There are two moments in Pete Seeger’s life that, if plucked out of time and space and held together, seem to illuminate the whole series of instances before, between, and after them. Both moments were captured on film—one in black-and-white, the other in color. These events occurred thirteen years apart, which is not so long when you consider that Seeger lived for ninety-four years and played music for more than eighty years. These moments resonate.
The first moment occurred in 1955, in New York City. Seeger had just testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), which ostensibly was investigating Seeger’s ties to the Communist Party USA. During the testimony he explained his refusal to cooperate with the committee’s line of questioning: “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 allowed that he would gladly discuss the whole of his life or the songs that he had sung. He even volunteered to sing “Wasn’t That a Time,” noting that it might not sound as good without his banjo. He would not, however, answer questions regarding the specific instances the committee was interested in. Instead, he insisted, “I have sung for Americans of every political persuasion…no matter what religion or color of their skin, or situation in life. I have sung in hobo jungles, and I have sung for the Rockefellers, and I am proud that I have never refused to sing for anybody. That is the only answer I can give along that line.” He later elaborated, “I am proud of the fact that my songs seem to cut across and find perhaps a unifying thing, basic humanity, and that is why I would love to be able to tell you about these songs, because I feel that you would agree with me more, sir.” Seeger then spoke directly to HUAC’s Chief Counsel Frank Tavenner, who was from the coal region in Appalachia, and said, “I know many beautiful songs from your home county, Carbon, and Monroe, and I hitchhiked through there and stayed in the homes of miners.” When pressed by his inquisitors for specific information regarding events, activities, and performances, Seeger did not give in, but responded with some variation of: “My answer is the same.” He had to repeat himself over fifty times.1
In the grainy black-and-white footage of this moment, Seeger has left the courtroom and is standing before a cluster of microphones, speaking to the press.2 He looks tired and slightly bewildered as he again explains his refusal to cooperate. Seeger is clean-cut and earnest, wearing a baggy suit, as he answers more questions. He looks out cautiously at the microphones, the reporters, and, somewhere beyond the camera lens, the audience. No doubt he thinks the whole occasion is absurd. After all, as he indicated in his testimony, he makes his living “as a banjo picker,” which is “sort of damning, in some people’s opinion.”3
Two years after his testimony, Seeger was cited for contempt. In 1961, he faced a jury trial, during which the judge excused the jury whenever a witness for Seeger’s defense took the stand. Seeger was convicted and sentenced to a year in jail. He was handcuffed and taken to a cell, but was released on bail later that day. In 1962, his conviction was reversed and his indictment dismissed.
Throughout much of the 1950s and early ’60s, Seeger was blacklisted. He was not allowed to appear on major network television stations, and commercial radio stations refused to play his music. Nevertheless, he continued his work collecting and sharing people’s music. He spent these years working as a music instructor in schools and youth camps. He made banjo instructional films and revised his book, How to Play the 5-String Banjo, in which he encouraged folks to get together with friends, create music, and discover ballads from all “corners of the world.” He explained that learning is a process, and a potentially empowering activity: “this manual cannot itself teach you to play the banjo. It can, however, I hope, help you teach yourself.”4 Despite the blacklist, he continued to perform on college campuses, and sang at protests, marches, and rallies. He contributed essays to Sing Out!, a leading publication of the folk revival. From 1965 to 1966, Pete and Toshi Seeger funded and created a low-budget television series, Rainbow Quest, for a local audience around New York, focusing on traditional music such as folk, country, blues, and bluegrass. Using whatever means were available to him, he continued to share music with people.
The second moment happened in 1968 when Seeger appeared on the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, a variety show broadcast by CBS. He had first performed on this nationally broadcast show in 1967, which marked the end of his blacklisting. Seeger performed his anti-war song “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy” during taping, only to learn that it had been cut by CBS after he refused to excise one verse. Seeger was incensed. “I’m very grateful to C.B.S. for letting me return to commercial broadcasting,” he was quoted in the New York Times, “but I think what they did was wrong and I’m really concerned about it. I think the public should know that their airwaves are censored for ideas as well as for sex.” Eventually the censors relented, and in 1968 he returned to the show. Once again, he played the song, but this time it was broadcast into the homes of millions of people.
The footage of this moment is in color.5 It is the same man from the courthouse testimony thirteen years earlier, but he has changed. Seeger, spotlit against a dark background, begins to sing and peers directly into the camera. Gone is the caution, the confusion: he is focused and intent. Gone is the suit, replaced by a wooly sweater. He looks like a man returned from exile, and he digs into the guitar and plays the song like a clarion of his arrival. He taps his foot along to the pulse of the song. Occasionally, a look of anger flashes across his face, and a slight growl enters his voice.
