Jul 272017

On this date in 1694 the Bank of England, formally the Governor and Company of the Bank of England, received its royal charter. It is the central bank of the United Kingdom and the model on which most modern central banks have been based. It is the second oldest central bank in operation today, after the Sveriges Riksbank and the world’s 8th oldest bank. It was established to act as the English government’s banker and is still one of the bankers for the government of the United Kingdom.

The Bank’s headquarters has been in London’s main financial district, the City of London, on Threadneedle Street, since 1734. It is sometimes known by the metonym The Old Lady of Threadneedle Street or The Old Lady, a name taken from the legend of Sarah Whitehead, whose ghost is said to haunt the Bank’s garden. The busy road junction outside is known as Bank junction. As a regulator and central bank, the Bank of England has not offered consumer banking services for many years, but it still does manage a few public services such as exchanging superseded bank notes. Until 2016, the bank provided personal banking services as a popular privilege for employees.

England’s crushing defeat by France, the dominant naval power, in naval engagements culminating in the 1690 Battle of Beachy Head, became the catalyst for England’s rebuilding itself as a global power. England determined to build a powerful navy but no public funds were available, and the credit of William III’s government was so low in London that it was impossible for it to borrow the £1,200,000 (at 8% p.a.) that the government wanted.

To induce subscription to the loan, the subscribers were to be incorporated under the name of the “Governor and Company of the Bank of England”. The Bank was given exclusive possession of the government’s balances, and was the only limited-liability corporation allowed to issue bank notes. The lenders would give the government cash in bullion and issue notes against the government bonds, which could be lent again. £1.2m was raised in 12 days; half of this was used to rebuild the navy.

As a side effect, the huge industrial effort needed, (including establishing ironworks to make more nails for shipbuilding and advances in agriculture to ensure stable food supplies) quadrupled the strength of the navy, and started to transform the economy – resulting ultimately in the 18th and 19th century agrarian and industrial revolutions (concomitant with the 17th century scientific revolutions). This helped the new Kingdom of Great Britain – England and Scotland were formally united in 1707 – to become globally powerful, with the power of the new navy making Britain the dominant world power in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. There are many lessons to be learnt here; not all of them good ones. Financial and military strength yield strong dividends – especially for the rich minority – but they are not necessarily good for the majority, at home or abroad.

The establishment of a government bank was devised by Charles Montagu, 1st Earl of Halifax, in 1694. The “plan of 1691”, to float a loan and create a national bank, had been proposed by William Paterson three years before, but had not then been acted upon. Also, 28 years earlier, in 1636, Chief Financier to the king, Philip Burlamachi, had proposed exactly the same idea in a letter addressed to Sir Francis Windebank. He proposed a loan of £1.2m to the government. In return the subscribers would be incorporated as The Governor and Company of the Bank of England with long-term banking privileges including the issue of notes. The Royal Charter was granted on 27 July through the passage of the Tonnage Act 1694. Public finances were in such dire condition at the time that the terms of the loan were that it was to be serviced at a rate of 8% per annum, and there was also a service charge of £4,000 per annum for the management of the loan. The first governor was Sir John Houblon, who is depicted on the £50 note issued in 1994. The charter was renewed in 1742, 1764, and 1781.

The Bank’s original home was in Walbrook, a street in the City of London, where during reconstruction efforts in 1954 archaeologists found the remains of a Roman temple to Mithras who, among other things, was (ironically) the Roman god of contracts !! The Mithraeum ruins are some of the most famous of all 20th-century Roman discoveries in the City of London and can be viewed by the public.

The Bank moved to its current location in Threadneedle Street in 1734, and thereafter slowly acquired neighboring land to create the grand edifice seen today. Sir Herbert Baker’s rebuilding of the Bank, demolishing most of Sir John Soane’s earlier building, was described by architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner as “the greatest architectural crime, in the City of London, of the twentieth century.” Given that 19th century London architecture is not much to write home about, I’ll demur on that one.

Something 17th century and green strikes me as a suitable dish du jour even though the color green is not especially dominant in English banknotes. Early notes were white, and, with the introduction of color, Bank of England notes have always been different colors and different sizes, unlike their US counterparts which have typically been green (and the same size) practically since their inception. Perhaps because of the style of US notes, however, “green” has always been a metonym for “money” so why not?  Here’s a 17th century recipe for crystallized green apples taken from A Daily Exercise for Ladies and Gentlewomen (1617) which I offer as is.

