David Corn

David Corn

Washington Bureau Chief

Corn has broken stories on presidents, politicians, and other Washington players. He's written for numerous publications and is a talk show regular. His best-selling books include Hubris: The Inside Story of Spin, Scandal, and the Selling of the Iraq War.

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Springsteen Pays Tribute to Seeger

| Tue Jan. 28, 2014 8:40 AM PST

In 2009, at a concert marking Pete Seeger's 90th birthday, Bruce Springsteen paid touching tribute to the influential folks singer and activist, who died yesterday at the age of 94. Here's what he said:

As Pete and I traveled to Washington for President Obama's Inaugural Celebration, he told me the entire story of "We Shall Overcome." How it moved from a labor movement song and with Pete's inspiration had been adapted by the civil rights movement. That day as we sang "This Land Is Your Land," I looked at Pete, the first black president of the United States was seated to his right, and I thought of the incredible journey that Pete had taken. My own growing up in the sixties in towns scarred by race rioting made that moment nearly unbelievable and Pete had thirty extra years of struggle and real activism on his belt. He was so happy that day, it was like, Pete, you outlasted the bastards, man!…It was so nice. At rehearsals the day before, it was freezing, like 15 degrees and Pete was there; he had his flannel shirt on. I said, "Man, you better wear something besides that flannel shirt!" He says, "Yeah, I got my longjohns on under this thing."

And I asked him how he wanted to approach "This Land Is Your Land." It would be near the end of the show and all he said was, "Well, I know I want to sing all the verses, I want to sing all the ones that Woody wrote, especially the two that get left out, about private property and the relief office." I thought, of course, that's what Pete's done his whole life. He sings all the verses all the time, especially the ones that we'd like to leave out of our history as a people. At some point Pete Seeger decided he'd be a walking, singing reminder of all of America's history. He'd be a living archive of America's music and conscience, a testament of the power of song and culture to nudge history along, to push American events towards more humane and justified ends. He would have the audacity and the courage to sing in the voice of the people, and despite Pete's somewhat benign, grandfatherly appearance, he is a creature of a stubborn, defiant, and nasty optimism. Inside him he carries a steely toughness that belies that grandfatherly facade and it won't let him take a step back from the things he believes in. At 90, he remains a stealth dagger through the heart of our country's illusions about itself. Pete Seeger still sings all the verses all the time, and he reminds us of our immense failures as well as shining a light toward our better angels and the horizon where the country we've imagined and hold dear we hope awaits us.

Now on top of it, he never wears it on his sleeve. He has become comfortable and casual in this immense role. He's funny and very eccentric. I'm gonna bring Tommy out, and the song Tommy Morello and I are about to sing I wrote in the mid-nineties and it started as a conversation I was having with myself. It was an attempt to regain my own moorings. Its last verse is the beautiful speech that Tom Joad whispers to his mother at the end of The Grapes of Wrath. "…Wherever there's a cop beatin' a guy Wherever a hungry newborn baby cries Where there's a fight 'gainst the blood and hatred in the air Look for me Mom I'll be there."

Well, Pete has always been there.

For me that speech is always aspirational. For Pete, it's simply been a way of life. The singer in my song is in search of the ghost of Tom Joad. The spirit who has the guts and toughness to carry forth, to fight for and live their ideals.

I'm happy to report that spirit, the very ghost of Tom Joad is with us in the flesh tonight. He'll be on this stage momentarily, he's gonna look an awful lot like your granddad who wears flannel shirts and funny hats. He's gonna look like your granddad if your granddad could kick your ass. This is for Pete....

And here's a statement from President Barack Obama on Seeger's passing:

Once called "America's tuning fork," Pete Seeger believed deeply in the power of song. But more importantly, he believed in the power of community—to stand up for what’s right, speak out against what’s wrong, and move this country closer to the America he knew we could be. Over the years, Pete used his voice—and his hammer—to strike blows for worker’s rights and civil rights; world peace and environmental conservation.  And he always invited us to sing along. For reminding us where we come from and showing us where we need to go, we will always be grateful to Pete Seeger. Michelle and I send our thoughts and prayers to Pete’s family and all those who loved him.

VIDEO: Is John McCain Too Liberal? David Corn Debates.

| Tue Jan. 28, 2014 8:35 AM PST

Mother Jones DC bureau chief David Corn spoke with Arizona Republican Timothy Schwartz, who drafted a resolution calling Sen. John McCain too liberal, this week on MSNBC's Hardball. Watch here:

Pete Seeger, RIP. And, By the Way, You Won.

| Tue Jan. 28, 2014 7:40 AM PST

Pete Seeger has passed. The obits will call him a legend. But many won't capture an essential quality of the Seeger tale: as he fought for decades to advance political values and an artistic vision, he was hounded for much of that time by fierce enemies (most notably, the FBI and McCarthyites in the 1950s), and he whipped them. He persevered—and he won. He was never silenced. He played his music, protested wrongs, cleaned up the Hudson River, lived his ideas, and came to be celebrated for his devotion to music and principles. His revenge was simple: he kept on singing and, perhaps most important, encouraging others to do so. Seeger triumphed over his foes, not just because he outlived so many but because his voice was more powerful. Below are some thoughts I shared after attending a concert held four years ago to honor Seeger. The original headline for the post was, "Pete Seeger at 90: Surviving—and Winning—the Political Culture War."

After watching Bruce Springsteen and Pete Seeger lead Barack Obama and hundreds of thousands of others in singing "This Land Is Your Land" at the pre-inauguration concert at the Lincoln Memorial, I noted that the concert "was a moment of victory in the political cultural war that has gripped the United States since the tumultuous days of the 1960s":

The show at the Lincoln Memorial contained other moments signaling that the cultural civil war that began with the civil rights crusade, the movement against the Vietnam War, and the rise of hippie-dom was done—at least for now—and that the libs had won. Toward the end of the HBO-aired event, Bruce Springsteen, once a greaser-rocker, brought out folk music hero and activist Pete Seeger, once derided by conservatives as a commie, and Seeger led the crowd in "This Land Is Your Land." This song is the liberal national anthem, written by Woody Guthrie in 1940 as a populist-minded response to Irving Berlin's "God Bless America," which was too rah-rah for Guthrie's liking.

Well, Seeger Nation took another victory lap on Sunday night. At Madison Square Garden, a host of musicians (Springsteen, John Mellencamp, Emmylou Harris, Dave Matthews, Arlo Guthrie, Joan Baez, Steve Earle, Roger McGuinn, Ben Harper, Richie Havens, Rufus Wainwright, Tom Morello, Ani DiFranco, Rep. John Hall, and many others) and a full house feted Seeger on his 90th birthday. Norman Lear read birthday wishes from President Obama. Springsteen elegantly hailed Seeger and declared, "You outlasted the bastards." (If I can find a text of Springsteen's remarks, I will post or link to them.) And Seeger led the crowd for "Amazing Grace" and "This Land Is Your Land." At one point, Seeger, ever-the populist, declared, "There's no such thing as a wrong note as long as you're singing." One musical highlight: Matthews crooning a soulful version of "Rye Whiskey." He noted his first concert as a lad was a Seeger show. (You can see my tweets from SeegerFest here.) The concert was, of course, a benefit--for Seeger's Clearwater outfit, which preserves and protects the Hudson River.

Springsteen was right. Sometimes longevity--just keep on keeping on--is the best revenge. Seeger was once reviled as a no-good commie symp. He almost ended up in jail for defying congressional witch-hunters. Now he's seen a turnabout--one that he has been pushing steadily, inch by inch, note by note, for decades. To every season....

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