Pete Seeger Sings Classical Social Theory

Classical Sociology is typically considered to be a course about the three “classics” of sociology who are Karl Marx, Max Weber, Emile Durkheim, and W. E. B. DuBois. Marx tells us why capitalism and materialism is important for organizing society, Weber explains that the spirit of capitalism and a religious-like ethic in uniformity which he calls “rationality.” As for Durkheim, he actually explains what religion and morality are, as well as why it is important to have “deviants” who will mark out the boundaries to society of what is moral. Finally, DuBois writing in 1903 does a wonderful job of describing the nature of race, and the consequences of racial discrimination. Anyway, that in a nutshell are the key points about the “big four” of my classical sociology class.

W. E. B. DuBois book The Souls of Black Folks (1903) is well-known for its insightful descriptions of racial inequality in the American South after the Civil War. It places the world of the freed slave at the center of American history in a fashion that previous books never did. By doing so, DuBois describes the corrosive effects of racial inequality for white and black alike, while also describing the culture of the freed slaves in the hyper-segregated Jim Crow South. As DuBois writes, this culture is both sorrowful, and joyful at the same time. To illustrate this point, he introduces each chapter with a bit of the music of emerging out of the African-American culture of the south. They are the “sorrow songs,” and emerged out of the cruelty of slavery, and the promises of redemption offered by a African-American Christianity. Some of the songs DuBois cites are familiar to me because I sang them in public elementary school in the 1960s. We sang “Michael Rowed the Boat Ashore,” an appeal to the Archangel Michael, as a round in second and third grade. “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” was another favorite, and “We Shall Overcome” was the well-known anthem of the Civil Rights movement. Each of course is a product of an oppressed society infused with a message of future redemption rooted in religion.

But the problem for me as a teacher in 2009 is how to communicate the power that such songs had in DuBois time? The first time that I taught DuBois’ book, I asked how many students had ever heard “Michael Rowed the Boat Ashore.” Dead silence. I sang it in my own croaky voice. More dead silence. The next time I taught the class, the same response. An unintended consequence of the religious wars fought in our schools is apparently that songs like “Michael…” are no longer sung.

So in Fall 2009 I tried something new and modern: You Tube. There I found a version in which Pete Seeger sang “Michael Rowed the Boat Ashore” to some of the stiffest Australians imaginable.

My students still claimed to have never have heard of Pete Seeger, but did admit to maybe having heard “Michael Rowed the Boat Ashore.” Because I was still convinced that my students must have heard “Michael…” somewhere, I looked on the web sites for the 1990s children’s programs Barney the Purple Dinosaur, Lamb Chop’s Playhouse, Sesame Street, and Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. No Michael Rowed the Boat Ashore by Pete Seeger, or anyone else. So much for bringing alive the music of W. E. B. DuBois.

But there was a box on one of You Tube searches for Pete Seeger’s Abi Yoyo as presented on the 1990s PBS television show “Reading Rainbow.” Abi Yoyo is a secular Pete Seeger story I remembered hearing as a child in the 1960s. It is adaptation of a South African folk tale about a maddening boy who played his stupid ukulele everywhere, annoying all the villagers. Even more annoying was his magician father who had the bad habit of making things disappear using his magic wand. Better yet, I figured that my 1980s born students would know Reading Rainbow. Yep, they did. Unlike with “Michael…” every hand in the room shot up when asked about Reading Rainbow. No they did not know about the South African giant Abi Yoyo, but I figured that 50-50 was not bad!

Better yet, the Abi Yoyo story itself is a great way to explain Durkheim’s thesis about the nature of morality, group cohesion, and the role of deviants in the structuring of society. After all the terrible giant Abi Yoyo besides eating sheep in one gulp, also never brushed his slimy teeth, cut his sharp curly fingernails, or washed his stinky feet, all deviances my students recognized from their own childhoods.

The story of Abi Yoyo has the added advantage of a happy ending. The boy and his father use their annoying ukelele and magic wand to make the ferocious giant Abi Yoyo, stinky feet and all, disappear. As is the case with all good tales of redemption, the boy and his father were readmitted to the village as heroes. Classic Durkheim, and before I knew it Pete Seeger both DuBois and Durkheim. The question was, could I even the playing field by finding songs to illustrate Marx and his views on the nature of capitalism and property-ownership, and how about Weber’s gloomy predications about a rationalized middle class future?

