RYLE DWYER: No Irish Pete Seeger to rouse our betrayed generation at Oxegen

THE French have a saying that the more things change the more they stay the same. This weekend thousands of young people will flock to the Oxegen music festival at Punchestown, but unlike some such gatherings elsewhere, it does not seem to have any real focus of protest.

The singer Tony Bennett was in Cork during the week, still performing in his 80s. Morning Ireland highlighted his visit and played his song I Left My Heart in San Francisco, which was incredibly popular in the 1960s.

It became the biggest hit among American troops in Vietnam. Most of those left the US from San Francisco, so the title line of the song had a particular resonance with them.

The same Morning Ireland programme mentioned American troops currently in Asia, only this time the reference was to those in Afghanistan rather than Vietnam. So much of the news is as if little has changed. There is the current Russian spy scandal in the US and Ian Paisley has back been railing against the Pope again.

One of the anti-war songs that was popular in America during late 1960s featured the line “when will they ever learn?” That is as applicable now as when it was written in 1955.

When Pete Seeger wrote that song – Where Have All the Flowers Gone? – he was something of a non-person in the US. Hence the song did not become famous until recorded by the Kingston Trio in 1961. Seeger’s early work had been overshadowed.

In 1947 he published the song We Shall Overcome, which apparently dated from the late 19th century. It went on to have a profound impact not only on the civil rights movements in the US, but also in Northern Ireland.

In the 1950s Seeger was investigated for supposed communist activities. He had his own brand of American communism, derived from the Native American Indians.

“If you want to have role models, don’t go to Europe,” he explained. “Right here were men who were strong and women who were strong, and they cooperated. If there was food, everybody shared; if there was no food, everybody, including the chief and his family, were hungry.”

That was the way he thought society should behave, but the politicians considered that unAmerican.

Seeger was summoned by the US Congress to testify before the UnAmerican Activities Committee. He had no problem admitting his brand of communism, but he refused to name others who shared his views. The whole thing was a depraved publicity stunt in which politicians hauled prominent people before the committee to humiliate them by forcing them to name their associates. His communist friends included Woody Guthrie, author of This Land is Your Land, which is a now a kind of American anthem.

For refusing to betray his friends Seeger was cited for contempt of Congress in the House of Representatives by 373 votes to nine. He was eventually brought to trial in March 1961 and sentenced to 12 months in jail. But the Court of Appeal overturned the verdict. By then the red scare tactics of Senator Joe McCarthy had become a serious embarrassment.

As the anti-war movement grew in the US, Seeger remained in the cold. In 1965 he wrote Bring ’em Home, which was a call to withdraw American troops from Vietnam and around the world. It has since been adapted to the current situation in Afghanistan and Iraq, but the song did not initially make much of an impression in 1965.

Two years later Seeger was invited to perform his song Waist Deep in the Big Muddy on the Smother Brothers’ Comedy Hour, but the CBS network controversially cut Seeger’s song from the show. The Smothers Brothers took issue with this and invited Seeger to perform it again in 1968.

The song was about American soldiers wading across a river carrying heavy equipment. When they were waist deep, the sergeant warned that the river was too deep for the men, but the captain ordered them to continue. As they were neck deep, the sergeant warned again, but “the big fool said to push on”.

Then the captain disappeared with a gurgling sound and when his cap floated by, the sergeant said that he was now in charge and the men should withdraw.

Seeger was careful not to draw any allusion, but there was no need. People knew he was referring to the Vietnam war and President Lyndon Johnson was the “big fool” who was telling them to push on.

It caused outrage in some quarters, but Seeger became a folk hero. Last year at the concert celebrating his 90th birthday, Bring ’em Home was adapted to the current situation. Of course, he wants to bring all American troops back from overseas, not just General Stanley McChrystal from Afghanistan.

While I remember the events of 1965 clearly, I also remember how the older people then remembered the events of 45 years earlier. That was 1920, the height of the Black and Tan era and the year of the first Bloody Sunday. Few people now remember 1920, but in terms of time it is not very long ago, and we all have been influenced enormously by the events of the whole period. Over the years we have been greatly influenced by events in the USA. In the 1950s we had our own brand of McCarthyism here, in the form of the intolerance that was prevalent in the name of religion. We were never slow to criticise the Orange element in Northern Ireland. In many ways we were as bigoted here, but the dissenting voices were essentially drowned out.

WE had a draconian form of censorship. In the 1940s when Bing Crosby was the most popular singer in America, his records were banned on Radio Éireann because some twit in authority thought his crooning would undermine the moral fibre of Irish youth.

The Catholic hierarchy led the literary censorship with spineless politicians doing their bidding. Some of our most famous writers rebelled against the censorship, but their dissent was largely ignored because of the influence of Catholic bishops. They were supposedly protecting Irish youth, but does anyone believe that anymore?

They shamelessly turned the blind eye and facilitated those who physically and sexually abused the most vulnerable children in our orphanages and industrial schools.

The growing disillusionment should be apparent in the dwindling attendances at Sunday Mass, especially among young adults. Surely the hierarchy should be trying to promote Catholicism, not undermine it by a mixture of their contemptuous and indifferent behaviour.

Our bankers and politicians are behaving with the same contempt. They have betrayed the country. Before long another generation will probably be forced to emigrate, while many of those most responsible for the current mess will retire in the luxury to which they have become accustomed at everybody else’s expense.

The politicians are on another 12-week holiday. Does anyone care? It seems we have lost all sense of outrage.

The lack of real protest in our music would seem to suggest that young people don’t care because they realise their futures will have to be elsewhere.


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