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.”

Dinner for One–The World’s Most Frequently Broadcast Film!

We spent the 2nd Day of Christmas (December 26) at the home of German friends. There I was asked what I thought about the film “Dinner for One,” a film where a 90 year-old woman is served a birthday dinner by her butler. I’d never hear of it. Turns out it is an 11 minute long British film (in English) from the 1960s which has something of a cult-following in Germany, as well as a few other northern European countries. As a result, it holds a Guinness Book of World Records as the world’s most frequently broadcast film—apparently it is better known than The Rocky Horror Picture Show. It has never been broadcast in the US or UK, though. If you don’t believe me, check out The German news magazine Spiegel‘s story here. Or, better yet, you too can join the cult, and see the film on You Tube here.
I will admit to not generally getting the “British humor” of the film (or for that matter Monty Python). But so it goes. I am assured that anyone that likes Monty Python will be rolling on the floor over this film. The really interesting thing is that such an English film could become so popular in a country where English is not the home language!

I finally know someone performing at the met!

Steve, an unknown woman, me and a guy I knew form EPCOT

An old performing friend of mine, Steve Russell will be making his New York City Opera debut at Lincoln Center next month. He has been cast as understudy in a production of Pagliacci with the NYC Opera. Even though he is the understudy, he will be certain to go onstage on October 11 and 19th. You never know when the other juggler/fire-eater will contract some mysterious illness…. or a mysterious illness brought on by the understudy.

This is a picture from about 198o or 81 at the International Mine and Movement festival when he and I were attending master classes with the Avner Eisnenberg. Steve is on the far left, and I am the guy 2nd from the right in the bushy hair.

Congratulations Steve!


For those of you that don’t know of my rambunctious history as a performer. I knew Steve during my 9+ years as a professional performer. I have been a juggler, fire-eater, stilt-dancer, contortionist, several Irish bands, and more and less savory skills. In fact, I learned my juggling and fire-eating from Steve! You may have seen me at festivals and theme parks, or performing on the streets of Chicago, St. Louis, NYC, D.C among others. Where ever I could drop a hat and people stopped to watch the potential of seeing a man set himself on fire. But, it was indeed a living.