Karl Marx and Pete Seeger are actually fairly easy to match, even for my 1980s-born students. At age 90, Seeger and Bruce Springsteen performed “This Land is Your Land” at the Obama inaugural on January 20, 2009. In line with Seeger’s radical roots from the 1940s and 1950s, he sang all four of the verses that Woody Guthrie originally wrote for President Obama. In verse three, Guthrie wrote (and Seeger sang) about the nature of private property and the poor:

As I went walking I saw a sign there
And on the sign it said “No Trespassing.”
But on the other side it didn’t say nothing,
That side was made for you and me.

Nobody living can ever stop me,
As I go walking that freedom highway;
Nobody living can ever make me turn back
This land was made for you and me.

In the squares of the city, In the shadow of a steeple;
By the relief office, I’d seen my people.
As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking,
Is this land made for you and me?

Ok, now Seeger is good for three of the four theorists in my class. So far I had DuBois on the nature of sorrow, joy, and oppression (i.e. Michael Row the Boat Ashore), Durkheim on deviance and morality (Abi Yoyo), and Marx on poverty and private Property (the lost verses of This Land is Your Land).

But what about poor Max Weber? Weber is the most dour of the three, known for his grumpiness about the emptiness of the rationalized “iron cage” of middle class respectability, and ultimately, Seeger is a pretty cheerful and uplifiting singer. Indeed, it was Weber who had written about the desperation of the middle class worker, addicted to their rationalized predictable job, buying their rationalized efficient products, constantly calculating how much money they saved, and meekly accepting the control of the system over their desperate middle-class lives.

And again You Tube and Pete Seeger produced. Here is the video of Seeger singing “Little Boxes,” a song that many of my students were familiar with because it is featured as the introductory song for the t.v. show “Weeds.”

As part of the holiday tradition, we present “Mr. Krewstyscabbe’s Night Before Christmas.”

“Twas the night before Christmas” written by Nicholas Krewstyscabbe*

Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.
For they had been smooshed and flattened and relieved of their feet
By a ghastly young girl that claimed “ADD!”

The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,
Coated in retardant that befouled the air
But the FDA approved it, they pushed it right through!
For someone had photos of a congressman…or two.

The children were nestled all snug in their beds,
While visions of sugar-plums danced in their heads.
So they were pumped full of Xanax, Thorazine too
til the visions had dimmed and the fruit was just fruit.

When out on the lawn there arose such a clatter,
I arose with my handgun to see what was the matter.
Away to the window I flew like a flash,
Seeking a clear field of fire to turn intruders to ash!

The moon on the breast of the new-fallen snow
Gave my keen eye good aim on what was below.
then what in the square of my sights should appear,
But a miniature sleigh, and eight mangy reindeer.

With a little old driver, so lively and quick,
I knew in a moment it must be St Nick.
He’d gotten out early, released on parole
he’d fooled them again bless his wicked old soul!

“Now Dasher! now, Dancer! now, Prancer and Vixen!
On, Comet! On, Cupid!, on Donner and Blitzen!
The night is still young and the johns are about
Daddy needs cash, twas time you turned out.

And then, in a twinkling, I heard on the roof
a scraping and pounding of tools on the…um….well, roof I guess.
Then into the house came St Nick with a bound
where he leered at the flat-screen licking his chops like a hound

He seemed to feel he was something, quite dashing indeed
With his very tight Speedo, neck chain and erring.
With the bundle of burglary tools slung over his back
And he looked like a peddler, just opening his pack.

His eyes-how they twinkled! his dimples how merry!
I n’er or’looked the ankle monitor he was wearing
With specking of white coating all over his chin
Showed he had be huffing just before he broke in.

The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth,
And the smoke it encircled his head like a wreath.
But he had smoked his last rock, its why he was here
and why he was reduced to pimping tiny reindeer.

He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf,
And I wailed when I saw him, I near wet myself!
With his red runny eyes and a twist of his head,
At knew in a moment I had a world of dread.

He spoke not a word, but went straight to his work,
bound us all up in ropes with a twist and a jerk.
But that was not the worst, I n’er lost my lunch
for when he turned towards the chimney we saw how his Speedo had bunched!