I don’t have a kitchen here in Myanmar, so I have no chance to experiment, and the wording is a little vague. What I envisage is that you peel and core the apples but then boil the peel and apple meat together until you have a green pulp. Strain out the pulp. Weigh the resultant apple mush and boil the equivalent weight of sugar with a little water until it reaches about 130˚C or higher. I don’t know exactly what “Candie height” means; it could be higher. Add the pulp to the sugar and keep boiling until the whole sits at around 140˚C. The spread it on a marble slab, let cool, and cut into squares.

To make an excellent greene Paste without any colouring.

Qvoddle greene Apples reasonably tender, pill off the outward skinne, and throw all the barke of the Apples into a Posnet of seething water, and so let it boile as fast as it can vntill it turne greene, then take them vp and straine the pulp, then boile the weight of it in Sugar to a Candie height, and put your pulp into the seething Sugar, and let it boile vntill it grow stiffe, then fashion it on a pie-plate, or a sheete of glasse, and pint it on mowlds, and drie it in a Stoue or a warm Ouen some tenne or twelue dayes, that it be perfectly drie, and then you may keepe it all the yeere.  

May 052016


Today is the birthday (1813) of Søren Aabye Kierkegaard, Danish philosopher, theologian, poet, social critic, and religious author who was an early contributor to what became known as existentialism. He wrote critical texts on organized religion, Christendom, morality, psychology, and the philosophy of religion, displaying a fondness for metaphor, irony and parables. Much of his philosophical work deals with the issues of how one lives as a “single individual”, giving priority to concrete human reality over abstract thinking and highlighting the importance of personal choice and commitment. He was opposed to easy answers and, therefore to critics who summed up idealist intellectuals and philosophers of his time: Swedenborg, Hegel, Goethe, Fichte, Schelling, Schlegel and Hans Christian Andersen he felt were all “understood” far too quickly by “scholars.”

Kierkegaard’s theological work covers a broad spectrum: Christian ethics, the institution of the Church, humans and God, and the individual’s subjective relationship to Jesus the Christ, which for Kierkegaard came through faith. Much of this work entails Christian love. He was extremely critical of the practice of Christianity as a state religion, primarily that of the Church of Denmark. His psychological work explored the emotions and feelings of individuals when faced with life choices.


Kierkegaard’s early work was written under various pseudonyms that he used to present distinctive viewpoints and to interact with each other in complex dialogue. He explored particularly complex problems from different viewpoints, each under a different pseudonym. He wrote many Upbuilding Discourses under his own name and dedicated them to the “single individual” who might want to discover the meaning of his works. Notably, he wrote: “Science and scholarship want to teach that becoming objective is the way. Christianity teaches that the way is to become subjective, to become a subject.” While scientists learn about the world by observation, Kierkegaard emphatically denied that observation could reveal the inner workings of the world of the spirit.

Kierkegaard’s wrote in Danish and his works were initially limited to Scandinavia. By the turn of the 20th century, however, his major works had been translated into major European languages, so that by the mid-20th century, his thought exerted a substantial influence on philosophy and theology.


I won’t try to summarize Kierkegaard’s work because that would do him an injustice. Instead here are a few quotations to give you an idea.

Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.

Life is not a problem to be solved, but a reality to be experienced.

Once you label me you negate me.

What I really need is to get clear about what I must do, not what I must know, except insofar as knowledge must precede every act. What matters is to find a purpose, to see what it really is that God wills that I shall do; the crucial thing is to find a truth which is truth for me, to find the idea for which I am willing to live and die.


I have just now come from a party where I was its life and soul; witticisms streamed from my lips, everyone laughed and admired me, but I went away — yes, the dash should be as long as the radius of the earth’s orbit ——————————— and  wanted to shoot myself.

There are many people who reach their conclusions about life like schoolboys; they cheat their master by copying the answer out of a book without having worked out the sum for themselves.

I have never fought in such a way as to say: I am the true Christian, others are not Christians. No, my contention has been this: I know what Christianity is, my imperfection as a Christian I myself fully recognize — but I know what Christianity is.

It belongs to the imperfection of everything human that man can only attain his desire by passing through its opposite.

A man’s personality is matured only when he appropriates the truth, whether it is spoken by Balaam’s ass or a sniggering wag or an apostle or an angel.

