My summer camp used to take all the kids on a trip to see Pete Seeger every year. We would sail on his boat, the Clearwater, and spend a day pulling weeds out of the Hudson. At the end he sang to us. I was aware that the counselors considered this a big deal, but that was all I knew; I didn’t have much folk music around the house. To me he was just a friendly old guy with a banjo and a Greek fisherman’s hat. He exuded good nature, and talked to the kids the same way as the adults. I remember thinking he was by far the oldest guy I’d ever heard sing so powerfully. He went on to sing for another 20 years. Of course, as he himself acknowledged, he had a trick: he got you to sing, too.
If you do one thing on the internet today, read the transcript of his testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee. It is worthy of Lewis Carroll, a masterpiece of gentle but firm obfuscation. I love the difference between how the committee talks and how he talks. It’s like a Zen koan. Here’s an excerpt from a long line of questioning about whether Seeger had performed at a Communist party event:
MR. SEEGER: I shall be glad to answer about the song, sir, and I am not interested in carrying on the line of questioning about where I have sung any songs.
MR. TAVENNER: I ask a direction.
CHAIRMAN WALTER: You may not be interested, but we are, however. I direct you to answer. You can answer that question.
MR. SEEGER: I feel these questions are improper, sir, and I feel they are immoral to ask any American this kind of question.
MR. TAVENNER: Have you finished your answer?
MR. SEEGER: Yes, sir.
MR. TAVENNER: I desire to offer the document in evidence and ask that it be marked “Seeger exhibit No.4,” for identification only, and to be made a part of the Committee files.
MR. SEEGER: I am sorry you are not interested in the song. It is a good song.
How’s this for a statement of purpose:
MR. TAVENNER: It is a fact that he so testified. I want to know whether or not you were engaged in a similar type of service to the Communist Party in entertaining at these features.
(Witness consulted with counsel.)
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.
I love how he subtly asserts his superiority over the questioner (emphasis mine):
MR. SEEGER: “These features”: what do you mean? Except for the answer I have already given you, I have no answer. The answer I gave you you have, don’t you? That is, that I am proud that I have sung for Americans of every political persuasion, and I have never refused to sing for anybody because I disagreed with their political opinion, 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. I know many beautiful songs from your home county, Carbon, and Monroe, and I hitchhiked through there and stayed in the homes of miners.
MR. TAVENNER: My question was whether or not you sang at these functions of the Communist Party. You have answered it inferentially, and if I understand your answer, you are saying you did.
MR. SEEGER: Except for that answer, I decline to answer further.
MR. SEEGER: My answer is the same as before, sir. I can only infer from your lack of interest in my songs that you are actually scared to know what these songs are like, because there is nothing wrong with my songs, sir.
This man was not singing about bombing the fucking Capitol building, either. Probably the most violent thing he sang about was hammering out love between his brothers and his sisters all over this land. And he was right: powerful people were deeply fucking scared. Throughout the proceedings, Seeger refused to answer pretty much all the questions, while also refusing to invoke the Fifth Amendment. He was held in contempt, and sentenced to some jail time, but successfully appealed the conviction after a long court battle.
Generally when I hear someone refer to someone else as “a great American”, I keep my hand firmly on my wallet and throw a cautious glance behind me. The subject of the speech is generally someone like Ronald Reagan, and the speaker is generally another politician who wants a piece of his cred so he (almost always he) can have your support to knock down the old orphanage to build an oil pipeline or whatever. But I’m going to say it: Pete Seeger was a great American. We are the poorer for his absence.