Pete Seeger’s “My Rainbow Race” – His Award Winning Environmental Song


I hadn’t heard many of Pete Seeger’s songs over the years, not having followed folk music as intensely as I have followed rock and roll music. I knew he sang with Woody Guthrie, who wrote and made “This Land is Your Land”. I knew he was always an activist fighting for unions, social justice, civil rights, and environmental causes later in his life. So when I heard that he died, I tuned into community radio, because I knew they would be playing many of his songs. I knew that, because I remember when John Lennon was killed in 1980 in NYC, I was listening to WORT when it was announced. It was sad, it was quiet for awhile, and then it was NON-STOP John Lennon and Beatles music the rest of the night on the radio for me. No commercials and very little other talk as well. But I digress. Anyway, of course they were playing Pete Seeger – “If I had a Hammer“.

Recently, I checked out a Seeger CD at the library simply called “Pete”. The music was recorded in the 1960’s. It had a song called “My Rainbow Race” which caught my attention. I read the liner notes from Pete Seeger on the booklet that came with the CD and he said he wrote the song in response to seeing and ad for people to submit song lyrics and the songwriter whose lyrics were chosen the winner would win an all expenses paid trip to Japan. Unfortunately, his song (“My Rainbow race”) didn’t win because he never heard back but he was glad he wrote the song anyway because he included it in his concerts the following 20 years!

Pete Seeger (May 3, 1919 – January 27, 2014) was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996. He is credited with reviving and ensuring the survival of folk music. With the possible exception of Woody Guthrie, Seeger is the greatest influence on folk music of the last century. Born in New York City, he was the son of musicologist Charles Seeger. He took up the banjo in his teens and in 1938, at the age of 19, assisted noted folk archivist and field recorder Alan Lomax on his song-collecting trips through the American South. He soon began performing on banjo, guitar and vocals. In 1940, he formed a highly politicized folk trio, the Almanac Singers, which recorded union songs and antiwar anthems. They toured the country, performing at union halls for gas money, and recorded three albums. Woody Guthrie joined in 1941.

The Almanac Singers broke up with the advent of World War II. After a short stint in the army, Seeger formed the Weavers in 1948. They were a popular concert attraction who were at one point America’s favorite singing group. Their best-known numbers include such singalongs as “The Roving Kind,” “On Top of Old Smoky,” “Kisses Sweeter than Wine,” “Goodnight Irene” and “Wimoweh” (a.k.a. “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”). Their popularity cut across all boundaries. As American poet Carl Sandberg attested, “The Weavers are out of the grassroots of America. When I hear America singing, the Weavers are there.”

During the communist witch-hunts of the early Fifties, however, the Weavers were blacklisted, resulting in canceled concert dates and the loss of their recording contract with Decca Records. Under congressional subpoena to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee, Seeger asserted his First Amendment rights, scolding the committee, “I am not going to answer any questions as to my associations, my philosophical or my religious beliefs, or how I voted in any election or any of these private affairs. I think these are very improper questions for any American to be asked.” Unlike many entertainers and writers who careers were ruined in the McCarthy era, Seeger stood his ground and persevered – even though he was sent to jail, albeit briefly, for defending his beliefs.

After leaving the Weavers in 1959, Seeger was signed to Columbia Records. He recorded prolifically for the label. His popularity hit a new peak with We Shall Overcome, a live album recorded at Carnegie Hall that is estimated to have sold half a million copies. Seeger is responsible for such folk standards as “If I Had a Hammer” (originally written by Seeger and Lee Hays of the Weavers as “The Hammer Song”) and “Where Have All the Flowers Gone.” Seeger’s one dalliance with the pop charts came in 1964, when his version of folksinger Malvina Reynolds’ exercise in suburban mockery, “Little Boxes,” reached #70. Seeger’s songs were also popularized by others, principally Peter, Paul and Mary (“If I Had a Hammer,” “Where Have All the Flowers Gone”) and the Byrds (“Turn! Turn! Turn!,” “The Bells of Rhymney”).

Though he had objected to Dylan’s use of electric instruments at the Newport Folk Festival in July 1965, Seeger himself recorded with electric guitarist Danny Kalb (of the Blues Project) two years later on his album Waist Deep in the Big Muddy and Other Love Songs. Seeger, with his outspoken commitment to the peace movement, often wrote directly or metaphorically of the Vietnam war in the Sixties. A tireless champion of causes, Seeger has devoted himself to environmental issues, particularly the cleanup of his beloved Hudson River.