He sprang to his sleigh, with our goods all in tow
for the alert on his ankle monitor was starting to glow.
As he was leaving he shouted over his back
“Say nothing to no one cause I swear I’ll be back!”

* Nicholas Krewstyscabbe is sadly, not a pen name. Born in 1924 in Somerville, MA, Mr. Krewstyscabbe made many failed attempts to publish and sell poetry over the years until recently discovering the magic of plagiarism. Preferring to refer to it a “Urinating from the shoulders of giants,” this questionable tribute to Clement Clarke Moore or Henry Livingston is found in his most recent collected works “The New English Translation of Classic American Literature” published by the Somerville Cockfighting Society. Sadly, English is Mr. Krewstyscabbe’s 4th language. (His 3rd language is said to be a collection of belches and scratching himself, with his 2nd language and native tongue mercifully lost to time.). The publication of this work in no way reflects the opinion of this publisher, but does imply he’s got some pretty good dirt on us.

AAA Issues Report on Human Terrain Teams

The American Anthropological Association has issued a report on the Human Terrain Team experiment that the military has undertaken. The report is nuanced and thoughtful, and I recommend that interested people have a look here. AAA Report on Human Terrain Teams

Judging from my admittedly quick read, studies about the use of anthropology are now moving beyond blow-torch advocacy of one position or the other, and acknowledging the ethical dilemmas created when contracting, military action, and academics mix. 

Let’s hope that besides the obvious consumers of such reports from academia, that there will be some attention paid by the military as well.

Johnny Cash, my family witch craft and why it is so ordinary.

My family – mother and father sides – are from the Appalachian regions. We are from, as my father said “Coal miners and dirt farmers.” I was the 3rd person in either family to ever get a college degree, my father and older brother being the 1st and 2nd. When dad was younger he worked the Ohio river: on tugs, in bars and a little bit of coal mining and petty larceny as he worked his way to becoming a doctor. My mothers family was a bit harder off in Pike County, KY and purely of coal mining stock. On my mothers side, the family claim to fame is that a distant uncle burned the company store to the ground. Good on him. We have the usual list of family things that come from the region that I never knew were interesting until I started to study folklore at Indiana University. My mother was raised in a snake-handler church when she was young, watching the men dance with rattlers and such. My grandmother on her side was a “witcher woman” that did all the various remedies that they did. Even my mother as a child was supposed to be imparted with special powers. In her region, if the father died before the child was born, that child was assumed to have healing power. My mother was that child, and her step father would drive her around the area to heal people. Unfortunately, those in need of healing where often people with tuberculous and if she “breathed” into their mouths it would heal them. Unsurprisingly, that was just one of childhood illnesses my mother acquired over time. Of course, when I was growing up, my mother and father had left all of that quite behind. I only learned of it over time as I grew up. It was not something we discussed. It was for lack of a better phrase “The ignorant past” in their eyes. Well, all except the music. Sure I wanted to be an actor and in the 70’s and 80’s and I promise I knew the names of every Broadway and Off-Broadway show. But the music I was raised on was of the region.

I remember old scratched records by Peggy Seeger and June Carter and the Carter family the most. Partly because my mother played autoharp. Because of those recordings I learned to play my first instrument, the Appalachian Dulcimer. I even remember the first song I learned to play, “Go Tell Aunt Roadie.” It was fun and frankly easy to play. Make no mistake, at the time I was not in love with all “country” music! Anything other the Seeger or Carter was just radio country crap to my ears growing up…. well, mostly… partly. Imagine my shock to learn that all the songs I played on the dulcimer from “Aunt Roadie” to “Cruel Hearted Lover” to “House Carpenter” were a much older than my parents! Bluegrass was not problem for me, I fell in love with it from the first moment. Old-time (a phrase I never heard until 2000 or so) was just the stuff I listened to on LP’s.

Of course, Johnny Cash was part of all that. Cash, particularly because hes great last albums was seen in someways as a folk singer. He was in fact a major influence in rock and roll and bridged that gap between the mountain music and the commercial country. I still love his music, and this is the last music video he made and to me… a fitting end to a great journey. Its a cover of NIN, sorry… about the ad at the front.


Johnny Cash – (HURT)The most amazing bloopers are here

“The Onion” continues to support all four fields of anthropology

Internet Archaeologists Find Ruins Of ‘Friendster’ Civilization!!