Job endured everything — until his friends came to comfort him, then he grew impatient.


One sticks one’s finger into the soil to tell by the smell in what land one is: I stick my finger in existence — it smells of nothing. Where am I? Who am I? How came I here? What is this thing called the world? What does this world mean? Who is it that has lured me into the world? Why was I not consulted, why not made acquainted with its manners and customs instead of throwing me into the ranks, as if I had been bought by a kidnapper, a dealer in souls? How did I obtain an interest in this big enterprise they call reality? Why should I have an interest in it? Is it not a voluntary concern? And if I am to be compelled to take part in it, where is the director? I should like to make a remark to him. Is there no director? Whither shall I turn with my complaint?

To say that I understand Kierkegaard would be to go against the very nature of his work. Rather, there are points he makes on which I concur. Chief of these is that it is incumbent on each individual to THINK, and not to accept blindly what you are told. His notion of “truth for me” for example, is not what most moderns believe when they use the phrase – “if I believe it, it is true.” He is saying that you cannot simply assent to truth as purveyed by others: you must OWN it by working it out for yourself.

I see Kierkegaard as a precursor of Freud in that his notion of owning the truth involves knowing oneself. For Kierkegaard self knowledge requires concentrated reflection on oneself, preferably in isolation. I am sympathetic to this notion because it is exactly what I do. Since the death of my wife nine years ago, I have lived alone, and have increasingly used my time alone to reflect on all manner of things.  This is not a skill that can be learned; you have to work it out for yourself, perhaps with writers such as Kierkegaard as guides. Friendships, relationships, and the like, can be helpful, but they can also be distractions that get in the way of self reflection. Read Kierkegaard for yourself and you will see what I mean.


Danish cuisine can be colorful, but is often rather bland. I’ve mentioned smørrebrød, open faced sandwiches, several times before, and you can certainly get creative with them, heaping all manner of toppings on to dark rye bread for a base. For example:


Today I am interested in æggekage (lit. egg cake), which is very similar to English batter pudding or traditional Argentine tortilla, that is, a mix of milk, flour, and eggs that is fried and baked in a heavy skillet with various toppings. My basic recipe for the egg mixture is presented in this video:


Toppings can be savory or sweet. I made an apple æggekage this morning. First, I chopped one apple coarsely (without peeling), and sautéed it in a little butter and sugar until the pieces took on color.


Then I made the batter (as per the video), and poured it over the apples whilst the pan was still warm, and cooked the bottom a little.


Then I finished it off in a hot oven sprinkled with a little sugar and cinnamon.


For breakfast I ate some slices straight from the pan. For lunch I re-heated the remainder on the stove with a few sliced tomatoes and bacon.

Dec 252015


Christmas Day (by the Julian calendar in use in England at the time), is the birthday (1642) of Sir Isaac Newton PRS, who is widely regarded as one of the most influential scientists of all time, and as a key figure in the 17th century scientific revolution. His book Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica (“Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy”), first published in 1687, laid the foundations for classical mechanics. Newton made seminal contributions to optics, and he shares credit with Gottfried Leibniz for the development of calculus.

Newton’s Principia formulated the laws of motion and universal gravitation, which dominated scientists’ view of the physical universe for the next three centuries. By deriving Kepler’s laws of planetary motion from his mathematical description of gravity, and then using the same principles to account for the trajectories of comets, the tides, the precession of the equinoxes, and other phenomena, Newton removed the last doubts about the validity of the heliocentric model of the solar system. This work also demonstrated that the motion of objects on Earth and of celestial bodies could be described by the same principles. His prediction that Earth should be shaped as an oblate spheroid was later vindicated by the measurements of Maupertuis, La Condamine, and others, which helped convince most Continental European scientists of the superiority of Newtonian mechanics over the earlier system of Descartes.


Newton built the first practical reflecting telescope and developed a theory of color based on the observation that a prism decomposes white light into the many colors of the visible spectrum. He formulated an empirical law of cooling, studied the speed of sound, and introduced the notion of a Newtonian fluid. In addition to his work on calculus, as a mathematician Newton contributed to the study of power series, generalized the binomial theorem to non-integer exponents, developed a method for approximating the roots of a function, and classified most of the cubic plane curves.