In Seeger’s capable hands, from the Forties to the present day, a concert isn’t regarded as a one-way proceeding but a group singalong. Indeed, Seeger’s gently assertive insistence that his audience sing out can be read as a larger metaphor for the necessary involvement of citizens to insure the healthy functioning of democracy in America. Seeger has recorded and performed tirelessly throughout his career, honoring the folksingers’ timeless commitment to spread the word and involve an audience. “My ability lies in being able to get a crowd to sing along with me,” he said in a 1971 interview. “When I get upon a stage, I look on my job as trying to tell a story. I use songs to illustrate my story and dialogue between songs to carry the story forward.”

Pete Seeger passed away on January 27, 2014. He was 94.

My Rainbow Race

One blue sky above us, one ocean lapping all our shore
One earth so green and round, who could ask for more?
And because I love you I’ll give it one more try
To show my rainbow race, it’s too soon to die

Some folks want to be like an ostrich
Bury their heads in the sand
Some hope that plastic dreams
Can unclench all those greedy hands

Some hope to take the easy way
Poisons, bombs, they think we need ’em
Don’t you know you can’t kill all the unbelievers?
There’s no shortcut to freedom

One blue sky above us, one ocean lapping all our shore
One earth so green and round, who could ask for more?
And because I love you I’ll give it one more try
To show my rainbow race, it’s too soon to die

Go tell, go tell all the little children
Tell all the mothers and fathers too
Now’s our last chance to learn to share
What’s been given to me and you

One blue sky above us, one ocean lapping all our shore
One earth so green and round, who could ask for more?
And because I love you I’ll give it one more try
To show my rainbow race, it’s too soon to die

One blue sky above us, one ocean lapping all our shore
One earth so green and round, who could ask for more?

Woody Guthrie – This Land is Your land

Friends of Woody Guthrie sing This Land is Your Land

Buffallo Springfield sing For What it’s Worth

Pete Seeger leads We Shall Overcome Someday

About Mike Neuman

Identical twin; Long-time advocate of protection of our environment; Married; Father to three sons; Grandfather to one granddaughter; Born and raised in Wisconsin; Graduate of University of Wisconsin; post graduate degrees in agricultural economics and Water Resources Management fro UWMadison; Former School Crossing Guard for City of Madison; Bike to Work for 31 years with Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources; Retired from DNR in 2007; Biked to school crossing guard site 2 X daily for 7 years retiring in 2019; in addition to being an advocate of safeguarding our environment, I am also an advocate for humane treatment of animal, children, and people in need of financial resource for humane living. I am presently a Volunteer for Habitat for Humanity, Madison, Wisconsin. I oppose all long (>500 miles) distance travel (via fossil fuel burning) for nonessential purposes and all ownership of more than one home. I am opposed to militarism in any form particularly for the purpose of monetary gain. I am a Strong believer in people everywhere having the right to speak their minds openly, without any fear of reprisal, regarding any concerns; especially against those in authority who are not acting for the public good?in a timely fashion and in all countries of the world not just the U S.. My identical twin, Pat, died in June 2009. He was fired from his job with the National Weather Service despite having a long and successful career as a flood forecaster with the Kansas City National Weather Service. He took a new position in the Midwest Regional Office in Minneapolis. Unfortunately, Pat’s work for the NWS went sour after he began to see the evidence for concern about rising global temperatures shortly after relocating to Minneapolis, and how they appeared to effect of flooding on the Red River that flows out of Canada before entering the U.S. in North Dakota. . Pat and I conversed on a regular basis with other scientists on the Yahoo Group named “Climate Concern “ and by personal email. The NWS denied his recommendation to give his public presentation o n his research at the “Minneapolis Mall of America” in February 2000, which deeply affected h,im. I will h He strongly believed the information ought be shared with the public to which I concurred. That was the beginning of the vendetta against my brother, Patrick J. Neuman, for speaking strongly of the obligations the federal government was responsible for accurately informing the citizenry. A way great similar response to my raising the issue of too many greenhouse gases being emitted by drivers of vehicles on Wisconsin highway system, my immediate supervisors directed: “that neither global warming, climate change nor the long term impacts upon the natural resources of Wisconsin from expansion of the state highway system were to be any part of my job requirements, and that I must not communicate, nor in a memorandum to all the bureau, shall any person who works in the same bureau I do communicate with me, neither verbally on the phone, by email.

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