How Pete Seeger (1919-2014) made my high school famous

And not entirely in a good way.

The great folk singer and hero of the protest movement died Monday at the age of 94. He had lived and performed long enough for several generations of Americans to have forgotten what made him famous, so let’s pause here to remember.

To start with, there are the songs he wrote or co-wrote that have long since passed into the cultural repertoire, so much so that some may be mistaken for traditionals: “Turn, Turn, Turn,” his setting from the Book of Ecclesiastes made into a hit by the Byrds; “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?”; and first and foremost, “If I Had a Hammer.” There’s his remarkable presence on stage, which placed the words and emotion of his songs in the foreground, delivering them in a voice as ringing and clear as Joan Baez’s.

There’s his role as a standard-bearer for the Vietnam antiwar and civil rights movements; and his resistance to bullying by posturing fanatics like the members of the House Un-American Activities Committee. Summoned to the HUAC in 1955 to explain his Communist past, he flatly refused to name names or even plead the 5th Amendment.


Instead he challenged the committee’s right to ask him any questions about “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.” He was convicted of contempt of Congress and sentenced to jail, but the conviction was thrown out.

In the 1960s, scheduling a public concert by Pete Seeger was almost a political act. A Seeger concert at a San Diego school was threatened with cancellation by the school board, but the organizers obtained an injunction and the show went on.

That brings us to my school, W. Tresper Clarke High School in East Meadow, N.Y., on Long Island. A community cultural group that rented the school auditorium for $100 a night scheduled a Seeger appearance for March 12, 1966. The previous November, however, the school board received a complaint, met hastily, and canceled the concert.

Its rationale was that Seeger was so controversial that a public uproar might lead to property damage on the school grounds; its rationale included the fact that a year earlier Seeger had given a concert in Moscow, at which he sang a Vietnam protest song to a student audience. He explained at the time: “I wanted to show students here the kind of songs we’re singing on college campuses in the United States. It would be wrong to leave that one out.”


East Meadow was in the heart of politically conservative and unremittingly Republican Nassau County, and that did not sit well. “Injecting him into our community in East Meadow we thought would stir passions, create discord, [and] disharmony,” the board stated.

The next step was court. The trial judge in state court ruled against the concert association, stating that the board had been entirely within its rights to cancel. But the case then went to the Court of Appeals, which is New York’s top court.

There, the judges set forth a ringing principle of free speech that still stands, with the names of the East Meadow School Board and Clarke High School attached to it. The board wasn’t required by law to make school facilities available for outside activities, the court ruled, but once it does so, it can’t discriminate--especially when the rationale is “the unpopularity of Seeger’s views rather than the unlawfulness of the plaintiff’s concert.” To do so amounts to prior restraint and is therefore unconstitutional, the court majority ruled.

One interesting aspect of the case was that by the time the case was heard, the concert had already been cancelled and its scheduled date passed. The defendants tried to argue that the whole issue was moot. Nothing doing, the Court of Appeals said--this was an important issue of constitutional law, and it was determined to state its opinion.

Seeger finally performed at Clarke, four days short of one year late. There were 300 protesters outside, and 1,100 fans inside.