Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Vito Marcantonio and Pete Seeger: Allies Through Art

A Young Pete Seeger.
Marcantonio is the best,
but I wouldn't give a nickel
for all the rest
all the rest
all the rest
I wouldn't give a nickel for
all the rest

Washington Breakdown” Pete Seeger

Pete Seeger's long life and death remind us that the progressive vision of Rep. Vito Marcantonio – one of a caring and generous government financed by taxes on our wealthiest individuals and corporations – was not formed in some too-distant time of black-and-white images filled with men wearing suits and fedoras.

It was just yesterday, or at least the day before (Seeger was 94).

The man who sang at President Barack Obama's first inauguration in 2008, was singing for Marcantonio back in the 1940s, and singing about him as well.

The verse at top is culled from an Almanac Singers track entitled, “Washington Breakdown,” (listen here) which is sung solo by a banjo-slinging Seeger.

It's an anti-war song, anti-World War II. At the time of its recording, the American left, led by Marcantonio, was dead-set against getting into another massacre like the one that had occurred in Europe two decades earlier.

Franklin D. Listen to me
You ain't gonna send me across the sea.
'Cross the sea, 'cross the sea
you ain't gonna send me
across the sea

That would change once Hitler attacked the Soviet Union and broke the nonaggression pact between them. Marcantonio did an oft-criticized about-face and became instrumental in passing legislation organizing and directing the effort to defeat Fascism in the House of Representatives.

Seeger and the musical combos he worked with such as the aforementioned Almanac Singers, or The Weavers, did not waiver in their activism once the war was over.

Seeger himself was only a short way along a path pocked with political activism and marvelous songs to sell it.

In “Reflections: Seeger and Me,” Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Saul Friedman recalled:

And in 1948, when we were still in mourning for Franklin Roosevelt and charging Truman with encouraging a cold war, even my apolitical mother got political, taking me to Philadelphia to the Progressive Party convention that nominated former vice president Henry Wallace for president.

That's when I got involved campaigning for the first time and my efforts included Wallace and the incumbent, left-wing congressman from upper Manhattan, Vito Marcantonio, who won his seat as a Republican and switched to the American Labor Party (ALP). And it was during one of the rallies for Marcantonio on the streets of East Harlem that I sang on the back of a flatbed truck with Seeger and others, although I do not remember the songs.”

The relationship was more than a passing one, for Seeger's engagement with the radical congressman would "Marc" him for life.
"The Weavers" sing at a Marcantonio event.

One year later, the successful brand of street corner, retail politics Marcantonio and the ALP excelled at would change the course of Seeger's career. Boutique marketing did not a congressman elect.

In his biography, “How Can I Keep from Singing? The Ballad of Pete Seeger,” David King Dunaway recounts...

Another incident motivated Seeger, one he later spoke of as a crossroads in his life. One afternoon in 1949, Irwin Silber had been called by the left-wing ALP, who wanted to set up a benefit concert with Richard Dyer-Bennett – a singer of traditional ballots.

Perhaps I can help you get him,” Irwin had answered. “But in case he can't make it, how about Pete doing the concert?”

Oh we know Pete,” the caller from the ALP had replied. “He's sung on our sound truck for years. We need someone who can bring a mass audience. We need to raise money.”

On hearing this, Seeger got really angry. He remembered long winter nights when he had sung outside for the ALP: “Here I was, trying to follow what I thought was a tactical, strategic course, and yet Dick Dyer-Bennett – who was making a career in a traditional fashion – was of more use than me.

That taught me something.”

It was a story he'd tell hundreds of times. For years he had avoided commercial bookings, content with local, progressive audiences. "If it takes a “name” to bring in a large crowd," Seeger figured, "that's what I'll have."
For Seeger, the lesson was clear.

I decided to stop congratulating myself on not going commercial."

Easier said than done. Dunaway writes:

Trying their talent in the marketplace tempted Ronnie and Fred; furthermore, Seeger's point about political isolation was brutally driven home when The Weavers did campaign for an ALP candidate, Vito Marcantonio (probably the closest the Communist Party had in Congress). They went out on an open sound truck. Gordon Friesen from Almanac days ran the affair well, but the crowds didn't respond. The Weavers sang their left-wing repertoire and songs made up for the occasion. From a nearby window, tomatoes started splottering the unprotected truck. Seeger looked up anxiously: “What do we do now?”

Be glad they're not bricks,” Gordon answered with a grim smile.

Contained in the Marcantonio Papers collection housed at the main branch of the New York Public Library, is a 1949 radio commercial for Marcantonio's mayoral bid.

In those days, brevity, flash edits, and product or personal acronyms were not the standard
selling techniques they are today.

The spot runs about five minutes and features a guitar-playing folky more or less rapping the praises of East Harlem's San Vito.

Step over, step over, step up everybody
I want you to meet a man I know
I want you to meet a man I know
candidate for Congress
Vito Marcantonio!

Documentation accompanying the cassette recording does not identify the performer, but any review of the existing literature at least, would suggest it is Seeger or one of what John Sayles termed his “hootenanny” cohorts.

In a 1949 piece published in “Harper's” magazine, Richard Rovere wrote,

When he mingles with the Bohemian intellectuals who are his friends, [Marcantonio] looks like an earnest young law student wearied by hours over Blackstone, but eager nonetheless for every word that is said. In ordinary conversation he talks in the reasonably clear and precise accents of a New Yorker who has tried to cultivate a good speaking voice.

Marcantonio biographer Gerald Meyer suggests the congressman was more apt to be playing cards with neighborhood pals in any of East Harlem's countless social clubs than whooping it up with the jazz crowd in some uptown viper room.

Fair enough, though Marcantonio did have alliances in the demimonde. Writer Howard Fast was a friend and collaborator. Dashiell Hammett chaired his mayoral campaign fundraising committee. He cosigned petitions with Dorothy Parker, took bear hugs from Paul Robeson and associated with Puerto Rican poet Clemente Soto Velez.

Marc was even hip enough to call on Frank Sinatra to sing when tensions between blacks and Italians heightened at Benjamin Franklin High School.

Marcantonio may have been a homeboy who never left the streets he was raised on and departed the country just once. But he was also a New Yorker, a Manhattanite and cosmopolite and it is through the story of Pete Seeger's life that we can conjure the profile of a congressman attuned to the popular culture of his time.

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