Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Pete Seeger, May 3rd 1919 to January 27th 2014



"I make my living as a banjo-picker. Sort of damning, in some peoples' opinion."
Pete Seeger before the House UnAmerican Activities Committee (HUAC), 1955

Being hauled before Senator McCarthy’s House Un-American Activities Committee and then defying it should have long ago been elevated to a badge of honor in this country. If anyone should have a day named after him, or a Nobel Peace Prize given to him, it’s Pete Seeger.

And yet Pete and his ideals were vilified by the false patriots, the powerful and the ignorant right up to his death yesterday, while at the same time being deeply loved by literally everyone else, which is practically everyone in this land, which is you and me.

It’s far past time for us to decide whose land this is. Not for them to decide. For us, and you know what I mean. You also know the answer, just as I know it, and we all know that if we live morally and ethically by that answer we will be shunned and vilified by the powerful, the false patriots and the ignorant for being the thoughtful Americans that we know we are. Pete was our shining example for the right way to live, to speak out, to sing out. During these current times of hi-tech snooping and moralistic Teabaggery, we need to remind ourselves that there’s nothing new under the sun, and that, along with grieving Pete’s passing, that Pete is and will always remain the answer we seek.

How do we answer those hate-driven reactionaries who would drive us over the edge of the world while daring to vilify us as “traitors” for the sake of enriching those who are already too rich? Ask Pete. How do we answer the techno-crazed N.S.A. and their apologists when they flush our most basic tenets of Privacy and Democracy down the toilet for the sake of “security”? Again, ask Pete

There’s so much I could say about what Pete Seeger meant to me. A lot of it, I suppose, I’ve already said or could go without saying for now. What I need now, during this time of Pete’s passing, is a good laugh along with a good cry, and so I’ll steer you to Pete’s testimony before the HUAC on August 18th, 1955 http://www.peteseeger.net/HUAC.htm . I can’t do justice to the whole thing, because it’s a masterpiece, much like Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech, and it should be similarly enshrined as one of our touchstone democratic documents, the definitive Truth spoken to the immoral, self-righteous misuse of Power we will be fighting against for the rest of our lives.

I’ll just present a few of Pete’s gems, spoken before this whacked-out committee, so we can laugh with him as he answers the chairman and the lawyers trying to trick him into incriminating his friends who would have the audacity to believe that they could make Democracy work.

Did I say "whacked-out"? For context, let’s remind ourselves who the committee’s chairman was, the guy asking Pete the self-righteous questions. Francis Walter was a Democratic congressman from Pennsylvania. He had a reputation as a “staunch anti-communist” which in those days translated into virulent anti-immigration policies. He once presented President Roosevelt with a letter opener made of an arm bone of a fallen Japanese soldier. Additionally, he served a stint as director of the Pioneer Fund, a racist “foundation” that funded “studies” to prove that whites were superior to other races. He had a dam named after him.

There's nothing new under the sun.

House UnAmerican Activities Committee, August 18th, 1955

The committee had been directing Pete, under threat of contempt charges, to answer numerous questions, the answers to which would have, in the committee members’ minds, implicated Pete’s friends and associates with a supposed “plan” by the Communist Party to “subvert” America. The following is his response:

PETE: “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….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.”

CHAIRMAN WALTER: “Why don't you make a little contribution toward preserving its institutions?”

PETE: “I feel that my whole life is a contribution. That is why I would like to tell you about it.”

CHAIRMAN WALTER: “I don't want to hear about it.”

The questioning continues. Pete politely and consistently refuses to participate. At one point, Frank Tavenner, chief counsel for HUAC, asks him if he performed a certain song at a Fourth of July summer camp in New York the committee has labeled a “communist front” organization.

PETE: “Again, I say I will be glad to tell what songs I have ever sung, because singing is my business. But I decline to say who has ever listened to them, who has written them, or other people who have sung them.”

