Folk singer and political activist Pete Seeger, who died Tuesday at age 94, was more than a folk singer, of course. He also was a political radical, and for all the gentleness of his lyrics, he seemed to have been built around a spine of steel.
Seeger was already a popular entertainer and political activist when on Aug. 18, 1955, he was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee, the witch-hunt tribunal that sought to ferret out information on what it deemed subversive activities. Many witnesses, such as movie director Elia Kazan, named names. Many others invoked their 5th Amendment right against self-incrimination in refusing to answer the committee's questions about their past political activities and friends. Quite a few of those who refused to answer went to prison.
Seeger took a different tack. When he sat before the committee, he both declined to answer the questions about his friends and affiliations, and he refused to invoke the 5th Amendment.
It was none of the committee's business what he thought and with whom he thought it, Seeger said, a stance for which he was sentenced to prison for contempt of Congress, though he successfully appealed the conviction. But his stance cost him professionally; he remained banned from television until the late 1960s.
Then again, Seeger was an unabashed Stalinist in the prewar years, at a time when a lot of leftists saw the Soviet Union as an alternative system to the capitalist United States, then in the midst of the Depression. The Communist Party USA was also one of the few groups in that era actively working against racial segregation in the U.S., which gained it some sympathies among African Americans.
While the American left largely abandoned Stalin and the Soviet Union once the scope of Stalin’s purges and ordered murders became known -- and after the federal government began prosecuting American communists -- Seeger was slow to come around with a public denunciation, something his critics have been citing in the wake of his death.
Yeah, Seeger should have renounced Stalin earlier. His failure to do so, though, doesn't trump the scope of his career and the breadth of his belief in trying to elevate the lowest among us, through song if not through deeds.
And, as I mentioned at the beginning, he had a spine of steel. The following is a snippet of the transcript of Seeger's appearance and exchanges with HUAC attorney Frank Tavenner, Chairman Francis E. Walter, a conservative Democratic congressman from Pennsylvania, and committee member Gordon Scherer, an Ohio Republican. More of the transcript is at Seeger's website.
MR. TAVENNER: Mr. Seeger, prior to your entry in the service in 1942, were you engaged in the practice of your profession in the area of New York?
CHAIRMAN WALTER: Will you answer the question, please?
CHAIRMAN WALTER: Did you practice your profession?
MR. SEEGER: I sang for people, yes, before World War II, and I also did as early as 1925.
MR. TAVENNER: And upon your return from the service in December of 1945, you continued in your profession?
MR. SEEGER: I continued singing, and I expect I always will.
MR. TAVENNER: The committee has information obtained in part from the Daily Worker indicating that, over a period of time, especially since December of 1945, you took part in numerous entertainment features. I have before me a photostatic copy of the June 20, 1947, issue of the Daily Worker. In a column entitled “What’s On” appears this advertisement: “Tonight-Bronx, hear Peter Seeger and his guitar, at Allerton Section housewarming.” May I ask you whether or not the Allerton Section was a section of the Communist Party?
MR. SEEGER: Sir, I refuse to answer that question whether it was a quote from the New York Times or the Vegetarian Journal.
MR. TAVENNER: I don’t believe there is any more authoritative document in regard to the Communist Party than its official organ, the Daily Worker.
MR. SCHERER: He hasn’t answered the question, and he merely said he wouldn’t answer whether the article appeared in the New York Times or some other magazine. I ask you to direct the witness to answer the question.
CHAIRMAN WALTER: I direct you to answer.
MR. SEEGER: Sir, the whole line of questioning --
CHAIRMAN WALTER: You have only been asked one question, so far.
MR. SEEGER: 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.
MR. TAVENNER: Has the witness declined to answer this specific question?
CHAIRMAN WALTER: He said that he is not going to answer any questions, any names or things.
MR. SCHERER: He was directed to answer the question.