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Pete Seeger, folk pioneer and activist, believed in our capacity to be better.
Pete Seeger, “inconvenient artist” and co-author of “From Way Up Here”, is no more. He has joined the choir invisible, and is probably, even as I write this, conducting a singalong in aid of equal otherworldly rights for all. If you haven’t heard “From Way Up Here,” it’s a contemplation of human folly on earth in ignorance of our larger cosmic situation. The words were written by the folk singer, Malvina Reynolds, and Seeger sings it with an orchestra in his voice. While Seeger wrote or co-wrote many other, far more famous songs, this is the one that most sounds like his wistfully optimistic farewell.
For Seeger was an optimist, ever unswerving in his faith in humanity’s capacity for ethical behaviour and justice. Which is why you could find him, barely over a year ago, aged 92, marching in solidarity with Occupy Wall Street protestors, just as he had been marching and singing for the dispossessed, the marginalised and the voiceless since the late 1930s. Few have ever articulated the conscience of their nation or their times as vociferously, and for as long.
Then again, for someone from such a voraciously musical and politically active family, it was probably his destiny. His mother, Constance, was a concert violinist and his father, Charles, was an outspoken pacifist and a founding figure in the discipline of ethnomusicology, while his stepmother, Ruth Crawford, is now revered as one of the most important modernist composers of the 20th century. Charles Seeger — a noted leftist folklore revivalist — co-founded the Composers’ Collective in 1932, a sort of leftwing music workshop that composed and performed revolutionary songs in a modernist style and established guidelines for others who were interested in writing songs for political action.
Alan Lomax, one of the great field collectors of American folk music of the 20th century and a friend of Charles, gave the young Pete one of his first jobs, at the Library of Congress’s Archive of American Folk Song, and later encouraged his folk singing as well. Little wonder, then, that in the years to come Seeger would go on to form two of American folk and protest music’s most influential groups — the Almanac Singers and the Weavers.
The Almanac Singers — active between 1940 and ’43 — were formed as a topical musical newspaper, a kind of singing Daily Worker, to promote the movement for industrial unionisation. Part of the Popular Front, a Soviet diktat that enjoined Communist parties everywhere to unite against the threat of fascism and fight for racial and religious equality, they were a loose collective comprising some of the most pioneering musicians of the 1940s folk revival, including, at varying times, Josh White, Agnes Cunningham, the great Woody Guthrie and others. Almanac House, in Greenwich Village, where much of the band lived, soon became a simmering epicentre for the folk and protest movements of the time, with musicians and radical activists passing through on a daily basis.
Of course, in 1942, the ever-omniscient FBI determined that the Almanac Singers, with their history of antiwar songs, were a seditious threat to the nation (even though their most recent album, Dear Mr President, was in support of the American war effort). So the Singers disbanded, and Seeger and Lee Hays (an Arkansas singer and activist who had been part of the Singers) reconstituted it, with Ronnie Gilbert and Fred Hellerman, as the Weavers.
The Weavers soon achieved enormous popularity; indeed, they got too popular for the McCarthyist era after their recording of Lead Belly’s “Goodnight Irene” topped the pop charts in 1950. Later that same year, the anti-Communist tract Red Channels: The Report of Communist Influence in Radio and Television listed Seeger as a subversive. Soon, the Weavers lost their sponsorship from Van Camp Beans and suffered a wave of cancellations for concerts and TV appearances. The band refused to renounce their political pasts, and were blacklisted as a result.
Seeger’s commercial career went into decline at this point, but he never stopped believing in the power of music to help further peace, civil and labour rights and environmental responsibility. Along with his wife, Toshi, he founded the Hudson River Sloop Clearwater in 1966 to protect the Hudson River and neighbouring waterways though public advocacy and education, and campaigned for cleaner waterways till a few months ago. He also mentored and promoted aspiring young folkies in the 1960s, often featuring them — after his long television blacklist ended — on his educational-music show Rainbow Quest.
Seeger never really considered himself a good singer, often being more interested in exposing his audiences to folk and protest songs from all over the world. But he was the biggest-hearted musician to have graced our times, and a musicologist in the truest sense. The rule at any Seeger concert was that everyone had to sing. So everyone, sing! Pete Seeger is dead. Long live Pete Seeger.
Sanyal is a Kolkata-based writer