By Jeffrey Page
We loved his voice, we loved his banjo. We loved “Turn, Turn, Turn,” “If I Had a Hammer,” “We Shall Overcome” and all the others he wrote for us. We loved his sense of humor and his uncanny ability to get 3,000 people at Carnegie Hall – mostly strangers to one another – to open their mouths and sing with him. We loved the fact that he was always there. Whether the issue was Vietnam, civil rights, the environment, voting rights, sexism, or the inarguable right of the people of the Hudson Valley to have a swimmable river free of garbage and chemicals, he was there.
But now I go back to something else: a hearing room at the Federal Courthouse in downtown Manhattan 59 years ago, as the House UnAmerican Activities convened for another in its Communist witch hunts. It took extraordinary courage to tell HUAC, in a voice at once polite and defiant, to go to hell. But that is precisely what he did, and for this he would pay.
He was questioned about his political activities, and about the places and events where he had performed. He would not answer. Even more important to HUAC was who was at those meetings and performances. But he would not name names. He said he would answer any questions from the committee about himself or about his songs, but would refuse to discuss individuals.
At one point he was asked about an item that had appeared in 1947 in the Daily Worker. The paper, published by the Communist Party U.S.A., noted that he would be singing at an event called the Allerton Section Housewarming.
Was the Allerton Section part of the Communist party, a committee staffer asked.
“Sir,” he responded, “I refuse to answer that question whether it was a quote from the New York Times or the Vegetarian Journal.”
Francis Walter, the chairman of HUAC, directed him to respond.
And this was his response: “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 would be very glad to tell you my life if you want to hear of it.”
This was the kind of answer to HUAC, and its like-minded friends in the Senate, that had cost countless people in and out of the entertainment industry their jobs and livelihoods.
HUAC members and staffers peppered him repeatedly with questions about the places he sang and the people who attended his music, and he refused to give in.
At one point he said: “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. I will tell you about my songs, and I am not interested in who listened to them.”
He defined what it is to stand on principle, on honor. His was the kind of declaration that ought to be hung in classrooms, right next to the American flag. He was cited for contempt of Congress for his refusal to talk about his friends and acquaintances, and sentenced to one year in jail. The conviction was tossed on appeal. But the damage was done, and he lost entertainment gigs and was barred from appearing on network television for several years.
We will remember this man for his music, his integrity, and his courage in the darkest of times.