MR. TAVENNER: “Did you sing this song, to which we have referred, "Now Is the Time," at Wingdale Lodge on the weekend of July Fourth?”

PETE: “I don't know any song by that name, and I know a song with a similar name. It is called "Wasn't That a Time." Is that the song?”

CHAIRMAN WALTER: “Did you sing that song?”

PETE: “I can sing it. I don't know how well I can do it without my banjo.”

The questioning continues. Pete politely and consistently refuses to participate. Finally Tavenner hands Pete a photograph of himself in a military uniform with a placard titled “censored”. He asks Pete to identify himself.

PETE: “It is like Jesus Christ when asked by Pontius Pilate, "Are you king of the Jews?"

CHAIRMAN WALTER: “Stop that.”

And on and on....

Pete was finally sentenced to a year in jail for contempt of Congress. He appealed his case, and was exhonerated after a seven year legal battle. In the meantime, and even after he was exonerated, he was blacklisted, which meant that he was not asked to perform at any venue run by anyone with less courage than Pete who felt they had something to lose by associating with him. For example, although Pete was central to the folk revival in the 50s and 60s, including the revival of the concept of the “Hootenany”, when network television aired a series called “Hootenanny” in the early sixties, Pete was not asked to appear. A few artists, such as Joan Baez, boycotted the show, but many, including some of Pete’s friends, did not.

That’s how you fight it, this ugliness we struggle with now. It’s always the same. If you’re serious about it, you do the right thing. 

"I still believe," Pete said in 1979, "the only chance for the human race to survive is to give up such pleasures as war, racism and private profit."                           

Pete is not at peace now. Pete is Peace. Be strong. Be kind. Be unapologetic.

Long live Pete Seeger!


Bring Them Home by Pete Seeger
If you love your Uncle Sam,
Bring them home, bring them home.
Support our boys in Vietnam,
Bring them home, bring them home.
It'll make our generals sad, I know,
Bring them home, bring them home.
They want to tangle with the foe,
Bring them home, bring them home.

They want to test their weaponry,
Bring them home, bring them home.
But here is their big fallacy,
Bring them home, bring them home.
I may be right, I may be wrong,
Bring them home, bring them home.
But I got a right to sing this song,
Bring them home, bring them home.


There’s one thing I must confess,
Bring them home, bring them home.
I'm not really a pacifist,
Bring them home, bring them home.
If an army invaded this land of mine,
Bring them home, bring them home.
You'd find me out on the firing line,
Bring them home, bring them home.

Even if they brought their planes to bomb,
Bring them home, bring them home.
Even if they brought helicopters and napalm,
Bring them home, bring them home.
Show those generals their fallacy:
Bring them home, bring them home.
They don't have the right weaponry,
Bring them home, bring them home.

For defense you need common sense,
Bring them home, bring them home.
They don't have the right armaments,
Bring them home, bring them home.
The world needs teachers, books and schools,
Bring them home, bring them home.
And learning a few universal rules,
Bring them home, bring them home.

So if you love your Uncle Same,
Bring them home, bring them home.
Support our boys in Vietnam,
Bring them home, bring them home.

Below is one thought of mine at Pete's passing. I don't feel as negative as the verse below suggests, but I think if you substitute the word "squelch" for "kill", it'd be about right. If you're a folksinger and are familiar with the song "Victor Jara", this works as an extra verse:

You can kill the singer
but you cannot kill the song
Unless you can kill everyone 
who wants to sing along
Let your hands be gentle 
let your hands be strong.

3 comments:

  1. RIP Pete, a true American hero who sang Truth to Power.

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  2. I saw him singing Early Morning on the Colbert Report not long ago - very moving and Colbert was star struck in the company of such a legend and an outright American treasure.

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    1. Thanks, Dave. I was wondering who was reading this stuff. Stay tuned. The reason I haven't posted much is because I'm working on a longer piece with a working title: "What's Bigger Than the Land" centered around--what else given it's written by me?--Wilderness! Fact-checking welcome.

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