Songs for the Cause: Seeger, Davis, and Smith Sing for ALBA

November 22, 2010
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Pete Seeger at "Songs for the Cause." Photo Len Tsou

“There’s an extra beat here, I think.” Pete Seeger’s banjo tentatively picks the chords to “Viva la Quince Brigada,” the classic Spanish Civil War song that he first recorded in 1943. While Seeger, who is turning 92 this year, half-hums the staccato Spanish lyrics, blues singer Guy Davis hesitantly follows along on his guitar. (Event video here.) The tiny green room at the auditorium of the Museum of the City of New York is barely big enough to hold these two giants of musical activism. They have known each other a long time. Guy, in fact, learned to play the blues—as well as the banjo—at a summer camp in Vermont run by Pete’s brother John sometime in the early 1960s.

It’s about four o’clock on a windy Saturday afternoon. While Pete and Guy are getting ready for a sound check, the museum’s hallways are filling with people eager to enter the 250-seat auditorium for the ALBA benefit concert, hosted by the Puffin Foundation, also featuring Patti Smith— punk-rock legend, poet, artist, activist—and her band partner Tony Shanahan. Seeger—who still chops his own firewood—squats down and nimbly hops off the stage (a four-foot drop) to examine it from the house. He is holding some pages on which he has hand-printed the lyrics of “Venga Jaleo” and “Freiheit.” “Where can we hang these so the audience can read them?” he inquires. “I want the people to be able to sing along.” Someone points out that the songs are printed in the program booklets. “That’s nice,” Seeger says, “but I want them to look up at me, not at their programs.”

Photos by Len Tsou:

Songs for the Cause aimed to celebrate the important role that music and musicians have played in the history of activism, as well as the strong link between music, activism, and education. Seeger (1919), Smith (1946), and Davis (1952) represent different generations of performing activists who continue to rally and inspire younger cohorts. This inter-generational link was further brought out when Samuel Rosenblum, a high school junior at Bergen Academies (New Jersey), received the first ALBA Puffin Student Activism Award from two of his teachers, Sergei Alschen and Gabriela Calandra, both alumni of ALBA’s High School Teachers Institute. “I would like to thank the establishment,” Rosenblum quipped, “for continuing to give my generation reasons to fight against it.” For the past three years, Alschen and Calandra have been presenting the history of the Lincoln Brigade in their classes.

Before the music began, the sold-out audience of 250 heard stirring speeches by Lincoln vets Matti Mattson and Maynard Goldstein and a brief talk by ALBA’s Peter Glazer, whose father Tom was one of the four musicians on Songs of the Lincoln Battalion, the 78 rpm album that Seeger first recorded on Moe Asch’s Stinson label. Marc Lambert of the Puffin Foundation also announced the creation of a new gallery dedicated to the history of activism. The gallery is scheduled to open in 2011 and includes a permanent plaque honoring the Abraham Lincoln Brigade.

The Puffin Foundation joined ALBA in announcing the new $100,000 international ALBA Puffin Human Rights Award, which will be granted for the first time next spring at the annual reunion event in New York City.

Photos by Alan Entin:

Seeger and Davis shared the stage for stirring renditions of “Venga Jaleo,” “Viva la Quince Brigada,” “The Ballad of John Henry,” “This Little Light,” and “Freiheit.” Smith and Shanahan played a 40-minute set including “People Have the Power,” “Because the Night,” and “The Geometry Blinked Ruin Unimaginable,” a moving poem from Smith’s Auguries of Innocence (2009), inspired by Picasso’s Guernica. The evening ended with Smith, Shanahan, Davis, and Seeger joining together with the audience in “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “Jarama.”

In the reception that followed the program, Democracy Now! radio commentator Amy Goodman spoke about the connection between the painting that commemorates the German air bombing of the Basque town in 1937 and the tapestry that replicates the painting and hangs in the room where the United Nations Security Council meets. She pointed out that in 2002, as the UN debated the invasion of Iraq, the U.S. arranged to have the tapestry covered so as not to disrupt the proceedings. “We need to lift that curtain,” Goodman exhorted the cheering crowd. New York City Councilwoman Melissa Mark-Viverito also addressed the reception audience.

