In Today’s Mail


I got a letter from Pete Seeger today — handwritten — in response to a query I’d sent regarding my book-in-progress. He answered my main question and kindly declined my request to interview him. A million more questions I’d like to ask him, but he answered my main one. And drew a banjo with his signature!

And what was the question? It’ll be in the book!

I’d gotten his address from a mutual friend. Wrote him a couple of months ago requesting an interview. Didn’t hear back. Mentioned the situation to a college pal who lives in Pete’s town on the Hudson. She said that, while she doesn’t know him personally, she’s seen him picking up his mail from the Post Office — by the crate! I wrote him again, putting the most important question in the letter, and he wrote back!

Made my day.


— found this version of Pete’s banjo-signature on the web.

Two views on the essence of lyric poetry

Fundamentally he is a lyric poet, in the tradition, let us say, of Catullus and François Villon and Robert Burns. His message is their message: that life is vastly enjoyable, and the world beautiful in spring; that he loves Lady X or Madam Y as nobody has loved anybody; that “a pretty girl who naked is, is worth a million statues”; that death comes strolling through the April fields, “also picking flowers.”

— Malcolm Cowley, on e. e. cummings, 1932

He recommends himself not as a lover, but as a friend. He poses as a person of infinite leisure (which we should most like our friends to possess) and free from worldly ambitions (which constitute the greatest bars to friendship). He would have us think of him as a boon companion, a great drinker of wine, who will not disgrace a social gathering by quitting it sober.

— Arthur Waley, 1941, on the typical classical Chinese poet, “say from the seventh to the fourteenth century”

(Please forgive the one-sided nature of the gender portrayals.)

— images: Robert Herrick and Li Bai (Li Po)

Radical roots of pieces of our patriotic heritage

Shortly after I sold my book proposal, two editors approached me about writing something for their publications. The first one — a short Fourth of July essay on icons of American patriotism having been written by critics of capitalism — was published in Bloomberg View tonight.

The topic: The authors of the Pledge of Allegiance and “America the Beautiful” (pictured above) were, respectively, a Christian Socialist and a socialist sympathizer. In addition to the author of “This Land Is Your Land,” who was a Communist sympathizer. Lesser-known verses of “America the Beautiful” and “This Land Is Your Land” illustrate their authors’ leanings.

Kudos to Bloomberg’s headline writer.

Hope you like the piece.

one two three go!

I’m writing a book on the history of “God Bless America” and “This Land Is Your Land,” the latter of which was originally drafted as a rebuttal to the former. Getting at the history of these songs, and their remarkable writers, Irving Berlin and Woody Guthrie, requires an investigation into the history of national anthems, especially America’s, and the history of nationalism, as well as folk, pop, and the whole sh-bang.

I’m having a lot of fun.

PublicAffairs is scheduled to publish the book in 2014. I’ll keep you posted. In the meantime, I’ll be writing here, probably mostly on music, as well as putting up songs, videos, and who-knows-what-all.