Newton was a fellow of Trinity College and the second Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at the University of Cambridge. He was a devout but unorthodox Christian and, unusually for a member of the Cambridge faculty of the day, he refused to take holy orders in the Church of England, perhaps because he privately rejected the doctrine of the Trinity. He was a devout, but unorthodox, Christian. Beyond his work on the mathematical sciences, Newton dedicated much of his time to the study of biblical chronology and alchemy, but most of his work in those areas remained unpublished until long after his death. In his later life, Newton became president of the Royal Society. Newton served the British government as Warden and Master of the Royal Mint.


I am going to assume that you either are familiar with Newton’s work in physics and mathematics, or don’t want a lesson from me. Instead I’ll focus on a few lesser known aspects of his life and work. First , here are two well-known quotes that I think adequately display his humility:

If I have seen further than others, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants.

I was like a boy playing on the sea-shore, and diverting myself now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.

These are less well known:

We build too many walls and not enough bridges.

Genius is patience.

Plato is my friend; Aristotle is my friend, but my greatest friend is truth.

I can calculate the motion of heavenly bodies, but not the madness of people.

We could use him around today. As many of my readers know, I do not use superlatives such as “best” in relation to the greats of the world or their works. But I certainly stand in absolute awe and wonder at what Newton accomplished. Here’s a few tidbits from his life.


Although born into an Anglican family, by his thirties Newton held a Christian faith that would not have been considered orthodox by contemporary Christianity, and, in consequence, he did not make his fundamental beliefs public. By 1672 he had started to record his theological researches in notebooks which he showed to no one and which have only recently been examined. They demonstrate an extensive knowledge of early church writings and show that in the conflict between Athanasius and Arius, which spawned the Nicene Creed, he took the side of Arius, the loser, who rejected the conventional view of the Trinity. Newton saw Christ as a divine mediator between God and humans, who was subordinate to the Father who created him. He wrote, “the great apostasy is trinitarianism.” Newton tried unsuccessfully to obtain one of the two fellowships that exempted the holder from the ordination requirement. At the last moment in 1675 he received a dispensation from the government that excused him and all future holders of the Lucasian chair from being ordained.

Newton was not a deist, in the conventional way, however. Rejecting trinitarianism did not mean rejecting Christianity. Although the laws of motion and universal gravitation became Newton’s best-known discoveries, he warned against using them to view the universe as a mere machine, as if akin to a great clock. He said, “Gravity explains the motions of the planets, but it cannot explain who set the planets in motion. God governs all things and knows all that is or can be done.”


Newton wrote works on Biblical textual criticism, most notably An Historical Account of Two Notable Corruptions of Scripture. He placed the crucifixion of Jesus Christ at 3 April, AD 33, which is now one of several dates accepted by some scholars. He believed in a rationally immanent world, but he rejected the hylozoism (matter is living) implicit in Leibniz and Baruch Spinoza. The ordered and dynamically informed universe could be understood, and must be understood, as directed by active reason. In his correspondence, Newton claimed that in writing the Principia “I had an eye upon such Principles as might work with considering men for the belief of a Deity”. He saw evidence of design in the system of the world: “Such a wonderful uniformity in the planetary system must be allowed the effect of choice”. But Newton insisted that divine intervention would eventually be required to reform the system, due to the slow growth of instabilities. For this, Leibniz lampooned him: “God Almighty wants to wind up his watch from time to time: otherwise it would cease to move. He had not, it seems, sufficient foresight to make it a perpetual motion machine.”

Newton and Robert Boyle’s approach to a mechanical philosophy was promoted by rationalist pamphleteers as a viable alternative to the pantheists and enthusiasts, and was accepted hesitantly by orthodox preachers as well as some dissidents. The clarity and simplicity of science was seen as a way to combat the emotional and metaphysical superlatives of both superstitious enthusiasm and the threat of atheism, and at the same time, the second wave of English deists used Newton’s discoveries to demonstrate the possibility of a “Natural Religion”.


In a manuscript Newton wrote in 1704, in which he describes his attempts to extract scientific information from the Bible, he estimated that the world would end no earlier than 2060. In predicting this he said, “This I mention not to assert when the time of the end shall be, but to put a stop to the rash conjectures of fanciful men who are frequently predicting the time of the end, and by doing so bring the sacred prophesies into discredit as often as their predictions fail.”

