Remembering Pete Seeger, and Della and Sam

The fat cats’ media never reported it, naturally, so I heard about Pete’s passing from another folk singer. And that’s as it should be.

Pete was 94 when he died last month, but I first met him when I was barely thirteen.

I was sunning myself one afternoon in our back yard to avoid doing my homework when a banjo-plucked tune began wafting my way from my brother’s open bedroom window. The sound was pure magic. But it was the words of that first of many Pete Seeger songs that went straight through my heart and lodged in there somewhere, setting the tone for my subsequent forty five years.

The song was called “Which Side are You On?”, and it wasn’t even written by Pete, but by a West Virginia coal miner’s wife named Della Reese whose husband Sam, a union organizer, was being hunted down by company goons carrying shotguns. After the thugs tore apart the Reese home searching for Sam, Della in her fury ripped off the back of a calendar and wrote these words, and more:

They say in Harlan County, there are no neutrals there;
You’ll either be a union man, or a thug for J.H. Blair, oh tell me:
Which side are you on, boys?
Which side are you on?

Pete Seeger had that way of imparting a poor woman’s life and death pride, and fire, with the firm gentleness of the righteous, without softpeddling anything. I noticed that about him the one time I ever saw him in the flesh, thirty years ago, at a benefit for the homeless in Vancouver’s Stanley Park.

Pete was already ageing by then, but his crackling voice grew solid when he spoke to the lounging and mostly yuppie crowd about how poverty should be unimaginable in a land of such wealth as ours. Something is basically wrong, he sang, striking the common note that binds us all.

My Daddy was a miner, and I’m a miner’s son;
He’ll be with his fellow workers until this battle’s won, oh tell me,
Which side are you on, boys?
Which side are you on?

After my first taste of Pete Seeger, I remember getting all fired up about the guy and our vast, unknown history that he began to make known to me. I tried sharing his music with my folks, but they feared the guy, who had after all been called a Commie by Joe McCarthy and banned from the music industry for a time. And so I was told to fear him, too.

All the Domesticators do their damndest to make us think that taking sides is wrong, and somehow destructive to our basically nice body politic. All of us get intoxicated by that noxious creed, maybe because we’re just plain afraid of stepping up to the battle lines. But Pete’s songs, and the spirit of folks like Della Reese, always snapped me out of that spell.

Oh workers can you stand it?
Tell me how you can?
Will you be a lousy scab, or will you be a man? So tell me,
Which side are you on, boys?
Which side are you on?

The good words worked on me over the years, and kept me alive with Della and Sam and all the other beaten down yet steadfast heroes who’ve kept us going. And I always thanked Providence for how easily Pete Seeger brought such purpose and the bigger picture back to me whenever domestication tried to suck me dry and make me an accomplice to all the bullshit.

All of that saga has granted me the same kind of restless contentment that I always hear in Pete Seeger’s voice, along with the endurance that grows out of our very guts and fibre after many long nights of Paying the Price for Doing the Job. I sometimes say that’s the only thing left to we warriors of the heart, at the end. And it seems to be enough.

Come all you fellow workers, good news to you I’ll tell:
Of how the good old union has come in here to dwell, but tell me,
Which side are you on, boys?
Which side are you on?

Struggle and survive, ye singers, ye fighters.

Kevin Annett is a proudly excommunicated former pastor of the United Church of Canada and a recovering Canadian. Read other articles by Kevin, or visit Kevin's website.