
Order of Canada this month. This is the highest civilian honor that can be bestowed on a
citizen, and he deserves it.

This month also, TIME magazine released its annual issue containing the 100 most influential
people in the world. I was wondering how many of those listed will have the staying power
of these two personal heroes of mine - one who taught me to revere the Bible, and the other
who wrote protest songs for the Almanac Singers? To love my neighbor, and to hammer out
injustice. If only two of the 100 can do so, the world will be a better place for our

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