It is now just beginning to be recognized in the wider intellectual world that Newton spent over 30 years studying and writing about alchemy. John Maynard Keynes, who acquired many of Newton’s writings on alchemy, asserted that “Newton was not the first of the age of reason: He was the last of the magicians.” Newton’s interest in alchemy cannot be isolated from his contributions to science. In Newton’s day there was no clear distinction between alchemy and science. Had he not relied on the occult idea of action at a distance, across a vacuum, he might not have developed his theory of gravity. Newton’s writings suggest that one of the goals of his alchemy was the discovery of The Philosopher’s Stone (a material believed to turn base metals into gold), and perhaps to a lesser extent, the discovery of the highly coveted Elixir of Life. Some practices of alchemy were banned in England during Newton’s lifetime, due in part to unscrupulous practitioners who would often promise wealthy benefactors unrealistic results in an attempt to swindle them. The English Crown, also fearing the potential devaluation of gold, should The Philosopher’s Stone actually be discovered, made penalties for alchemy very severe, including execution.


The story of Newton and the apple has sometimes been debunked as legend, and often popularly altered to claim that the apple struck him on the head. In fact, Newton himself often told the story that he was inspired to formulate his theory of gravitation by watching the fall of an apple from a tree. Acquaintances of Newton (such as William Stukeley, whose manuscript account of 1752 has been made available by the Royal Society) do in fact confirm the incident. Stukeley recorded in his Memoirs of Sir Isaac Newton’s Life a conversation with Newton in Kensington on 15 April 1726:

we went into the garden, & drank tea under the shade of some appletrees; only he, & my self. amidst other discourse, he told me, he was just in the same situation, as when formerly, the notion of gravitation came into his mind. “why should that apple always descend perpendicularly to the ground,” thought he to himself; occasion’d by the fall of an apple, as he sat in a contemplative mood. “why should it not go sideways, or upwards? but constantly to the earths center? assuredly, the reason is, that the earth draws it. there must be a drawing power in matter. & the sum of the drawing power in the matter of the earth must be in the earths center, not in any side of the earth. therefore dos this apple fall perpendicularly, or toward the center. if matter thus draws matter; it must be in proportion of its quantity. therefore the apple draws the earth, as well as the earth draws the apple.

John Conduitt, Newton’s assistant at the Royal Mint and husband of Newton’s niece, also described the event when he wrote about Newton’s life:

In the year 1666 he retired again from Cambridge to his mother in Lincolnshire. Whilst he was pensively meandering in a garden it came into his thought that the power of gravity (which brought an apple from a tree to the ground) was not limited to a certain distance from earth, but that this power must extend much further than was usually thought. Why not as high as the Moon said he to himself & if so, that must influence her motion & perhaps retain her in her orbit, whereupon he fell a calculating what would be the effect of that supposition.

It is known from his notebooks that Newton was grappling in the late 1660s with the idea that terrestrial gravity extends, in an inverse-square proportion, to the Moon; however it took him two decades to develop the full-fledged theory. The question was not whether gravity existed, but whether it extended so far from Earth that it could also be the force holding the Moon to its orbit. Newton showed that if the force decreased as the inverse square of the distance, one could indeed calculate the Moon’s orbital period, and get good agreement. He guessed the same force was responsible for other orbital motions, and hence named it “universal gravitation”.


Various trees are claimed to be “the” apple tree which Newton describes. The King’s School, Grantham, claims that the tree was purchased by the school, uprooted and transported to the headmaster’s garden some years later. The staff of the [now] National Trust-owned Woolsthorpe Manor dispute this, and claim that a tree present in their gardens is the one described by Newton. A descendant of the original tree can be seen growing outside the main gate of Trinity College, Cambridge, below the room Newton lived in when he studied there. The National Fruit Collection at Brogdale can supply grafts from their tree, which appears identical to Flower of Kent, a coarse-fleshed cooking variety.


To honor Newton I’ve culled several apple recipes from 17th century cookbooks. The first, entitled “To fry Applepies” comes from A True Gentlewomans Delight, 1653. These are like fruit empanadas or empanaditas. You need to peel the apples and chop them very fine, otherwise they will not cook when you fry the pastries. You could parboil the apples in a little sugar syrup before filling the pastry if you wish.

To fry Applepies.

