Wednesday, January 29, 2014

A Toast to the Bards



Pete Seeger has been there as long as I can remember, like that cousin or uncle who lived somewhere else but would show up from time to time – often rather unexpectedly but always welcome in the end even if sometimes you had to first recover from the surprise.  He seems to have even then been well-established as the paterfamilias of the folk scene that was still around as I became musically aware back in the 1960s and the bonds are still there to be seen if you look just a little bit.  I went to see Inside Llewyn Davis recently and it was a trip back in time.  I also realized that I need to clean up my MP3 player and set up a good folk music playlist.

But the bond I didn’t recognize until it hit me between the eyes as I read through the various print and online articles about our lost troubadour is that he came by it honestly and his reach goes back even beyond his own lifetime.  Almost ironically as we ponder this in 2014 – 100 years from the date of the beginning of the First World War in Europe – I learn that Pete Seeger had an uncle among the soldier poets of that war.

His name was Alan Seeger.  Born in New York City in 1880, he went to Harvard University, graduating in 1910.  Already a poet at Harvard, he moved back to New York City adopting a bohemian lifestyle there before relocating to Paris.  When war was declared in 1914, he enlisted in the French Foreign Legion – 2e R├ęgiment ├ętranger (the United States not entering the war until 1917).

As a soldier of France, he was killed by German machine gun fire on July 4, 1916 at Belloy-en-Santerre  during the early days of the Battle of the Somme in 1916.  I’ve known perhaps his most famous poem for years and it was apparently also a favorite of President John F. Kennedy, “I Have  a Rendezvous with Death” but never made the connection to the author of “Where Have All the Flowers Gone” before now.


I Have a Rendezvous with Death

I have a rendezvous with Death
At some disputed barricade,
When Spring comes back with rustling shade
And apple-blossoms fill the air—
I have a rendezvous with Death
When Spring brings back blue days and fair.

It may be he shall take my hand
And lead me into his dark land
And close my eyes and quench my breath—
It may be I shall pass him still.
I have a rendezvous with Death
On some scarred slope of battered hill
When Spring comes round again this year
And the first meadow-flowers appear.

God knows ‘twere better to be deep
Pillowed in silk and scented down,
Where Love throbs out in blissful sleep,
Pulse nigh to pulse, and breath to breath,
Where hushed awakenings are dear:
But I’ve a rendezvous with Death
At midnight in some flaming town,
When Spring trips north again this year,
And I to my pledged word am true,
I shall not fail that rendezvous.


The Aisne (1914-1915)

We first saw fire on the tragic slopes
Where the flood-tide of France’s early gain,
Big with wrecked promise and abandoned hopes,
Broke in a surf of blood along the Aisne.

The charge the heroes left us, we assumed,
What, dying, they reconquered, we preserved,
In the chill trenches, harried, shelled, entombed,
Winter came down on us, but no man swerved.

Winter came down on us. The low clouds, torn
In the stark branches of the riven pines,
Blurred the white rockets that from dusk till morn
Traced the wide curve of the close-grappling lines.

In rain, and fog that on that withered hill
Froze before dawn, the lurking foe drew down;
Or light snows fell that made forlorner still
The ravaged country and the ruined town;

Or the long clouds would end.  Intensely fair,
The winter constellations blazing forth---
 Perseus, the Twin, Orion, the Great Bear—
Gleamed on our bayonets pointing to the north.

And the lone sentinel would start and soar
On wings of strong emotion as he knew
That kinship with the stars that only War
Is great enough to lift man’s spirits to.

And ever down the curving front, aglow
With the pale rockets’ intermittent light,
He heard, like distant thunder, grown and grow
The rumble of far battles in the night, --

Rumours, reverberant, indistinct, remote,
Borne from red fields whose martial names have won
The power to thrill like a far trumpet note,--
Vic, Vailly, Soupir, Hurtelise, Craonne…

Craonne, before thy cannon-swept plateau,
Where like sere leaves lay strewn September’s dead,
I found for all things I forfeited
A recompense I would not now forgo.

For that high fellowship was ours then
With those who, championing another’s good,
More than dull Peace or its poor votaries could,
Taught us the dignity of being men.

There we drained deeper the deep cup of life,
And on sublime summits came to learn,
After soft things, the terrible and stern,
After sweet Love, the majesty of Strife;

There we faced under those frowning heights
The blast that maims, the hurricane that kills;
There where the watch-lights on the winter hills
Flickered like balefire through inclement nights;

There where, firm links in the unyielding chain,
Where fell the long-planned blow and fell in vain—
Hearts worthy of the honour and the trail,
We helped to hold the lines along the Aisne.



