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.

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9 Responses to “Seeger”

  1. Marcia Castro Says:

    Before I moved to Warwick in I lived in Cold Spring. Almost every weekend I would hike in the woods near my house with some friends and sometimes our trail would take us right past the cabin where Pete Seeger lived with his wife. She was legendary for living alone there when he was on the road performing and she would walk down a steep trail to get water from a spring for their cabin, even when she was pregnant and carrying another child on her hip in the early years. We also saw him frequently at the Metro North train station, waiting for the train to NYC. We all admired him but no one to my knowledge ever bothered him or approached him except to give him a peace sign as we passed by. He would return it with a smile and a bow.

  2. Jo Galante Cicale Says:

    the best piece of read about seeger. thank you.

  3. Lee Steup Says:

    I sailed with Pete and sang with him and the others at the sloop club gatherings for a number of years when I edited the BSC newsletter. One day he and I were talking about my job as a journalist when he commented that while we give performers all kinds of attention, ask for their autographs, and so on, we never give acclaim to people who do other jobs well. There are carpenters, teachers, gardeners, tradespeople…. They deserve applause, too. We never ask for their autographs, but we should.
    That was so typical of Pete. Now there’s talk of naming the Tappan Zee Bridge after him. I can almost hear him laughing and then humbly refusing the honor. He’d be much happier if we initiated a scholarship fund for some kids to study environmental conservation or maybe folk music.

  4. Mary Makofske Says:

    I crossed paths with Pete Seeger a number of times and was always impressed with his modesty, his humor, his twinkling eyes, and of course, his talent and courage. One of the English professors at OCCC was telling her class in Newburgh about Pete and said he lived right across the river. “Can you invite him to come to class?” they asked. She was doubtful he would, but she invited him. And he came. “Pete Seeger: The Power of Song” is a wonderful film (available on Netflix) that gives highlights of his life. As for naming a bridge after him, here’s a better idea: Sign a petition that urges Obama and Cuomo to ban fracking in honor of Pete Seeger. Now that’s something Pete would be proud of.

  5. R C Taplin Says:

    Amen to Geoff Page re pete seeger I doubt if i could say any better. well yes I probably counld have said it am itsy better well maybe not

  6. Jeffrey Page Says:

    I never met Pete Seeger (except for the time he accidentally stepped on my daughter’s hand at the Freeze rally in Central Park),but I’ve heard from several people who met him and/or knew him about his modesty. One example I came across was from a guy who wanted to congratulate Pete on some thing musical, but Pete changed the subject to ask about the man’s life and work.

    Aside from that, when you consider all that he accomplished, you walk away knowing that you’d been in the company of quite a human being.


  7. Emily Cannizzaro Says:

    I was so fortunate to be raised on his music and to have seen him at least half a dozen times. Once, front row in Carnegie Hall as he sang Abiyoyo and danced around the stage it was all I could do to keep my 5 year old tush in my chair! I used that book and song while I was teaching and was told by my professor, “If you ever go on an interview and they want you to do a lesson on the spot…Do that and you’ll get the job.” That felt good. All of what I know of Pete Seeger felt, and still feels, good.

    Thank you for writing about his experiences with the HUAC. I knew a bit of it but, as always, your writing is so illuminating and I’m so lucky that you’re part of my tribe.

    Well done, you!

  8. MichaelKaufman Says:

    I’m with Jo: This is the best piece among all I read after Pete died. I was lucky enough to have met and chatted with him, albeit briefly, on a couple of occasions, decades apart. But my favorite memory was attending his first concert after his release from jail for “Contempt of Congress.” It was at Town Hall in New York and he shared the bill with Hedy West and a ham-fisted country banjo player whose named I don’t remember. When Pete walked onto the stage the audience stood as one and cheered…and didn’t stop until Pete finally began to strum his banjo and sing “Wasn’t That a Time.”

  9. Emily Theroux Says:

    I just read your piece, Jeff, and I’m with Jo and Michael — the very best! I never met Pete Seeger, either, but Lance and I once had an opportunity to go “backstage” (inside a large tent on a sweltering day) during the July 4th Star-Spangled Spectacular at Thomas Bull Memorial Park, back in the early ’90s when both of us still worked at the THR. Pete was inside with his grandson, Tao Rodríguez-Seeger, and Lance took a few pictures of them. (We just found the prints again last fall, stashed inside an old school desk, and Lance combined several of the images to make a poster.)

    Lance’s dad, a historian who worked for the U.S. Army during the McCarthy era and later became White House correspondent for The Washington Star, was also questioned by HUAC. An unidentified party guest who had taken a look at his extensive personal library had apparently reported him to the committee, on suspicion that he might be “subversive” because of a handful of controversial tomes on his bookshelves. He wasn’t asked to identify or testify about anyone else, but Lance recalls that he was unnerved and humiliated by the encounter and generally declined to talk about it.

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