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Culture, Music

This Land is Your Land

by Ray Van Wyk / 05.11.2013

Last Friday night I went with a friend, we’ll call her Bette, to see Jamie McLaren Lachman aka “Jabulani Nene Mshengu” perform a sort of tribute to infamous American Folk singer Pete Seeger. Confronted with a selection of home-made cakes and coffee or tea in assorted porcelain mugs, we opted instead to smoke a cigarette outside Erin Hall in Rondebosch while waiting for the show to start. I had seen Jamie perform once before, had borne witness to his particular style of aggrandising and aggrandisement that a woman in her 70’s was now gesturing to us to witness once more. We take our seats in the back row and a rattley pair of theatrical geriatrics sing an introductory duet, welcoming Jamie on stage. “I think I am cynical, I want to vomit on the positivity!” Bette jots down in my notebook.

The thing about charities, for me, is I never feel like I know enough to justify supporting them without getting really immersed and involved in their message, their dogma. It also means that I never really feel comfortable critisising them either. Jamie’s rather lackluster promotion of the event may well testify to his ‘real work’ being with kids in disadvantaged communities as head of Clowns Without Borders SA. Consequentially the old church hall is mostly filled with aged folks, presumably on an outing.

While Seeger was involved in and even, for posterity, can be viewed as a figurehead of a movement, Jamie and his orginisation are a sort of culturally sanctioned, paternal, US aid in a country facing internal struggles beyond the reach of well intentioned people, such as they are. A strange relationship, then, develops between Jamie’s charitable work and his way of telling his own, personal tale…

Pete Seeger was born into a family of musicians; both mother and father classical music performers. In his formative years Pete toured the country with them, bringing highbrow culture to the common folk. It is here that he learned traditional folk songs and stories, starting his lifelong love affair with the music of the people. After receiving a scholarship to Harvard, Seeger got involved with left leaning campus politics and became a card-carrying member of the communist party. He later landed a job at the Library of Congress, recording and cataloging traditional American folk music with collector John Lomax, who refused to acknowledge the widely held notion that folk music was the ephemeral love child of the country people and their isolated and parochial struggles. Seeger and Lomax’s labour, as custodians of traditional Americana, would later become the essential groundwork for the folk revival of the 1960s. We have Lomax, Seeger and their comrades to thank for artists like Dylan, Odetta and Joan Baez, for providing the soundtrack to Woodstock and eventually inspiring the new folk revival of our own time.

Before being drafted into the army to fight the Nazis, Seeger met Woody Guthrie – eternal muse of Bob Dylan – and with him formed The Almanac Singers, who, as the name suggests, sang mostly topical songs about what should be done about Hitler, communism, the labour movement, and capitalism’s death grip over the people. If you listen to these early recordings, a jovial sense of triumph dominates the often-sombre subject matter, inspiring hope rather than lamenting the inevitable.

After the war Seeger along with Ronnie Gilbert, Lee Hays and Fred Hellerman, formed the hugely successful group: The Weavers. New pressure was placed on the singer due to his blatant communist sympathies that were clearly out of line with the country’s involvement in the Cold War. Alongside topical songs, the Weavers performed traditional spiritual numbers and folk ballads. Seeger himself was a teetotaller; eventually resigning from the Weavers due to the group’s commission for, and his refusal to take part in an advertisement for a tobacco company. Though not far below Seeger’s conservative rind lays the fruit of a libertarian politic. Deeply involved in the American civil rights movement, playing roles both as insurgent and target of oppression through censorship, songs like ‘We Shall Overcome’, ‘If You Miss Me at the Back of the Bus’, ‘I Ain’t Scared of Your Jail’ and ‘Turn Turn Turn’ were hugely popularised by Seeger and personally sung by him on the picket lines. These songs, considered pillars of the movement, are still widely sung today wherever oppression rears its ugly head.

However, Jamie is also quick to point out, that while Seeger was involved in many libertarian causes, the civil rights movement and anti-war orginisations, he also massively profited from appropriating Solomon Linda’s ‘Whimoweh/Mbube’ as part of his repertoire, as Mahala reported on earlier this year. As reparations of sorts, Seeger donated a thousand dollars to the Linda family and set up a charitable trust in their name which now collects royalties from the song’s use in movies such as Disney’s “The Lion King”.

As the evening progresses Jamie performs some traditional folk songs on his 5 string banjo, telling his stories of hitchhiking to Seeger’s forested mountain home after a chance encounter at a make-shift music festival, of being a Yale man during the time of the teacher’s strike, singing in hoped for solidarity with strikers and generally being considered a nuisance until everybody got bored of being angry and relented to paying attention to him instead. He spreads a persistent, gushing optimism by getting everyone to join in song, enough even to melt Bette’s heart. The bits on the banjo and when they all sang together, she admits, were nice. Jamie is an excellent banjo player, but his voice and eerily sunny disposition, dominate the old church hall.

Jamie then takes a stab at performing a few politically orientated songs of his own and the results are predictable. Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land” originally written as a hard-hitting commentary on, and reaction to, the Great Depression’s effects on the poor, American working class, is interpreted by Jamie as a framework for the inheritors of the South African struggle’s plight. “This land is your land, this land is my land, from Ethekwini, to Robben Island…..this land was made for you and me” seem way too easy to say on a stage in an old church in suburban Rondebosch . I used to be more vocal about my political opinions, he says, but these days his politics are dominated by the spirit of Ubuntu, that easy to turn to, benign and welcoming mother of all races and classes.

We leave after the first half, rushing to meet friend and pursue our own hedonistic ends. In the end it is difficult to critisise Jamie for the good work he does, spreading joy through places in very bleak circumstances. Besides that it could be interpreted as a little self serving, even cultish, Jamie’s story will go on, despite us, and so will the plight of the people he’s publically and relationally a service to, the poor, the disaffected.

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