Take Apples and pare them, and chop them very small, beat in a little Cinnamon, a little Ginger, and some Sugar, a little Rosewater, take your paste, roul it thin, and make them up as big Pasties as you please, to hold a spoonful or a little lesse of your Apples; and so stir them with Butter not to hastily least they be burned.

Here’s apples in wine sauce and cream from Archimagirus Anglo-Gallicus; Or, Excellent & Approved Receipts and Experiments in Cookery, 1658. The herb and spice combinations are well worth a try.

Apples in wine sauce & cream

Boil six Pippins pared, (doe not cut the cores apieces) in Claret wine, a little more than will cover them, put in of sugar a good quantity, then boil a quart of good cream, with a little rosemary and thyme, sweeten it with sugar, one spoonful of sack, when they be cold put them together, lay your Apples like Eggs: Remember to boil in your Apples some ginger, lemmon pils very thin sliced.

Finally a refreshing alternative to cider from The Closet Of the Eminently Learned Sir Kenelme Digby Kt. Opened, 1677, where, again, rosemary is the flavoring of choice.

Apple-Drink with Sugar, Honey, &c..

A very pleasant drink is made of Apples, thus: Boil sliced Apples in water, to make the water strong of Apples, as when you make to drink it for coolness and pleasure. Sweeten it with Sugar to your taste, such a quantity of sliced Apples, as would make so much water strong enough of Apples; and then bottle it up close for three or four months. There will come a thick mother at the top, which being taken off, all the rest will be very clear, and quick and pleasant to the taste, beyond any Cider. It will be the better to most tastes, if you put a very little Rosemary into the liquor when you boil it, and a little Limon-peel into each bottle when you bottle it up.

Merry Newtonian Christmas !!!

May 032015


Today is the birthday (1919) of Peter “Pete” Seeger. I’ll be quite up front about it: I dislike his music; I greatly admire his activism. He was also a really decent and friendly guy, despite all the fame. I’m going to focus here on his activism rather than his music even though they are entwined. In my mid-teens (1960’s) I was a genuine fan of the “folk scene;” all part of my nascent hippiedom. But it did not last long. My musical tastes drifted a good bit sideways to Tuvan throat singing and whatnot (still planning my first trip to Tuva when I can drum up the wherewithall to trek across Mongolia by yak). For now I content myself with old Chinese musicians playing ethereal melodies on one-string fiddles in the park on Sundays. My activist sentiments have not changed.

In 1936, at the age of 17, Pete Seeger joined the Young Communist League (YCL), then at the height of its popularity and influence. In 1942 he became a member of the Communist Party USA (CPUSA) itself, but left in 1949.


In the spring of 1941, the twenty-one-year-old Seeger performed as a member of the Almanac Singers along with Millard Lampell, Cisco Houston, Woody Guthrie, Butch and Bess Lomax Hawes, and Lee Hays. Seeger and the Almanacs cut several albums of 78s on Keynote and other labels, Songs for John Doe (recorded in late February or March and released in May 1941), the Talking Union, and an album each of sea shanties and pioneer songs. Written by Millard Lampell, Songs for John Doe was performed by Lampell, Seeger, and Hays, joined by Josh White and Sam Gary. It contained lines such as, “It wouldn’t be much thrill to die for Du Pont in Brazil,” that were sharply critical of Roosevelt’s unprecedented peacetime draft (enacted in September 1940). This anti-war/anti-draft tone reflected the Communist Party line after the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, which maintained the war was “phony” and a mere pretext for big American corporations to get Hitler to attack Soviet Russia. Seeger has said he believed this line of argument at the time—as did many fellow members of the Young Communist League. Though nominally members of the Popular Front, which was allied with Roosevelt and more moderate liberals, the YCL’s members still smarted from Roosevelt and Churchill’s arms embargo to Loyalist Spain (which Roosevelt later called a mistake), and the alliance frayed in the confusing welter of events.

At that point, the U.S. had not yet entered the war but was energetically re-arming. African Americans were barred from working in defense plants, a situation that greatly angered both African Americans and white progressives. Civil rights leader A. J. Muste and black union leaders A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin began planning a huge march on Washington to protest racial discrimination in war industries and to urge desegregation of the armed forces. The march, which many regard as the first manifestation of the Civil Rights Movement, was canceled after President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 8802 (The Fair Employment Act) of June 25, 1941, barring discrimination in hiring by companies holding federal contracts for defense work. This Presidential act defused black anger considerably, although the United States Army still refused to desegregate, declining to participate in what it considered social experimentation.


