Gonna be an artist/activist

In her upcoming concert, “Hard Times: Good Songs,” Peggy Seeger will perform working-class tunes written during the 1930s and ’40s.

But don’t expect a romantic slant on that troubled era.

“These songs are not about pride in work,” the celebrated folk singer pointed out in a recent interview. “They are songs that complain about wages, working conditions, bosses, personal health — union songs.

“They’re hard-time songs [about] a hard, bloody life.”

Seeger’s concert is scheduled in conjunction with a timely Asheville Art Museum exhibit featuring the work of one of the 20th century’s most prolific and politically committed visual artists, Ben Shahn. The exhibit is taken largely from the permanent collection of his work at Randolph-Macon Woman’s College in Lynchburg, Va.

“For All These Rights: Works by Ben Shahn” opened at the Asheville Art Museum in January and runs through April 13. Curator Frank E. Thomson says he received a catalogue from Randolph-Macon’s Maier Museum of Art last year and contacted the school about bringing the exhibit to Asheville. This is its only other appearance.

Like many other artists of his generation, Shahn spent time in Western North Carolina. In 1937 he worked for the Farm Service Agency, which employed photographers (Walker Evans and Margaret Bourke-White are among the best known) to document rural poverty for use in propaganda efforts. In 1951 Shahn taught for a summer at Black Mountain College.

The exhibit includes Shahn’s FSA photography, posters made for the Office of War Information and the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) during World War II, plus a sampling of Shahn’s later work, when he became interested in post-war humanism.

Shahn continued to show interest in politics, however, making posters for Eugene McCarthy’s 1968 presidential campaign just before Shahn’s own death in 1969.

The Asheville exhibit is “a tightly focused body of material,” says Thomson, “but it gives an interesting overview of the range of [Shahn’s] interest.”

Shahn’s time in WNC made showcasing his work at the museum a natural choice, Thomson adds.

But a further local connection survives in Seeger. Born in 1935, the singer remembers meeting Shahn when she was a child.

“I just remember he was bigger than me — my mother and father talked to him while I played out in the garden,” Seeger recalls, going on to list some of the artists who stopped by her parents’ house in Washington, D.C., when she was young, names that would comprise many people’s fantasy dinner party: Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly and Jackson Pollock.

“It was kind of a watering hole between North and South,” Seeger offers.

The singer, who moved to Asheville in 1994 after playing a central role in the British folk scene for decades, calls Shahn “truthful and original.” She notes that, like other artists of his time period, Shahn was able to capture the political and cultural mood of the country without romanticizing it.

“These guys were rough, like the work itself,” Seeger observes. “There was no false sentimentality in what they did.”

Shahn’s striking graphic style, particularly in his posters made during World War II, borrows from photographs taken during that era that showed strong, imperfect men and women concerned about war, poverty, voting and other issues of the day.

While all but two of Shahn’s war-propaganda posters were rejected by the government for being “too violent” or not “appealing enough,” it was his overtly political work that earned him his name.

Shahn’s success in making political art — a feat some artist/activists consider an oxymoron — was due, says Thomson, to the artist’s one-track passion for his subject matter. Shahan’s commitment to following through on a project was one of his defining characteristics.

“Many artists are concerned about social justice, but they’re the wrong people to call on for demonstrations because they’re going to get distracted [by their] poem, painting or play,” Thomson adds.

But Seeger, whose half-brother Pete is one of the best-known political folk musicians of all time, suggests a more balanced relationship between artists and current events.

“Art,” she says, “is a distillation of politics. Someone can sit up on a podium and spout politics from now until the end of time, but if you make a song, they go away singing.”

In her upcoming concert, Seeger will focus on songs written by people who experienced the concert’s titular hard times, including Kentucky miners’-rights activist Aunt Molly Jackson.

“I named the concert as I did [because] most of the industrial folk songs from this country are about the struggles of those [in] the lowest economic class structure,” explains Seeger.

The concert was planned long before war against Iraq was imminent, and war will not be the focus of the afternoon, though Seeger’s own tune documenting the tribulations of the ’30s and ’40s — “Sing About Those Hard Times” — closes with a verse alluding to the present political situation.

“Oh, the world is ill divided,” she sings. “Those who work least are the best provided/ And now they got a war and they want me to fight/ Tell me, Why should I go?”

Seeger says Shahn’s art succeeds in capturing political messages. While Shahn, like many on the left, supported World War II, he feared nuclear proliferation and militarism.

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