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Stephen Lewis on Infrastructure, Identity, Communication, and Change

Pete Seeger, The Machine that Kills Fascists, Irving Berlin, and Eddie Cantor’s Handkerchief

Posted by Stephen Lewis on January 26, 2009

What I am writing in this post is old news to many in America but not so well known abroad.  One of the highlights of the US presidential inauguration celebration last week was a final act of the day-long outdoor public concert held on the Washington Mall: Nonagenarian (may he live to be 120!) folksinger legend Pete Seeger joining pop star Bruce Springsteen to lead an audience of hundreds of thousands in a rousing performance of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land.”

Guthrie, a rural- turned-urban folksinger during the Great Depression wrote “This Land is Your Land” in 1940 as a people- rather than divinity-based, Popular Front alternative to Tin Pan Alley composer Irving Berlin’s maudlin “God Bless America.”  Berlin’s song, originally written as a Broadway entertainment ditty, made it into the mainstream in the late 1930’s when it became one of the theme songs of North Carolina-born radio singer Kate Smith.  By the late-1980s, the song had morphed — beyond anything Russian-Jewish immigrant Berlin might have ever imagined — into an unofficial anthem of the political right.  Indeed, at the start of the “War Against Terror” (sic) some Republicans and fellow religious-right-ers wanted to have “God Bless America” declared the US’s official national anthem (not that Francis Scott Key’s convoluted and bellicose “Star Spangled Banner” isn’t long overdue for replacement).  “This Land is Your Land,” on the other hand, has the this-world sentiments that one would expect from singer-composer Guthrie whose guitar was emblazoned with the text “This Machine Kills Fascists.”  Yet, over the years, the song’s lyrics were bowdlerized into mainstream political and broadcasting acceptability and stripped of  a number of stanzas and sentiments that once made it an ode to egalitarianism and a challenge to the failings of the status quo.

Pete Seeger is one of the people who has kept American folksong alive and for almost 3/4 of a century.  He has also been one of the people who has kept America’s conscience and progressive spirit alive — from his early days using song to challenge America’s economic takeover of Latin America, to his stint with the the politically-hounded Almanac Singers and the less controversial Weavers, to his courageous defiance of the House Un-American Activities Committee and years of house arrest, to his pro-civil rights and anti-Vietnam War years, to his more recent decades as an environmental activist.

And so it was only fitting that on the day of Obama’s inauguration Seeger should lead black and white, young and old, and middle-class, working-class, and poor in singing aloud that “This Land is Your Land.”  It was no less fitting that he should also present Obama and the country with a challenge and a renewal of activism by reinserting into Guthrie’s song its very timely, long-omitted closing stanzas:

In the squares of the city – By the shadow of the steeple
By the relief office – I saw my people
As they stood there hungry, I stood there wondering
If this land’s still made for you and me.

There was a big high wall there – that tried to stop me;
Sign was painted – it said private property;
But on the other side – it didn’t say nothing;
That side was made for you and me.

Nobody living can ever stop me,
As I go walking – that freedom highway;
Nobody living can ever make me turn back
This land was made for you and me.

Due to censorship in at least one of the countries in which this weblog is read, I am including two links to videos of Seeger’s Inauguration Day performance.  The first is on Blip.tv and the second is on the weblog NYC Public School Parents.

Eddie Cantor’s Handkerchief

As a coda to this entry, I should mention that I first came across the “This Land is Your Land” clip on David Bellel’s very personal and very eclectic Knickerbocker Village weblog, dedicated to the Lower East Side of Manhattan housing project of the same name and featuring an encyclopedic amalgam of pop-historical and nostalgic entries on the neighborhood.  Knickerbocker Village itself first came into my consciousness during the trial and execution of KV-residents Ethel and Julius Rosenberg during the poisonous anti-communist purges of the early 1950s.  Later, when I was a student at Seward Park High School, once the proud working class high school of the Lower East Side, many of my classmates were KV-ers.

I stumbled on Bellel’s site when doing research for some as-yet-unfinished writing on the tougher sides of Jewish life on the Lower East Side and in Brooklyn and a half-remembered tale overheard in my childhood concerning an encounter between a close relative of mine and the infamous Jewish and Italian gangland assassins known as “Murder Incorporated.”  I also found entries on tamer subjects, including this magnificent 1930 clip of the great Lower East Side-born entertainer Eddie Cantor singing an arch, satirical version of “Makin’ Whopee,” a song that was later performed in toned-down, maudlin versions by a legion of middling performers.  Cantor’s own performance is filled with the gestures, understatement, and subtle timing that marked the work of generations of Lower East Side troubadors and comics.  Click here to see it.

I’m ending this post with a reference to Cantor because few people know about his political side.  In  most of his films, Cantor portrayed a stereotypically Jewish pint-sized innocent bumbling his way into the larger White-Anglo-Saxon world of the time.  During the 1930s, however,  Cantor’s outspokenness against Fascism and Nazi Germany brought him into confrontations with radio stations and broadcast advertisers time and again.  During the early years of television, Cantor was one of the first TV hosts to consciously challenge broadcasting’s unwritten but very strictly-enforced color barriers.  On a 1950s live television broadcast of the Eddie Cantor Show, following a signature exuberant performance by African American singer-dancer Sammy Davis, Jr., Cantor did what at the time was unthinkable: he hugged the out of breath and sweating Davis and took out his pocket handkerchief and with it wiped the sweat from Davis’s face.  Television station management and advertisers threatened to bar Cantor from the air for this breach of the wall between the races.  Cantor’s response was to book Davis on every remaining broadcast that season. (Note: Dinah Shore similarly landed in hot water for embracing Nat “King” Cole while on nationwide TV, leading to a scandal almost worthy of that surrounding the early-1940s cinema short of Anita O’Day’s vocal rendition of “Drop Me Off Uptown” with Roy Eldridge on trumpet. Rascists were furious with O’Day’s familiar and seductive stance toward Eldridge; Eldridge, on the other hand, was furious that O’Day had upstaged him and stolen the show.)

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2 Responses to “Pete Seeger, The Machine that Kills Fascists, Irving Berlin, and Eddie Cantor’s Handkerchief”

  1. Benjamin Salzano said

    Magnificently informative and elegantly written.

  2. […] on April 21, 2009 Soon after the inauguration of US president Barack Obama, I posted an entry commenting on Pete Seeger’s moving inaugural day performance of Woody Guthrie’s  &#8220… including near-forgotten verses of the song that had gone underground during the anti-communist […]

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