I was, to say the least, skeptical, cynical, horrified even at the opening scenes of yesterday's pre-Inauguration celebration at the Lincoln Memorial. Military drummers and trumpeters, in tight formation, played a fanfare worthy of an emperor as Obama the anointed one made an entry that wouldn't have seemed out of place in HBO's previous spectacle - Rome.
I was thinking, much as I like Obama, as much as I agree with him on a lot of things, maybe it is getting to be time to flee the country.
Then Bruce Springsteen opened the show with one of his insipid, faux anthems and I almost changed the channel. Which, thankfully, we still have the right and ability to do. Unlike in, say, North Korea.
In the end, I watched the whole thing. Well, I fast forwarded through a few parts; the rest of Bruce, the Navy Glee Club (they brought no glee to me), that man and woman who I think were from American Idol, things like that. And hey, didn't Stevie Wonder just mop the floor with that weak-voiced Usher guy?
Biden's speech, well, it was a Biden speech only mercifully a whole lot shorter. And Obama's speech was stirring, inspiring, the sort of thing he does so well.
And then they brought Pete Seeger on stage for the rousing finale of Woody Guthrie's This Land Is Your Land (which I have long thought ought to be the national anthem) and I just lost it. Tears began to stream down my face. I shook and gulped and just plain fell apart.
It's not that I have some great love for Pete Seeger. I've always thought he was sort of corny and annoying. And I'm not at all big on banjos. But there he was, in some deep, unconscious way representing much of what made me. Representing the radicalism and ideals of the '30s, '40s, '50s and the '60s when I was young and idealistic and obnoxious and a radical and believed in right and wrong and a world revolution that fell down on the right side of things.
Of course there was a lot wrong with that. In 1966 I thrilled that young Chinese people were following Chairman Mao's Cultural Revolution into a state of "permanent revolution." I had my own copy of The Red Book that I'd wave around at demonstrations. In retrospect I know that millions of people were cynically slaughtered in what was really no more idealistic than any other naked power play. I idealized, and romanticized, Che Guevera and his attempts to export Cuba's revolution around the world. I know now what a murderous, duplicitous ineffectual killer he was.
And yet there was Pete Seeger, long time radical, a man who had been jailed and censured and beaten for his beliefs and his activities. And in spite of his reminding me of the folly of my youth, he also reminded me of the excitement and the optimism and the clarity (even if it was only an illusion) and the depth of feeling for issues and the lack of cynicism that all played a huge role in making me who I am.
He reminded me of Gil Turner, an old, now long dead, friend, a lapsed Baptist preacher and folk singer and activist. Gil organized the troupe of folk singers to accompany the Civil Rights marches through the south. He wrote the song "Carry It On" which was probably the second best known civil rights anthem after "We Shall Overcome." He was the first person, ever, to publically sing, then record his friend Bob Dylan's song, "Blowin' In the Wind." He was a huge man in every sense of the word. I drank with him. I dropped acid with him. I listened to him talk and sing and play guitar. I was a teenager and he was in his thirties and I never knew him as well as I'd have liked to. And to this day he's one of the two or three most remarkable, powerful people I've ever met.
And Pete Seeger (who was one of the people Gil used to hang out with) on stage reminded me of Gil and all the awe and respect in which I held him and the things he stood for and worked for.
And it reminded me of my mom and her incredible enthusiasm for life and people and the arts and people who she felt were working to do the right thing. And it made me very sad all over again that she died four years ago and wasn't around for me to hear her going on at near obnoxious lengths about how great it is to see Pete Seeger still alive and singing and just there, just plain there on stage in front of all those people in D.C. at an event like this.
And there was something about it all that seemed like the last shovel of dirt being tossed over the grave of the world that made me who I am. So I guess I was crying some for myself as well.
I know well enough that Barack Obama becoming President is not the end of racism. It is not the end of any of the terrible things that make up so much of our world. But there is something magical about it. Something hopeful. Something new. Something that I very much want to believe will lead to a better world.
The realistic side of me, some might say the cynical side, knows that the world hasn't, and isn't going to change all that much for the better in my, or anyone else's lifetime. It's a continuum. The old world never really dies, it just shifts and the forms of misery and suffering and stupidity and corruption just shift with it.
And yet there are things that do improve. For all of its dire faults, the world today is actually better than it was when I was born, at least for everyone reading this and even for most people - though not all by a long shot.
The world that I grew up in, the people and places and events that cut me into the person I am today, does in many ways feel like it's died and been buried. And that makes me sad, even though I also know that's a good thing. And unfortunately, I don't know that anyone's youth ever rests in peace. I'm pretty sure mine isn't going to.
(Okay, so I know that was all sort of rambling and nonsensical. Really, I do. I haven't lost my mind. At least not completely. But I'm still not totally sure of all the reasons why I started blubbering watching Pete Seeger last night and I'm trying to work it out. So I figured I'd take it out on all of you. Thanks for listening / reading.)