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Pete Seeger, 1919-2014

Pete Seeger died today. He was an American treasure, a powerful voice for justice and peace all throughout his long and colorful life, whose musical and political influence extended well beyond the borders of the USA. I had heard of Seeger and knew his songs growing up in Sri Lanka. This entry in Wikipedia captures the strength and consistency of the principles that drove him and his refusal to back down when asked to compromise those principles, even if it meant going to jail.

In the 1950s and, indeed, consistently throughout his life, Seeger continued his support of civil and labor rights, racial equality, international understanding, and anti-militarism (all of which had characterized the Wallace campaign) and he continued to believe that songs could help people achieve these goals. With the ever-growing revelations of Joseph Stalin’s atrocities and the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, however, he became increasingly disillusioned with Soviet Communism. In his PBS biography, Seeger said he “drifted away” from the CPUSA beginning in 1949 but remained friends with some who did not leave it, though he argued with them about it.

On August 18, 1955, Seeger was subpoenaed to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). Alone among the many witnesses after the 1950 conviction and imprisonment of the Hollywood Ten for contempt of court, Seeger refused to plead the Fifth Amendment (which asserted that his testimony might be self incriminating) and instead (as the Hollywood Ten had done) refused to name personal and political associations on the grounds that this would violate his First Amendment rights: “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.” Seeger’s refusal to testify led to a March 26, 1957 indictment for contempt of Congress; for some years, he had to keep the federal government apprised of where he was going any time he left the Southern District of New York. He was convicted in a jury trial of contempt of court in March 1961, and sentenced to 10 years in jail (to be served simultaneously), but in May 1962 an appeals court ruled the indictment to be flawed and overturned his conviction.

In 1960, the San Diego school board told him that he could not play a scheduled concert at a high school unless he signed an oath pledging that the concert would not be used to promote a communist agenda or an overthrow of the government. Seeger refused, and the American Civil Liberties Union obtained an injunction against the school district, allowing the concert to go on as scheduled. In February 2009, the San Diego School District officially extended an apology to Seeger for the actions of their predecessors.

As the belated San Diego apology suggests, when you stand up for basic human rights and for what is just, history always, always, vindicates you, while those who opposed you are seen as villains and those who stood silently by are seen as either pusillanimous at best or evil at worst.

Seeger was a towering figure in music and a strong, consistent, and principled activist for civil rights and justice all through his life, right up until the end. In 2011, even at the age of 91 he joined with the Occupy movement.

Seeger appeared on The Colbert Report in 2012.

(This clip aired on August 6, 2012. To get suggestions on how to view clips of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report outside the US, please see this earlier post. If the videos autoplay, please see here for a diagnosis and possible solutions.)

Unfortunately, the clip of him singing a song on the show is no longer available. But here is Seeger in 1964 singing What did you learn in school today?, a satirical take on how the educational system breeds conformity and acceptance of authority and injustice and promotes militarism and war. It is quite amazing how the educational system and the media still have the same propaganda message, because his song still resonates today.

Thanks for all you have done, Pete. We’ll miss you.

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