An occasional column drawing attention to well-known figures who, against the odds, are still going. This is usually a cause for celebration, but not always.
First up is a man whose longevity is as impressive as the size of his back catalogue (although they are perhaps related): Pete Seeger. Born in 1919, the leftie folkster is alive and kicking. Here he is performing at Barack Obama’s inaugural celebrations with his grandson and The Boss:
Awe-inspiring. No wonder American right-wing shock jocks and other wingnuts have started banging on about the dangers of a socialist takeover in the U.S – not only was Seeger invited to play at the inauguration concert, he was also allowed to sing the extra-dangerous verses not usually included:
There was a big high wall there that tried to stop me;
Sign was painted, it said private property;
But on the back 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 whistling
This land was made for you and me.
Seeger has tuned some brilliant songs himself (amongst my favourites ‘Where have all the flowers gone?’ and ‘Turn! Turn! Turn!’) and with his various groups, such as ‘Talking union’ and ‘Which side are you on?’ with the Almanac Singers. I especially enjoy listening to Seeger’s collection of traditional American industrial ballads. These working-class folk songs cover such merry subjects as living in poverty during economic depression, the difficulties of maintaining solidarity in the face of blackleg skullduggery, and lamenting the loss of labor movement figures made martyrs by the bosses’ hired guns. Great stuff.
May 2009 will see Seeger’s 90th birthday. There is going to be a concert to mark the occasion featuring, amongst many other artists, the Bard of Barking. Anyone who gets Billy Bragg to play at their birthday party is fully deserving of Paintbrush-endorsement.
Yes, ok, so it took Seeger quite a long time to apologise for the many years in which he was a slavish Stalinist, but I think he more than compensates for this unsavoury aspect of his past political beliefs through his activism for peace, equality, workers’ rights, the environment, and promoting the banjo. May he still be around for many years to come!
Foot a quarter of a century ago!
Second on our list is Michael Foot, who always seemed pretty old in photographs taken during his Labour leadership days and so now at the grand old age of 95 is indisputably ancient.
I’m not sure what the Paintbrush position on Foot is. His time as leader wasn’t exactly Labour’s happiest or most successful period in history, but there’s an argument to be made that things would have been even messier if a more left-wing or right-wing figure had been elected to take Labour through those tumultuous years. Also: if Galtieri hadn’t invaded the Falklands and given Thatcher the opportunity to prosecute a successful and popular war, perhaps Labour would have maintained its lead in the opinion polls during the early 80s. We would rememberFoot rather differently if he’d become Prime Minister.
Enough counterfactual historical speculation! Foot still appears in the public eye now and again. Sometimes he writes articles, sometimes he is campaigning against capitalism in Hampstead. I’ve always suspected that Foot made a better writer and figurehead of left-wing causes than Labour leader. I hope the longstanding republican is looking forward to receieving his centenary telegram from Elizabeth Windsor!
He is a big man.
And finally someone who is quite different from the above Still Alive!-ers: Ariel Sharon. He’s relatively young at 81, he’s not known for any musical or literary creativity, and he’s definitely not associated with any peace campaigns (although he maybe gets half points for withdrawing from Gaza?!).
The former general and Prime Minister of Israel has been in a coma since 2006 and obviously hasn’t done much since then.
Thinking about it, his brownie half points for withdrawing from Gaza are probably then withdrawn from him since he is going to be principally remembered (by me at least!) for his role in the 1982 Sabra and Shatila massacre and for helping to spark an intifada when he visited the Temple Mount in 2000.
If so inclined, we at the Paintbrush may periodically post updates on the status of the Still Alive!-ers. If you have any news or any suggestions for other figures to be included do not hesitate to get in touch.