The controversial song is an allegory “about” a platoon that is training during the Second World War. The captain orders the troops to ford a dangerous river. As the water level rises, from the knees to the waists of the soldiers, the sergeant cautions the captain, noting that the conditions are too dangerous, but to no avail: “The big fool said to push on.” As the water reaches their necks, the captain is swept away. The soldiers then turn around and escape from the Big Muddy. A 1968 audience would have clearly understood that this song is also about Vietnam. It ends with the lines:
But every time I read the papers, that old feeling comes on,
We’re waist deep in the Big Muddy
And the big fool says to push on.
Waist deep in the Big Muddy,
The big fool says to push on.
Waist deep in the Big Muddy,
The big fool says to push on.
Waist deep, neck deep,
Soon even a tall man will be over his head.
We’re waist deep in the Big Muddy,
And the big fool says to push on.
Like many of Seeger’s songs, “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy” depicts human beings in some kind of trouble and the powerful forces that steer them there. The message of the song reverberates across decades and speaks to the climate change crisis today, as “the big fool says to push on” with the burning of fossil fuels to further the capital accumulation process, regardless of the consequences.
In this footage from 1968, Seeger affirms his critical role as a musician and performer, the role that came under such intense scrutiny during the HUAC hearing thirteen years earlier. In 1955, he was confronting an injustice with uncertain consequences; by 1968, he had come out on the other side. In this performance, Seeger is playing for two audiences: the people who need to hear his message—about the war and the direction of an oppressive society—and the people who were once his persecutors. To the latter group, he raises his guitar, levels his gaze, and says: “my answer is the same.”
Music and Struggle
On Seeger’s banjo was printed the motto: “This Machine Surrounds Hate and Forces It to Surrender.” With these words, Seeger plainly stated that he intended to use music as a means to facilitate social change. He believed that music held the potential to help people understand their troubles and to take action to change repressive circumstances. He did not play music in order to promote it as a commodity. At the same time, he was acutely aware that music was situated within the larger capital system. This is a contradiction that confronts every radical artist, and is something Seeger grappled with throughout his lifetime.
For Seeger, music was bound up with actual struggles on the ground. He was deeply involved with union, civil rights, peace, social justice, and environmental movements. In other words, the world was intensely present within his songs. He saw music as a participatory process, rooted in diverse communities. Woody Guthrie encouraged Seeger to learn about social problems and conditions by traveling across the country, collecting stories, and talking with people. Together they witnessed labor exploitation and racial segregation.6 They observed how private property resulted in the accumulation of wealth by a few landowners and the immiseration of workers—all of which made a tremendous impact on Seeger.
In the early 1940s, the Almanac Singers—a collective of revolving musicians that included Seeger, as well as Guthrie, Lee Hays, Millard Lampell, Sis Cunningham, Josh White, Cisco Houston, Sam Gary, and others—performed at union meetings, strikes, rallies, and benefits. They toured the United States in support of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), even performing at one rally for 100,000 autoworkers in Detroit.7 They sang songs for immigrant, itinerant, and seasonal farm workers, as well as oil and textile workers, demanding the right to organize trade unions. At the end of 1945, Seeger and fellow musicians created an organization, People’s Songs, that would collect and distribute songs in print.8 Their aim was to share new songs that spoke to the lives of people, along with the thousands of folk ballads that they had learned, in order to help mobilize workers. Seeger viewed music—and art in general—as playing an important role in any effort to change the world. In this sense, People’s Songs was nothing less than a confrontation with the capitalist class system:
By the late 1940s, with the guidance of the left-wing impresario Harold Leventhal, some of the Almanacs—Seeger, Ronnie Gilbert, Lee Hays, and Fred Hellerman—reassembled as the Weavers. Individually, they worked for Henry Wallace’s 1948 anti-Cold War presidential campaign. At their peak in the early 1950s, the Weavers enjoyed considerable popular success, singing songs they collected from around the world. However, they were targeted by the Red Scare, notably, by the advertising industry-fostered Red Channels, which blacklisted them, and many others, from work in the film, radio, and newly emergent television industries. Without concert and recording work, the group disbanded. Seeger continued to perform, where he could, on college campuses; by the beginning of 1960, he was one of the central actors in the great “folk music revival.”
