Pete Seeger died this week at age 94. He was a man of so many accomplishments, though he said he thought his greatest accomplishment was finishing his book “How to Play the 5 String Banjo.” He was simple and humble with a deep love of music and people, and he was driven in his mission to get everybody to sing together.
Thinking about Pete Seeger this week also made me think about the House Committee on Un-American Activities.
It was created in 1938 to investigate subversive and disloyal activities of private citizens and organizations. Mainly it was looking for any ties to Communism and the Communist Party. It investigated people’s private lives, associations, friends, what they read, where they went … does this sound familiar?
It ruined a number of lives on rumors, sketchy evidence, and guilt by association. During a nine day investigation, the committee came up with a list of 300 names that became the Hollywood Blacklist. These were people working in the motion picture industry that supposedly had some kind of Communist ties. Nobody on the list could find work in Hollywood. Some, like Orson Welles and Charlie Chaplin, left the country and lived in exile. Those who couldn’t leave had their careers shattered.
Pete Seeger was proud of his activism for social justice, and he was proud to have been a “wobbly”, a member of Workers of the World, so it’s no surprise he was subpoenaed by the committee in 1955. He refused to answer any questions about his political associations or what he read (he was accused of having read the Daily Worker, the newsletter of the Communist Party). Instead, he told the committee that they were the ones being un-American. 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, and I will tell you about my songs, and I am not interested in who listened to them.
I feel that in my whole life I have never done anything of any conspiratorial nature and I resent very much and very deeply the implication of being called before this Committee that in some way because my opinions may be different from yours, or yours, Mr. Willis, or yours, Mr. Scherer, that I am any less of an American than anybody else. I love my country very deeply, sir.
Pete was sentenced to 10 consecutive one-year contempt counts, but he never served time and the sentences were overturned in 1962. The House Committee on Un-American Activities continued until 1975.
Below: Pete Seeger sings at the opening of the Washington labor canteen in 1944. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt is seated between two servicemen, smiling.