Seeger anthem showed civil rights marchers they could overcome

Opinion: Irish Americans with dollars were not keen on solidarity with African Americans

Thu, Feb 13, 2014, 12:01

There’ll be an evening of Pete Seeger banter and song in Sandinos in Derry tonight, organised by anti-fracking activist Teknopeasant (aka Conor O’Kane of Ard Rí), a devotee of the long-necked five-string banjo.

Long disregarded as an unsubtle hillbilly instrument, the banjo was brought back into the mainstream by Seeger after he had heard it played at the Mountain Dance and Folk Festival in 1936 as accompaniment to the annual North Carolina square-dance competition. So impressed was the 17-year-old that decades later he could still rhyme off the names of the teams that made it through to the dance-off: Bull Creek, Spooks Branch, Happy Hollow, Bears Wallow, Cheoah Valley . . .

This was the living tradition with which he craved contact. “It was there I fell in love with the five-string banjo,” he later said. Seeger’s book How t o Play the 5 - String Banjo has been continuously in print for more than half a century.


The ‘Seeger style’
The text used instruction in plucking and tuning to invoke the spirit of music created in the fields or the kitchen as opposed to the concert hall or parlour. It was this, more than the instrument’s sound, which was to attract a multitude of musicians with a social agenda. Luke Kelly and Tommy Makem were among those who played from the outset in the up-plucking “Seeger style”. (Makem once told me he had learned the banjo from Seeger himself, which may even be true.)

In the hands of such as Tek- nopeasant the banjo retains its brook-no-nonsense authenticity, proclaiming a connection between the defiance of dirt- poor mountainy men and dustbowl balladeers on the one hand and campaigns for the betterment of humanity here and now. That’s what defines Seeger’s continuing relevance: the affirmative connections his music makes.

In Derry last weekend for his Other Voices festival, Philip King waxed long and lyrical about evenings spent with Seeger at his upstate New York home during the making of Bringing i t a ll Back Home , the definitive account of the re-influencing of Irish music by its American adaptation.

The most significant connection Seeger made with Ireland was between the civil rights movements in the North and the US, through We Shall Overcome . The song was already well-enough known from Joan Baez’s rendition at the massive civil rights demonstration in Washington in 1963: its political resonance was established.


May 1968
The first time I heard it sung in proper context was in May 1968. Derry mayor William Beattie was set to open a new carriageway on the underdeck of Craigavon Bridge across the Foyle by ceremonially walking across in chain of office and mayoral regalia. This was too good an opportunity to miss. Half a dozen of us sat down in his path. As we were being dragged away somebody struck up We Shall Overcome .

Not all of us joined in immediately. It seemed a tad overblown. And being hauled away by the ankles and oxters wasn’t an ideal singing stance. But by the second chorus we had all weighed in, not to leave Roddy Carlin, I think it was, in solo isolation. And suddenly it felt terrific.

The common interest between seekers of equality in the North and the black civil rights movement in the US, which had been advocated in abstract terms, was instantly made emotionally real. The feeling of oneness with marchers against oppression an ocean away was palpably exciting and gave a breadth and grandeur to what hitherto had been a ragtag effort by a handful of local radicals.

No demonstration over the next few years could end without a rendition. For that period We Shall Overcome , rather than The Soldiers’ Song , was the anthem for which we stood to attention.

Not everybody approved. Irish Americans with dollars to donate were appalled. When civil rights representatives travelled across and looked for connections with equivalent US groups, meetings and fundraisers were cancelled and bitter complaints conveyed across the Atlantic. The contradiction was between the Seeger tendency, which held that our natural allies were those fighting the power over there, and those who believed alienating Irish Americans with access to the power made no strategic sense.

The same factors are being weighed today by leading northern nationalists as they sniff the air to check what way the wind blows – whether to risk alienating the US Ancient Order of Homophobes or take a stand for equal rights, whether to keep faith with the brothers and sisters with the protest placards or with the Waldorf Astoria crowd.

Seeger people know what side they are still on, and know too that while it’s maybe taking longer then we imagined back then we shall, eventually, overcome.

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