Seeger served in the U.S. Army in the Pacific. He was trained as an airplane mechanic, but was reassigned to entertain the American troops with music. Later, when people asked him what he did in the war, he always answered “I strummed my banjo.” After returning from service, Seeger and others established People’s Songs, conceived as a nationwide organization with branches on both coasts and designed to “Create, promote and distribute songs of labor and the American People.” With Pete Seeger as its director, People’s Songs worked for the 1948 presidential campaign of Roosevelt’s former Secretary of Agriculture and Vice President, Henry A. Wallace, who ran as a third-party candidate on the Progressive Party ticket. Despite having attracted enormous crowds nationwide, however, Wallace won only in New York City, and, in the red-baiting frenzy that followed, he was excoriated (as Roosevelt had not been) for accepting the help in his campaign of Communists and fellow travelers such as Seeger and singer Paul Robeson.


As a self-described “split tenor” (between an alto and a tenor), Pete Seeger was a founding member of two highly influential folk groups: The Almanac Singers and the Weavers. The Almanac Singers, which Seeger co-founded in 1941 with Millard Lampell and Arkansas singer and activist Lee Hays, was a topical group, designed to function as a singing newspaper promoting the industrial unionization movement, racial and religious inclusion, and other progressive causes. Its personnel included, at various times: Woody Guthrie, Bess Lomax Hawes, Sis Cunningham, Josh White, and Sam Gary. As a controversial Almanac singer, the 21-year-old Seeger performed under the stage name “Pete Bowers” to avoid compromising his father’s government career.

In the 1950s and, indeed, consistently throughout his life, Seeger continued his support of civil and labor rights, racial equality, international understanding, and anti-militarism (all of which had characterized the Wallace campaign) and he continued to believe that songs could help people achieve these goals. With the ever-growing revelations of Joseph Stalin’s atrocities and the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, however, he became increasingly disillusioned with Soviet Communism. He left the CPUSA in 1949 but remained friends with some who did not leave it, though he argued with them about it.

Pete Seeger at the House Un-American Activites committee

On August 18, 1955, Seeger was subpoenaed to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). Alone among the many witnesses after the 1950 conviction and imprisonment of the Hollywood Ten for contempt of Congress, Seeger refused to plead the Fifth Amendment (which would have asserted that his testimony might be self incriminating) and instead, as the Hollywood Ten had done, refused to name personal and political associations on the grounds that this would violate his First Amendment rights: “I am not going to answer any questions as to my association, my philosophical or religious beliefs or my political 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, especially under such compulsion as this.” Seeger’s refusal to answer questions that violated his fundamental Constitutional rights led to a March 26, 1957, indictment for contempt of Congress; for some years, he had to keep the federal government apprised of where he was going any time he left the Southern District of New York. He was convicted in a jury trial of contempt of Congress in March 1961, and sentenced to ten 1-year terms in jail (to be served simultaneously), but in May 1962 an appeals court ruled the indictment to be flawed and overturned his conviction.

A longstanding opponent of the arms race and of the Vietnam War, Seeger satirically attacked then-President Lyndon Johnson with his 1966 recording, on the album Dangerous Songs!?, of Len Chandler’s children’s song, “Beans in My Ears”. Beyond Chandler’s lyrics, Seeger said that “Mrs. Jay’s little son Alby” had “beans in his ears,” which, as the lyrics imply, ensures that a person does not hear what is said to them. To those opposed to continuing the Vietnam War, the phrase implied that “Alby Jay”, a loose pronunciation of Johnson’s nickname “LBJ,” did not listen to anti-war protests as he too had “beans in his ears”.

During 1966 Seeger and Malvina Reynolds took part in environmental activism. The album God Bless the Grass was released on January of that year and became the first album in history wholly dedicated to songs about environmental issues. Their politics were informed by the same ideologies of nationalism, populism, and criticism of big business.

Seeger attracted wider attention starting in 1967 with his song “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy”, about a captain—referred to in the lyrics as “the big fool”—who drowned while leading a platoon on maneuvers in Louisiana during World War II. With its lyrics about a platoon being led into danger by an ignorant captain, the song’s anti-war message was obvious- the line “the big fool said to push on” is repeated several times. In the face of arguments with the management of CBS about whether the song’s political weight was in keeping with the usually light-hearted entertainment of the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, the final lines were “Every time I read the paper/those old feelings come on/We are waist deep in the Big Muddy and the big fool says to push on.”