Songs for the Cause, sponsored by the Puffin Foundation, was conceived by David Roland, who first met Pete Seeger at a summer camp, and produced by Marc Lambert and Jeanne Houck, executive directors of the Puffin Cultural Forum and ALBA, respectively.

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3 Responses to “ Songs for the Cause: Seeger, Davis, and Smith Sing for ALBA ”

  1. Ray Hoff on December 6, 2010 at 4:22 pm

    So sorry to have missed the Concert. Thanks to Mr. Seeger, Mr. Davis and Ms. Smith for volunteering there time for this.

    I have a vinyl of Pete singing these songs on 78 from the 40’s. Well preserved but I don’t like playing it because I’d hate to wear it out.

  2. Javier Zorrilla Gonzalez on January 6, 2011 at 3:07 pm

    ME LLAMO JAVIER Y SOY ESPAÑOL,MIS MAS HUMILDES RESPETOS Y MI MAYOR ADMIRACION PARA LOS VALIENTES QUE LUCHARON Y DIERON SU VIDA POR LA LUCHA PARA CONSEGUIR DERROTAR AL FASCISMO Y POR LA LIBERTAD EN MI PAIS Y EN EL MUNDO.GLORIA A TODOS,ESTAIS EN MI RECUERDO SIEMPRE.ESTOY ORGULLOSO DE MIS HERMANOS DE LAS BRIGADAS INTERNACIONALES Y NUNCA LO OLVIDAREMOS.TENGO 43 AÑOS Y LO DIGO EN MI NOMBRE EN EL DE MIS PADRES Y EN EL DE LO JOVENES QUE ESTAN CON NOSOTROS Y POR LLEGAR…HASTA SIEMPRE CAMARADAS.

  3. joseph fernandez on February 9, 2011 at 12:34 pm

    ERA LUCHA CONTRA EL”FASCISMO” OR A FAVOR DEL COMUNISMO? YO SOY AMERICANO, MIS PADRES ASTURIANOS. MI MADRE SALIO DE ASTURIAS EN EL 1935 DESPUES DE VER QUEMAR IGLESIAS ,ASESINAR SACERDOTES Y PERSONAS QUE IBAN A MISA, SE VINO PARA ESTADOS UNIDOS. eN EL 1954 FUI A ASTURIAS, ESTUDIE ALLI 3 CURSOS, VOLVIMOS EN EL1960 Y LUEGO STUDIE UN ANO EN LA UNIVERSIDAD DE OVIEDO. sIEMPRE PREGUNTE POR QUE NO HABIA MAS PARTIDOS POLITICOS. NUNCA NADIE ME MOLESTO NI AMI NI A MIS PADRES.YO NO SE AQUE VIENE ESTE INTENTO DE CAMBIAR LA HISTORIA. EN ESPANA ,EN ESOS ANOS ,HABIA LIBERTAD DE IRTE A TRABAJAR A SUIZA O ALEMANIA PARA GANAR MAS DINERO Y REGRESA Y COMPRARAR UNA CASA. MILES Y MILES LO HICIERON.eL COMUNISMO SE HABIA METIDO EN LA REPUBLICA. ENTRE EL FRANQUISMO Y EL COMUNISMO ME QUEDO CON LO QUE CONOCI. hASTA YA EN EU. AMIS PADRES LES LLAMARON FASCISTONES AL VERLOS IR A MISA ESO UNOS ESPANOLES QUE LEGARON AQUI DESPUES DE LA GUERRA CIVIL NO SE SABIA DE QUE VIVIAN ESOS INDIVIDUOS SEGURO DE LO QUE ROBARON A SU PAIS.EL ORO S
    DE ESPANA FUE PARA LA UNION SOVIETICA,Y ALLI ESTA .yO NO QUIERO ABOGAR POR DICTADURAS, PERO GRACIAS A DIOS QUE GANO QUIEN GANO. qUE DIOS NOS BENDIGA A TODOS DE TODA OPINION.

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