This post continues June’s My Take/Your Take conversation around books that highlight multiple forms of protest and the power of voice for younger readers. The conversation started with The Rooster Who Would Not Be Quiet! and continues with Stand Up and Sing! Pete Seeger, Folk Music, and the Path to Justice by Susanna Reich and Adam Gustavson. This week Dorea and Lauren consider folk music and the path to justice.
DOREA: When I first saw that this biography of folk singer Pete Seeger had been published, I was ecstatic and knew I wanted to include it in our collection. I grew up listening to folk music and from as far back as I can remember, Pete Seeger’s voice rang out in our home. As a pre-teen at my first Pete Seeger concert, I loudly and unabashedly sang along to every song that night. His music made me feel a part of something bigger than myself; his stories accompanying each song provide windows into issues of equity and justice that weren’t yet clearly visible in my own white, middle-class world. He expects that we will learn the songs, the history behind them, and raise our voices to sing along. By weaving quotes from Pete’s concerts, interviews, writings, and conversations into this biography, I feel as if Reich provides her readers with the same Pete Seeger I came to “know” over the years.
“Now, even if you never heard this song before, you can sing it with me,” he says. He calls out the words. Gradually quiet folks find their courage, and the chorus of voices grows. Soon nearly everyone joins in, and Pete’s voice rings out in harmony.
Not only did he have a gift for “singing the line before the line” so first-time listeners could echo and join in, he also provided multiple ways of joining in–assigning parts for sopranos, altos, and tenors, or just clapping along–leaving no excuse for silence. In this way, he gave me a space to begin to feel connected to the lives and stories outside of my own.
Speaking of connections, as I read this book, I find myself drawing many parallels to The Rooster Who Would Not Be Quiet. Both Pete Segeer and Rooster refuse to be silenced, use their voices to illuminate injustices in laws and practices, and inspire others to raise their own voices in order to bring forth change. Susanna Reich’s portrayal of Pete’s life helps me to see and consider not just music as protest but the many important roles that music plays within protest: a source of strength, comfort and escape during difficult times, a way of bringing peace when tensions run high, an avenue to learn about, from, and with others, and ways of finding and creating connection with those around us. As I think about the connections between these two books, I remember a song from my youth that Pete Seeger often sang, How Can I Keep from Singing, and I can imagine Rooster joining right in with that one.
Lauren, I’m curious to know whether or not you were familiar with Pete Seeger prior to reading this book? Given my longstanding connection with and prior knowledge of him, I wonder if this book would resonate so strongly with someone who doesn’t share this same background.
LAUREN: While familiar with Pete Seeger and his voice, I did not have the same level of connection as you did before reading this book. Although, hearing you talk about his influence on your early years makes me wish I did! What an incredible life Seeger led. From growing up in poverty and longing for a banjo to leading thousands of people in singing “This Land is Your Land” after Obama’s celebrated election. And all the while inspiring so many people with his voice!
I listened to Seeger’s music as I read his biography and your take on this book. As I did so, I thought about your response, questions you raise about the Rooster book, and a line from the author of Seeger’s biography, in connection to our theme of the power of voice. Here are the lines that make me stop and think:
Dorea, in response to The Rooster: What do we each need to feel supported in singing our song and being heard?
Dorea, in response to Seeger: …he also provides multiple ways of joining in… leaving no excuse for silence.
Reich: That night Pete saw that music could fill a room with peace and harmony…
As I think about these lines, I realize from my perspective, what we need to feel supported in singing our song is a way in and people to sing to. We need to find that part of life, that issue or injustice that makes us care and makes us want to sing. We need to be open to the multiple ways of joining in. We need to educate ourselves on those issues that make us sing so we can have a song to share. We need to find the space where we are comfortable singing and where we realize our song can “fill a room with peace and harmony.”
We all need to think, especially amidst this tense political time, what makes me want to sing? How can I join in; where will I sing my song? Because you’re right, Dorea…there’s no excuse for silence.
DOREA: I am moved by your response. Thanks for sharing your perspective and the powerful questions that Pete Seeger’s life raises for you.
While I enjoy this book, I have to admit that it often feels as if the pages jump from one event to the next, leaving out details that would have been helpful for myself and other readers. For example, toward the end of the book, Reich shares Pete’s dedication to cleaning the Hudson River and the sloop, Clearwater, he helped build to inspire others to do the same. What I know from my own experience of attending multiple Clearwater Festivals on the Hudson, is that this movement was not only successful, it was instrumental in passing the federal Clean Water Act–important details that do not appear on these pages.
However, Reich recognizes this and speaks of it in her author’s note at the end of the book:
“A folk song in a book is like a picture of a bird in midflight,” Pete once wrote. “The bird was moving before the picture was taken, and continued flying afterwards.” So, too, the subject of a biography. In compressing Pete’s story into a picture book, there was much I had to leave out. I hope what remains is a colorful, accurate, and inspiring portrait of an extraordinary man.
Reich’s and Seeger’s words make me reflect on how challenging it must be to condense 94 years of activism into a picturebook and I find myself wondering what decisions I would have made had I been charged with this task. I also think about how some of the best books leave us wanting to know more and push us to explore our questions more deeply. As I read this book with my 7-year-old son (also a Seeger fan and fellow banjo player), I am bombarded with questions. It seems that every sentence I read elicits a “what…?”, “why…?” or “how come….?”
His response–and yours, Lauren–make me think about how we can approach using this book in our classrooms. I might consider this book as I would a chapter book, with each page or two rife with words, images, and events deserving deep, careful analysis, paired with supplementary texts and resources. This doesn’t feel like a book I would–or could–read straight through with students. Along the way, it’s important to keep the questions you pose at the forefront of our exploration: How do we provide spaces for students to explore the various injustices raised in the book? How do we provide them with opportunities to find personal connections and relevance–what makes them want to sing? And lastly, how do we ensure both a captive audience in our classrooms in which they can sing loudly and freely and the tools and support them to keep singing even in the dark spaces?
Title: Stand Up and Sing! Pete Seeger, Folk Music, and the Path to Justice
Author: Susanna Reich
Illustrator: Adam Gustavson
Publisher: Bloomsbury USA Children’s
Date Published: March 14, 2017
This is the second installment of June 2017’s My Take/Your Take. To follow the conversation, start with The Rooster Who Would Not Be Quiet!