I imagine everyone is aware that the incomparable Pete Seeger died this week. I don’t have anything to add to the tributes already paid to him as a folk archivist, musician, song writer, peace activist, environmentalist, and yes, radical.
We live in a time where those who refuse to conform are vilified much like they were in the McCarthy era. If Seeger had never made a single record, he would be an American hero based upon the courageous stand he took when he was forced to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1955. The HUAC committee interrogated more than 3,000 government officials, labor union leaders, teachers, journalists, entertainers, and others. They wanted to purge Communists, former Communists, and “fellow travelers” who refused to renounce their past and inform on associates from positions of influence within American society.
When they accused Seeger of performing for Communist front organizations, he refused to invoke the Fifth Amendment, instead he insisted that the Committee had no right to question him about his political beliefs or associations.
When asked if he had performed at Communist Party functions he said:
Mr. SEEGER: I have sung for Americans of every political persuasion, and I am proud that I never refuse to sing to an audience, no matter what religion or color of their skin, or situation in life. I have sung in hobo jungles, and I have sung for the Rockefellers, and I am proud that I have never refused to sing for anybody. That is the only answer I can give along that line.
The counsel for the committee continued to badger Seeger until he finally said,
Mr. SEEGER: I decline to discuss, under compulsion, where I have sung, and who has sung my songs, and who else has sung with me, and the people I have known. I love my country very dearly, and I greatly resent this implication that some of the places that I have sung and some of the people that I have known, and some of my opinions, whether they are religious or philosophical, or I might be a vegetarian, make me any less of an American. I will tell you about my songs, but I am not interested in telling you who wrote them, and I will tell you about my songs, and I am not interested in who listened to them. . . .
Pete Seeger was sentenced to a year in prison for contempt, but the verdict was reversed in 1962. Nevertheless, Seeger remained on a network television blacklist until the late 1960s.
He went on to record hits with The Weavers and on his own over the years. His musicianship is often overlooked because of his impact as an activist. But, as this clip of him singing “Wimoweh” from the 40th anniversary concert of The Weavers shows, he was an intense and riveting entertainer.