Baker/My Turn: Songs for a 4th-grader

Pete Seeger was my fourth-grade teacher in Czechoslovakia. Well, OK. He didn’t actually stand in front of my classroom. But I learned a lot from Pete that year.

My brother and I had a little suitcase record player in our basement bedroom. We would slide Pete’s vinyl LP out of its cardboard sleeve, place it carefully on the center pin and watch the record blip while making its familiar hiss. Then Pete’s voice came out.

Pete Seeger’s album, “Strangers and Cousins” was recorded after a trip around the world in 1965, mixing folks songs from the places he visited with anti-war songs and protest songs of his, like “Talking Atom Blues” and “If I had a Hammer.” Strange stuff for a family record by today’s standards. But the mix made sense in the mid-1960s, when the partial nuclear test ban treaty and 1964 Civil Rights Act were recent hard-won victories after decades of struggle that combined activism and folk music.

I didn’t know a lot about such things back then. At age 9, I was more interested in singing “Manura Manyah,” a song about a Glasgow man sweeping up horse manure. After all, what 9-year-old boy doesn’t want to sing about poop with a Scottish burr?

There were also songs on the album like “Mailaika,” and “Ragaputi” with strange unpronounced-able words. It felt a little odd to sing songs and have no idea what you were saying. But then, it fit my reality. Every day I listened to Czechs saying things I couldn’t understand.

My family moved to Prague because my father was a Foreign Service officer assigned to the U.S. Embassy there. For two years, I went to an international school with the children of other foreign diplomats. Among my classmates were Victor and Victoria, twins from Ghana; Salah from Egypt; Omar and Yemen Ni, from Burma; Vlada from Yugoslavia, and Atsuko from Japan, who shared a first kiss with me. Our common currency was postage stamps mailed from home. We traded stamps at lunch time like baseball cards.

Seeger’s records were among my few links to American culture. His musical journey through other cultures on “Strangers and Cousins” provided a soundtrack for my daily reality. I marveled at the powerful truths spoken in Pete’s version of Bob Dylan’s “Masters of War,” with its strange staccato Japanese translation after each dark phrase. Outside our windows, we could see Soviet soldiers standing guard on the street corners for their masters of war.

We had arrived in Prague in July of 1968, just one month before the Soviet army. Czech protesters briefly delayed the long column of tanks by removing all of the street signs on the roads in from the border. Yet a whole generation of Czech children my age still had to grow up under two decades of Soviet military occupation because their parents dared to dream of a “Socialism with a human face.”

Seeger was fortunate to live a long life in which he learned to oppose empire and dictatorships of all stripes, while standing up with people here at home and around the world. When I finally saw him in person in 1994, at a concert in Northfield supporting our home-grown war tax refusers, Randy Kehler and Betsy Corner, Pete had lost his voice but not his playful power. Pete Seeger really did have a golden thread — it was his ability to unite people in singing together while working for peace and justice. He began teaching me about that in the fourth grade.

Andrew Baker is a Unitarian Universalist who lives in Shelburne Falls. All Souls UU Church in Greenfield will be holding a memorial “hootenanny” for Pete Seeger on Saturday from 4 to 5:30 p.m. in the Parish Hall at 399 Main Street. Bring song books, instruments and voices. All are welcome.

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