The words on the front of Pete Seeger’s banjo say, “This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender.” And that is the legacy of Pete Seeger’s music and activism for the last seventy plus years. He has inspired musicians and young politicals with the inspiration of community and justice and peace. From his friendship with Woody Guthrie, his work in the civil rights movement, his environmental activism, to his involvement with the Occupy movement, he has been fearless and committed. The musician David Amram said of his friend, “Ever since he chose his path, he has stayed on it and walked the walk he talked and inspired generations to raise our voices in song, to always think of others, to respect ourselves and all who cross our paths and to share whatever blessings we have with others.” Bruce Springsteen said that at the rehearsal for Obama’s Inaugural he asked Seeger which verses he wanted to sing of “This Land is Your Land.” Pete said, he wanted to sing ALL of Woody’s verses including that one about property. Commenting on Seeger’s courage, Springsteen said in his introduction to Pete’s 90th birthday party, “He sings all the verses, all the time.” (Watch “This Land is Your Land” below with Seeger’s grandson, Tao, and Bruce Springsteen to understand this.)
On August 18, 1955, Pete Seeger was brought before the House on Unamerican Activities to testify. He was masterful in his responses. It is truly worthwhile to read his entire testimony. Unlike others brought before the same committee, he did not plead the Fifth Amendment, but rather invoked his First Amendment rights. A very brave stance in the context of the McCarthy hearings of 1955. (Excerpts of his testimony are posted below.) He was sentenced for a year for contempt of Congress but appealed his case which was finally settled in 1962. He was banned from television and film until 1967, when he appeared on the Smothers Brothers Show. Two excerpts from that show are the last two videos posted. (The second one, “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy” was censored by CBS at the last minute because they felt it was too controversial. It was eventually broadcast after the Smothers Brothers publicly fought this censorship.) The years he was banned from commercial broadcast he spent traveling the college and cafe circuit.
For his genuineness and heartfelt connections to all through his music and his being, for helping us all believe that we can make change in this world for good, “So long. It’s been good to know ya.”
I will tell you what my answer is. I feel that in my whole life I have never done anything of any conspiratorial nature and I resent very much and very deeply the implication of being called before this Committee that in some way because my opinions may be different from yours, or yours, Mr. Willis, or yours, Mr. Scherer, that I am any less of an American than anybody else. I love my country very deeply, sir.
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…. and I am proud of the fact that my songs seem to cut across and find perhaps a unifying thing, basic humanity,and that is why I would love to be able to tell you about these songs, because I feel that you would agree with me more, sir.
[T]he songs are the clearest explanation of what I do believe in, as a musician, and as an American…I am saying voluntarily that I have sung for almost every religious group in the country, from Jewish and Catholic, and Presbyterian and Holy Rollers and Revival Churches, and I do this voluntarily…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.