Champagne, 1914-1915

In the glad revels, in the happy fetes,
  When cheeks are flushed, and glasses gilt and pearled
With the sweet wine of France that concentrates
  The sunshine and the beauty of the world,

Drink sometimes, you whose footsteps yet may tread
  The undisturbed, delightful paths of Earth,
To those whose blood, in pious duty shed,
  Hallows the soil where the same wine had birth.

Here, by devoted comrades laid away,
  Along our lines they slumber where they fell,
Besides the crater at the Ferme d’Alger
  And up the bloody slopes of La Pompelle,

And around the city whose cathedral towers
  The enemies of Beauty dared profane,
And in the mat of multicolored flowers
  That clothe the sunny chalk-fields of Champagne.

Under the little crosses where they rise
  The soldier rests.  Now round him undismayed
The cannon thunders, and at night he lies
  At peace beneath the eternal fusillade…

That other generations might possess—
  From shame and menace free in years to come—
A richer heritage of happiness,
  He marched to that heroic martyrdom.

Esteeming less the forfeit that he paid
  Than undishonored that his flag might float
Over the towers of liberty, he made
  His breast the bulwark and his blood the moat.

Obscurely sacrificed, his nameless tomb,
  Bare of the sculptor’s art, the poet’s lines,
Summer shall flush with poppy-fields in bloom,
  And Autumn yellow with maturing vines.

There the grape-pickers at their harvesting
  Shall lightly tread and load their wicker trays,
Blessing his memory as they toil and sing
  In the slant sunshine of October days…

I love to think that if my blood should be
  So privileged to sink where his has sunk,
I shall not pass from Earth entirely
  But when banquet rings, when healths are drunk,

And faces that the joys of living fill
  Glow radiant with laughter and good cheer,
In beaming cups some spark of me shall still
  Brim toward the lips that once I held so dear.

So shall one coveting no higher plane
  Than nature clothes in color and flesh and tone,
Even from the grave put forward to attain
  The dreams youth cherished and missed and might have known,

And that strong need that strove unsatisfied
  Toward earthly beauty in all forms it wore,
Not death itself shall utterly divide
  From the beloved shapes it thirsted for.

Alas, how many an adept for whose arms
  Life held delicious offerings perished here,
How many in the prime of all that charms,
  Crowned with all gifts that conquer and endear!

Honor them not so much with tears and flowers,
  But you with whom the sweet fulfillment lies,
Where in the anguish of atrocious hours
  Turned their last thoughts and closed their dying eyes,

Rather when music or bright gathering lays
  Its tender spell, and joy is uppermost,
Be mindful of the men they were, and raise
  Your glasses to them in one silent toast.

Drink to them—amorous of dear Earth as well,
  They asked no tribute lovelier than this—
And in the wine that ripened where they fell,
  Oh, frame your lips as though it were a kiss.

Champagne, France, July, 1915



Where Have All the Flowers Gone?

Pete Seeger (as performed by Peter, Paul, and Mary)

Where have all the flowers gone, long time passing?
Where have all the flowers gone, long time ago?
Where have all the flowers gone?
Young girls have picked them everyone.
Oh, when will they ever learn?
Oh, when will they ever learn?

Where have all the young girls gone, long time passing?
Where have all the young girls gone, long time ago?
Where have all the young girls gone?
Gone for husbands everyone.
Oh, when will they ever learn?
Oh, when will they ever learn?

Where have all the husbands gone, long time passing?
Where have all the husbands gone, long time ago?
Where have all the husbands gone?
Gone for soldiers everyone
Oh, when will they ever learn?
Oh, when will they ever learn?

Where have all the soldiers gone, long time passing?
Where have all the soldiers gone, long time ago?
Where have all the soldiers gone?
Gone to graveyards, everyone.
Oh, when will they ever learn?
Oh, when will they ever learn?

Where have all the graveyards gone, long time passing?
Where have all the graveyards gone, long time ago?
Where have all the graveyards gone?
Gone to flowers, everyone.
Oh, when will they ever learn?
Oh, when will they ever learn?

Where have all the flowers gone, long time passing?
Where have all the flowers gone, long time ago?
Where have all the flowers gone?
Young girls have picked them everyone.
Oh, when will they ever learn?
Oh, when will they ever learn?


Thanks, Peter – thank you for everything, Alan .

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