Friday, March 14, 2008

Find Our Common Song

Today in my Human Relations class none of my students know who I mean when I ask if they saw the new documentary last night on public television about folk song artist Pete Seeger. I see it on their faces: blank stares and stifling yawns--the boredom that appears en masse when I've tried to connect us to a common experience that leaves 99% of them out of the loop.

But Pete Seeger, I think to myself, and what a privilege that he lives in my long-term memory--folk song archivist, banjo-playing fun-loving music teacher, passionate peace marcher and anti-war demonstrator, Vietnam War protestor and Civil Rights balladier who stood up to the Committee on Un-American Activities.

He's 89, still sings and plays banjo with his grandson at Carnegie Hall every year, and not too long ago helped organize to save the Hudson River. Am I the only one who remembers Pete Seeger? Next time, I'll play some of his music in class.

During the documentary, Seeger talks about song, how singing used to be the way people understood what they were working toward--
peace, civil rights, suffrage.

There's always been song, he says, to unify us in our common purpose across the differences. Seeger met Dr. Martin Luther King twice up at Highlander School where he gathered the students together to sing We Shall Overcome, the song that Dr. King later told Seeger kept dwelling on his mind.

What dwells in the minds of my students when they think about organizing?
What lyrics will sustain them for the long haul?
Does it matter that they are not familiar with the lyrics that sustained me? How do we find our common song?

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