Pete Seeger and Writing for Freedom
by Helen King
"That the talented voice of the artist is among the most effective voice anyone can hear is the reason why writers and artists are often the first to be persecuted and jailed under tyranny or under governments who are unsure of their power."
(For Amnesty International)
A short while ago I was given a cassette tape of a song called "Delbert Tibbs" written and performed by Pete Seeger. The lyric was a selection of lines from the poetry of Delbert Tibbs, a young Black man on Death Row in Raiford State Prison in Starke, Florida. Pete Seeger prefaced the ballad with, "Delbert Tibbs, this is Pete Seeger speaking. I hope this can be some sort of tool or weapon for you in your fight for life."
Delbert Tibbs, a former theology student, was sentenced to die in 1974 on one count of rape, and one count of first degree murder in connection with the assault of a 16-year-old Florida woman and fatal shooting of her male companion, although Delbert Tibbs was over 150 miles away from the area at the time of the crime. At the trial. Blacks were systematically excluded from the jury. Of 300 prospective jurors only three were Black. The final jury was all white! On July 28, 1976, the Florida Supreme Court reversed the death sentence and ordered a new trial because it said there was "not a shred of evidence against Tibbs." The court's decision upheld all major defense contentions that Tibbs was unfairly tried and unjustly convicted. The opinion of Justice Boyd was that the "evidence shows Tibbs should be freed immediately and without further litigation." However, the prosecution appealed the court's decision and is seeking a rehearing. This makes the decision to dismiss the case inoperative until the appeal is disposed of-no one knows when.
"I'm sitting here on Death Row,
Delbert Tibbs my name.
Say, won't somebody listen to how that I been framed?
Don't they know my jury was all white?
Don't they know the facts they kept from light?
I need a poem to tell how I been framed
I need a poem to expose this racist game
Say, don't we all need a poem to break these iron bars?
Wouldn 't you like a poem to help you see the stars?
Well, the state of Florida is just one of many.
But the state of slavery! Don't we wish there'd never been any?
Don't we wish slavery never existed nor never was?
But slavery was here. Now we can't say, "Becuz, becuz, becuz."
Strange, strange, now I've met some beautiful people.
Some meet and greet upon the street, some gather under a steeple.
Some call 'emselves one thing, some call 'emselves another
But now I know! I do have Sisters and Brothers.
They 're helping me write a poem to tell how I been framed
A truthful poem to expose this racist game.
Say don't we all need a poem to break these iron bars?
Wouldn't you like a poem to help you see the stars?
The response in Los Angeles has been moving, one of the radio stations made several duplicates of the tape, for themselves and for distribution to other stations. It has been played several times on each station. I hope all readers will avail themselves of this opportunity to expose injustice and racism. The tape can be a collector's item. To me it is a most precious possession.
Since Pete Seeger's song was written, Delbert Tibbs has been moved from his death row cell. A rehearing for Delbert Tibbs can cost dearly. Tapes and lead sheets of Pete Seeger's song are being sold to raise the necessary funds and to publicize the case. You may send donations of $3.00 or more with a request for the tape to the Tibbs Defense Committee, 846 No. Entrada Drive, Ft. Myers, Florida 33901, or to Florida Alliance Against Repression, P.O. Box 680771, Miami, Florida 33168, or Tibbs Defense Committee, 29 So. La Salle Street, Room 429, Chicago, Illinois.
America can be proud of its many hundreds of talented songwriters of conscience, like Pete Seeger, who are dedicating their lives, and in many cases sacrificing commercially successful careers, to advance freedom, justice and humanity.
Bob Dylan's inspired song, "Hurricane, " about the framed Black Fighter, Reuben Carter, had the impact no rhetoric in the world could have achieved.
Few of us who heard her will ever forget Billie Holiday when she closed every concert with Lewis Allan's "Strange Fruit," a song that played a decisive role in the enactment of anti-lynching legislation:
"Black body swinging in the
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.
Here is a strange and bitter crop."
Many martyrs have been immortalized in song, among them John Brown, Joe Hill, Harry Sims, Amilcar Cabral, Che Guevara, Pancho Villa, George Jackson, Fred Hampton and Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. The Chilean poet, songwriter and artist, Victor Jara, after his arrest by the junta, was ordered by the police to stop singing his songs of freedom to the other prisoners herded into the soccer stadium in Chile. When he refused, a policeman severed Victor Jara's fingers with an axe and shouted, "Now play!" Victor Jara's voice was stilled only by a volley of bullets. Arlo Guthrie and Adrian Mitchell's song, "Victor Jara" (on Warner Bros. current Arlo Guthrie album "Amigo") will etch the name and memory of Victor Jara on the hearts of all humanity for a long time to come. Holly Near also gave tribute to the memory of Victor Jara in her song, "It Could Have Been Me.":
"The junta took the fingers from Victor Jara's hands They said to the gentle poet, "Play your guitar now if you can! Well Victor started singing until they shot his body down You can kill a man but not a song when it's sung the whole world round."
One of my my very special writers is Malvina Reynolds. I wish that all of us could have some of her infinite wisdom, her humor, her sparkle and, above all, her incomparable talent to communicate. Malvina can make her statement in just two thought-provoking lines:
"They've got the world in their
But their pocket's got a hole. "
or her gentle song, "What Have They Done To The Rain?" She is speaking of adding this verse to her "Little Boxes," which is being sung all over the world in every language:
"Monster atom plants by the
Monster atom plants made of ticky-tacky,
Monster atom plants by the seaside,
Monster atom plants all the same,
In New York State and Michigan,
Oklahoma and California,
And they're all made out of ticky-tacky
they leak death just the same."
Ruthie Gorton, a loyal friend of SRS, wrote "Ireland, United And Free" which just won first prize in Donegal,
"You sang your way into my heart
With the voice of a rebel true,
And by the time we had to part
I felt such deep affection for you.
You said 'I feel we may not meet again,
You may just hear news about me.
So I'll fight to the day I can see you my friend,
In an Ireland united and free."
SRS knows well the struggle of unknown songwriters to break into the industry with songs that communicate something other than "Top Forty" material. Those who paid their dues, built their own audiences, and proved their salability, like Bob Dylan and Arlo Guthrie, can speak out. Others, like Malvina and Holly Near, in addition to writing quality songs, have had to build their own machinery for dissemination, their own publishing companies, record labels, distribution, and tour tirelessly to establish credibility and loyal audiences.
An overwhelming task that can be accomplished only through heartbreaking work and unwavering faith in themselves and their music. Then they must find the "name artists" whose convictions match their own in order to get "cover records," so essential for reaching the widest possible audience. SRS hopes that through Festivals of New Music, cooperative publishing and recording talented new writers who have something to say, they will be spared the compromise and will reach out to the people with songs that need to be heard.
"Strange Fruit" c. by Edward
B. Marks Corporation.
Reprinted with Permission.
"It Could Have Been Me" c.
Reprinted with Permission.
"Song For Allende" c. Don Lange
Malvina Reynolds' songs c. Schroder
Reprinted with Permission.
Ireland United And Free " c Ruthie
Reprinted with Permission.
We Americans need to know our role in the savage persecution and repression in Chile. The "Song For Allende" by Don Lange tells us,
"It's a long, long way from the
heartland of Santiago Bay
Where the good doctor lies, with blood in his eyes,
And the bullets read U.S. of A.
And the bullets read U.S. of A."
Back to read more articles