In reading about Pete Seeger on the web yesterday, I came across his testimony when he was hauled up before the House Un-American Affairs Committee in August 1955. This was the infamous Congressional committee that would order people to appear before them and quiz them about their political affiliations. If the people were willing to ‘prove their loyalty’ by renouncing their prior beliefs and associations and naming other people as being either Communists or fellow travellers or sympathizers, they would get lenient treatment. But if they did not, they would be accused of being pro-Communist. The committee targeted members of the entertainment industry, seeing them as being influential in shaping public opinion. Pete Seeger and his group The Weavers were blacklisted in the early 1950s.
So people brought before the committee had three options. They could name names. Or they could plead their Fifth Amendment right and refuse to answer questions, although this left them looking guilty.
But a few took the stance that Pete Seeger took, which was to challenge the right of the committee to ask them such questions at all, saying that the First Amendment right of free association meant that they did not have to say who they associated with. Seeger’s testimony is fun to read now as he drives the committee to exasperation, though it must have been tense for him. He repeatedly told the committee that he was willing to tell them his life’s story and about the songs he sang but that he was not going to tell them whom he spoke to or whom he sang for. Using the First Amendment was a risky tactic and left him open to contempt of Congress and he was convicted of it but an Appeals court overturned it in 1962.
Bruce Springsteen gave a nice tribute to Seeger on his 90th birthday.
Here is Seeger, backed up by Springsteen, leading a huge crowd in front of the Lincoln Memorial in singing This Land is Your Land on the occasion of Barack Obama’s inauguration in 2009. There was nobody like Seeger in making everyone feel they were important and could change the world. It is great and can still bring a such of emotion.