In 1982, Seeger performed at a benefit concert for Poland’s Solidarity resistance movement. His biographer David Dunaway considers this the first public manifestation of Seeger’s decades-long personal dislike of communism in its Soviet form. In the late 1980s Seeger also expressed disapproval of violent revolutions, remarking to an interviewer that he was really in favor of incremental change and that “the most lasting revolutions are those that take place over a period of time.” In a 1995 interview he insisted, “I still call myself a communist, because communism is no more what Russia made of it than Christianity is what the churches make of it.”

Over the years he lent his fame to support numerous environmental organizations, including South Jersey’s Bayshore Center, the home of New Jersey’s tall ship, the oyster schooner A.J. Meerwald. Seeger’s benefit concerts helped raise funds for groups so they could continue to educate and spread environmental awareness.


On May 3, 2009, at the Clearwater Concert, dozens of musicians gathered in New York at Madison Square Garden to celebrate Seeger’s 90th birthday (which was later televised on PBS during the summer), ranging from Dave Matthews, John Mellencamp, Billy Bragg, Bruce Springsteen, Tom Morello, Eric Weissberg, Ani DiFranco and Roger McGuinn to Joan Baez, Richie Havens, Joanne Shenandoah, R. Carlos Nakai, Bill Miller, Joseph Fire Crow, Margo Thunderbird, Tom Paxton, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott and Arlo Guthrie. Cuban singer-songwriter Silvio Rodríguez was also invited to appear but his visa was not approved in time by the United States government. Consistent with Seeger’s long-time advocacy for environmental concerns, the proceeds from the event benefited the Hudson River Sloop Clearwater, a non-profit organization founded by Seeger in 1966, to defend and restore the Hudson River.

Seeger died at New York-Presbyterian Hospital,on January 27, 2014, at the age of 94. Response and reaction to Seeger’s death quickly poured in. President Barack Obama noted that Seeger had been called “America’s tuning fork” and that he believed in “the power of song” to bring social change, “Over the years, Pete used his voice and his hammer to strike blows for workers’ rights and civil rights; world peace and environmental conservation, and he always invited us to sing along. For reminding us where we come from and showing us where we need to go, we will always be grateful to Pete Seeger.” Folksinger Billy Bragg wrote that: “Pete believed that music could make a difference. Not change the world, he never claimed that – he once said that if music could change the world he’d only be making music – but he believed that while music didn’t have agency, it did have the power to make a difference.” Bruce Springsteen said of Seeger’s death, “I lost a great friend and a great hero last night, Pete Seeger”, before performing “We Shall Overcome” while on tour in South Africa.


Seeger lived on the Hudson River in Beacon, NY for many years, and, of course the Hudson River valley was one of his favorite spots. I lived a little south of him and would stop by once in a while (courtesy of an odd family connexion between him and my late wife). One of my fondest memories of the region is the pick-your-own apple orchards. Yearly outings with my son were a special treat for him (“Dad, when can we go pick apples?”). So, I’d say do something with apples in honor of Pete even though it is the wrong season. My local orchard sold unpasteurized cider which fermented into a fizzy drink within days. Delicious. I can’t tell you how many ways I cooked those apples, my favorite being apple crumble (see http://www.bookofdaystales.com/samuel-johnson/).

When I used to roast a Christmas goose I always stuffed it with sliced apples tossed in powdered cinnamon, allspice and cloves (sage and onion “stuffing” I roasted on the side to avoid the excessive fat inside the goose). As a side dish I made red cabbage and apples. We were a small family for Christmas dinner; Boxing Day was the big blowout. In consequence I made only a little (plenty of other side dishes).


© Red Cabbage and Apples.

Thinly slice ½ a red cabbage and toss it with thick slices of peeled apples. Let sit in a bowl covered in water acidulated with lemon juice. This stops the apples from browning and keeps the cabbage bright when cooking. After an hour or so, drain the apple-cabbage mixture and place in a stainless steel pan over medium heat. Add a knob of butter and a dusting of powdered cloves. Let cook gently for 10 to 15 minutes. You want the cabbage to retain some crunchiness. Serve in a heated bowl as a side dish for any fatty meat such as goose or pork.