Posts Tagged ‘Pete Seeger’

Don’t Rename the Bridge; Rename the River

Thursday, February 6th, 2014

By Jeffrey Page

Pete Seeger on the banks of his beloved Hudson River.

Pete Seeger on the banks of his beloved Hudson River.

I never met Pete Seeger, but of course this didn’t stop me from reaching certain conclusions about him. One such was that anyone who could sit down and write an anthem like “If I Had a Hammer” had to be a pretty great individual. Another was my sense that Seeger was a man who defined modesty.

Clearly I’m not alone in my appreciation of the life and music of Pete Seeger. Now, in the 11 days since he died at the age of 94, there have been calls by some of his admirers that the Tappan Zee Bridge be renamed in his honor. After all, they argue, Seeger lived in Beacon overlooking the Hudson River, which, farther downstream flows under the TZB and which will flow under its $14 billion replacement, whose construction has begun.

Link Seeger and the bridges? I think such a name-change would be a mistake. For one thing, we will probably never fully understand the extent of the disruption of the Hudson’s ecology during the construction and life spans of the two enormous bridges. Proponents of the Pete Seeger Bridge should remember that Seeger spent much of his life trying to achieve an unsullied, uncontaminated and unpolluted Hudson. I don’t believe he ever crusaded for the first TZB, or the one that’s being built now. Correct me if I’m wrong.

Moreover, I don’t imagine Seeger would feel especially proud of having his name superseding that of the Tappans, a family of Indians that lived in the areas surrounding Nyack when the Dutch arrived. And of course, his name would not include the word “zee,” from the Dutch for a wide sea. Unless they called it the Pete Seeger Tappan Zee Bridge, which would be ridiculous.

The Tappan Zee Bridge and its replacement span ought to remain precisely that.

But if we’re going to honor Pete Seeger by naming something for him, how about changing the name of the Hudson to the Pete Seeger River. After all, if it were not for him and the Clearwater project, the Hudson might be the same old befouled mess it was before Seeger and his friends decided to do something about it.

As far as Henry Hudson is concerned, he won’t be forgotten. There’s the Henry Hudson Parkway on the upper west side of Manhattan, the Henry Hudson Memorial Park in the Bronx, a 16-foot statue of Hudson atop a 100-foot column in the park, the Henry Hudson Bridge connecting the northern tip of Manhattan with Spuyten Duyvil in the Bronx, and Hudson Street downtown in the West Village.

We know Henry Hudson made four voyages to North America. He explored the river that would be named for him on his third visit. But the mystery of his fate developed on his fourth voyage, when he searched for northern passages to Asia.

He was in Canada, sailing on what would become Hudson’s Bay when his crew mutinied and took control of the ship. One account holds that the crew was weary and wanted to return to England but that Hudson insisted on continuing his exploration. The crew took the ship and set Hudson, his son, and seven crewmen adrift in a longboat. They were never heard from again.

Ultimately you have to wonder why the fuss about Hudson. After all he wasn’t exactly the first European to reach what would become New York. In fact, he arrived second, in 1609 – a full 85 years after Giovanni da Verrazzano.

“A very agreeable site,” Verrazzano wrote in his log as he entered the great harbor of the future New York, “located between two hills between which flowed to the sea a very great river.”

That would be the Hudson. Or the Seeger.




Thursday, January 30th, 2014

By Jeffrey Page

We loved his voice, we loved his banjo. We loved “Turn, Turn, Turn,” “If I Had a Hammer,” “We Shall Overcome” and all the others he wrote for us. We loved his sense of humor and his uncanny ability to get 3,000 people at Carnegie Hall – mostly strangers to one another – to open their mouths and sing with him. We loved the fact that he was always there. Whether the issue was Vietnam, civil rights, the environment, voting rights, sexism, or the inarguable right of the people of the Hudson Valley to have a swimmable river free of garbage and chemicals, he was there.

But now I go back to something else: a hearing room at the Federal Courthouse in downtown Manhattan 59 years ago, as the House UnAmerican Activities convened for another in its Communist witch hunts. It took extraordinary courage to tell HUAC, in a voice at once polite and defiant, to go to hell. But that is precisely what he did, and for this he would pay.

He was questioned about his political activities, and about the places and events where he had performed. He would not answer. Even more important to HUAC was who was at those meetings and performances. But he would not name names. He said he would answer any questions from the committee about himself or about his songs, but would refuse to discuss individuals.

At one point he was asked about an item that had appeared in 1947 in the Daily Worker. The paper, published by the Communist Party U.S.A., noted that he would be singing at an event called the Allerton Section Housewarming.

Was the Allerton Section part of the Communist party, a committee staffer asked.

“Sir,” he responded, “I refuse to answer that question whether it was a quote from the New York Times or the Vegetarian Journal.”

Francis Walter, the chairman of HUAC, directed him to respond.

And this was his response: “I am not going to answer any questions as to my association, my philosophical or religious beliefs or my political beliefs, or how I voted in any election, or any of these private affairs. I think these are very improper questions for any American to be asked, especially under such compulsion as this. I would be very glad to tell you my life if you want to hear of it.”

This was the kind of answer to HUAC, and its like-minded friends in the Senate, that had cost countless people in and out of the entertainment industry their jobs and livelihoods.

HUAC members and staffers peppered him repeatedly with questions about the places he sang and the people who attended his music, and he refused to give in.

At one point he said: “I decline to discuss, under compulsion, where I have sung, and who has sung my songs, and who else has sung with me, and the people I have known. I love my country very dearly, and I greatly resent this implication that some of the places that I have sung and some of the people that I have known, and some of my opinions, whether they are religious or philosophical, or I might be a vegetarian, make me any less of an American. I will tell you about my songs, but I am not interested in telling you who wrote them. I will tell you about my songs, and I am not interested in who listened to them.”

He defined what it is to stand on principle, on honor. His was the kind of declaration that ought to be hung in classrooms, right next to the American flag. He was cited for contempt of Congress for his refusal to talk about his friends and acquaintances, and sentenced to one year in jail. The conviction was tossed on appeal. But the damage was done, and he lost entertainment gigs and was barred from appearing on network television for several years.

We will remember this man for his music, his integrity, and his courage in the darkest of times.