This Land Was His Land

The Golden Thread: A Song for Pete Seeger – Colin Meloy and Nikki McClure, Balzer + Bray, 2018

thread cover

It’s time to teach your kids about making music and fighting fascism.  Colin Meloy sets the scene by bringing folk music and activist legend Pete Seeger into the world of mythic rhyme:

HAMMER BRINGER!
RIVER SINGER!
SAILOR, SOLDIER,
LEAN BELL RINGER

This is not a full-scale biography of Singer, but a heartfelt poem built from the inspiration which Colin Meloy, songwriter and singer for The Decemberists, has felt as a presence in his own life.  Young readers will learn a great deal about Seeger’s courage and purpose in using songs to preach justice and promote equality throughout his country.

The book has a wonderful tone of anachronism, expecting families reading it together to recognize that fascism, wage slavery, capitalism, communist, and blacklist, were once words in everyday use in the United States. Of course, the threats, and the solutions, which they once loudly labeled, are still all too real.  Meloy and artist Nikki McClure immerse readers in a poetic and visual world of the past that still has resonance today.  Incantatory lines introduce key stages of Seeger’s career, from his musical family, his marriage to Toshi Ohta and his Cold War trials, to his involvement in the Civil Rights and environmentalist movements.  The golden thread of the title actually refers to a song which Seeger both wrote and performed, although that Meloy does not explicitly mention that link. Instead, the author and illustrator both use it as a metaphor for Seeger’s connection of peoples and causes in one principled mission:

Pete’s thread stretched long, it bridged generations
Through Depressions, Recessions, and high celebrations
He followed it doggedly, and with all of his heart
He wove it and drove it into his own art.

The lines are packed with a sense of Seeger’s bravery, and his status as “A hero to all in this young mighty nation.”  Yet the language emphasizes his persistence and humanity more than any superior attributes, as he “doggedly” followed his own deep convictions to join Americans through song.

turn turn

The harmony between text and pictures is as lovely as that in a Weavers’ song.  In a detailed “Artist’s Note,” McClure describes how she created her pictures out of black and gold paper cutouts, and also that she had used historical research to produce her images of “boats, people, signs, factories…banjo frets.”  Many pages include multiple scenes and figures; the Weavers perform for a live audience, while the facing page depicts a turntable and record albums, and a winding gold ribbon includes a line from their hit song, “Goodnight, Irene.”  (Meloy reports that the song was a surprising number one on the charts, but its flipside, a rendition of the Israeli “Tzena, Tzena,”also became a hugely popular success.)

Seeger’s complex political history is necessarily simplified, while still accurately representing the scope of the causes that he championed, and the repercussions he suffered under McCarthyism.  Meloy’s brief description of Seeger’s early family life neglects to mention that his family was highly educated and solidly upper-middle class.  This is less important, however, than one serious misstatement of Seeger’s beliefs:

In World War Two
—–What’s a pacifist to do?
Armed with a banjo, he followed along
To keep soldiers in cheer by singing ‘em songs.

PeteSeeger and eleanor

Seeger was not a pacifist, nor was he a conscientious objector who requested non-combat duties in the U.S. military, in which he served from 1942-45.  As a Communist, he had initially supported non-intervention in Europe’s war, until Hitler invaded the Soviet Union.  He served both in the States and in the Pacific, but his assignment as a musician was not based on a choice to avoid combat.

Clearly, Seeger’s long life and career proved that he preferred resolution of conflict through peaceful means whenever possible, but he loudly and clearly supported the fight to defeat fascism in Europe and Asia during the War.

The Golden Thread: A Song for Pete Seeger ties together, in words, and images, the interwoven strands of Seeger’s life and legacy. It is a beautiful tribute, “A shining magic thing/That bounded up our little imperfect world.”

this land

 

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