The commodification of music is unavoidable given the influence of capitalist society, yet, despite this, the primary purpose of Seeger’s music was not commercial. Seeger pointed out that he “had the utmost contempt for normal commercial musical endeavors.”10 Later in his life, he would explain in an interview that “I never really was interested in the music industry. I felt it was corrupt and they wouldn’t let me sing the songs I wanted to sing.” Seeger described how, for instance, the Weavers were not allowed to record “The Hammer Song” (better known as “If I Had a Hammer”) for Decca Records; it was instead released by Hootenanny Records, a small label committed to politically meaningful music that was descended from a long line of progressive organizations Seeger helped establish.11
Seeger did not take the revolutionary potential of music for granted. He understood that music is not static, that it has been employed for many different purposes throughout human history. He was especially aware that the twentieth-century commercialization of music led to its being perceived simply as a form of entertainment. In an interview with Penthouse magazine (of all places), he presented a lucid vision of music’s power and its relationship to the status quo:
Seeger’s interest in music and social problems were inextricably entwined. This did not mean, however, that Seeger ignored the complexities of songwriting in a capitalist system, especially those complexities that arise when working with material in the public domain. Later in his life, Seeger began speaking about the need for an international regulatory system that would collect some percentage of royalties for recorded versions of public domain songs and redirect this money to the appropriate communities. For instance, the lyrics to “Danny Boy,” written by Fred Weatherly, were published by him in 1913, but the song is based on a traditional Irish tune that dates to the early seventeenth century. According to Seeger’s vision, some portion of the royalties—he insisted on at least 50 percent—would go to a Public Domain Committee in Dublin, which would then distribute the money to programs in County Derry, where the tune was written.13
Seeger insisted that music was a living record. Throughout his life, he collected songs in order to share them and organize people. Sometimes he added verses to accommodate changing circumstances. His concerts were an exchange, as the crowd sang along with Seeger at his constant urging. “My ability, I think, lies in being able to get a crowd to sing along with me,” he explained. “When I get up on a stage, I look on my job as trying to tell a story…going into dialogue with the audience, perhaps. I use songs to illustrate my story and dialogue between songs to carry the story forward.”14 His approach to music was participatory and democratic, and while his songs exposed the contradictions and absurdities of the dominant society, they also encouraged solidarity, hope, and action. He sought to fuse music and struggle, in order to challenge an exploitive capital system. After Seeger died in 2014, music critic Dave Marsh wrote that Seeger’s “version of a protest album offered a vision, and the core of that vision was not so much any particular songs but the gentle persuasiveness with which he introduced them, the passion with which he laid out their origin or history or contemporary relevance and the power with which he encouraged all present to sing them.” It was a vision, in other words, that Seeger delivered as much through his sensibility and the way he approached his art as through the content of his songs—a vision formed from his conviction that humanity could build a more humane, more just world, and that music, perhaps, can show us how to get there.15
Sail On: Clearwater
The Hudson River flows over 300 miles from north to south in the eastern part of New York State. The lower section of the river is a tidal estuary, where freshwater blends with seawater, creating a potentially vibrant and diverse habitat. Industrial and human development along the river, however, has dramatically transformed this ecosystem. Manufacturing facilities, such as those operated by General Electric, contaminated the river with polychlorinated biphenyl (PCBs) from the 1940s through the ’70s.16
From 1949 on, the Seegers lived in Beacon, New York, on the eastern bank of the Hudson River. From there, they witnessed the worsening of environmental conditions. Early on, Pete Seeger recognized the “greenwashing” that accompanied corporate discussions of environmental improvement. He pointed out that:
For Seeger, organized resistance was necessary to counter the waste and degradation of capitalism and eventually to create an alternative system. He explained:
Following a series of conversations with other community members, in 1966 the Seegers helped co-found a nonprofit organization called Hudson River Sloop Clearwater. This organization was focused on addressing pollution and organizing actions to clean up rivers and wetlands. They sought to reawaken “popular enthusiasm for the Hudson’s romantic past” and create “concern for the future.”19 For them, immersion in nature served as a means to decrease alienation, make the invisible visible, and establish connections.20 After reading the book The Sloops of the Hudson, Pete Seeger came up with an idea of how to enhance people’s connections to the neighboring water system—he would build a replica of a nineteenth-century sloop (a sailboat with a single mast) that would serve as a mobile classroom and laboratory. He began playing concerts to raise funds for the construction of the ship. In 1966, an annual music and environmental festival was created—The Great Hudson River Revival—to raise money for the organization. The 106-foot wooden sloop was constructed and made its first voyage in 1969. It was named Clearwater in part because the goal of the organization was to create a river free from pollution.
Arlo Guthrie, son of Seeger’s old comrade Woody, recalled how many people were skeptical of Seeger’s plan—how the river seemed too large and too polluted, how no one would show up to help. “That didn’t stop Pete,” Guthrie explained. “He said, ‘Well, I think we need to build a sloop, and we’ll sail it up and down the river, and people will come to the river to see the sloop.’ And they’ll look down and say, ‘Look, there’s shit in the river! We have to do something!’ And everybody said, ‘Pete, that’s not really a great idea, it’s not going to work.’ But you know what? Of course it worked!”21
Through collective organization, the Hudson River Sloop Clearwater group waged a successful campaign to make the Environmental Protection Agency force polluters to dredge the river to remove over a hundred thousand pounds of PCBs. It was one of the important organizations that contributed to the passage of the Clean Water Act in 1972; thirty years later, Seeger was named a “Clean Water Hero.” The Clearwater still makes regular trips on the Hudson to educate the public about regional and environmental history.
Conclusion: Make History
In the late 1950s, Pete Seeger received a letter from his manager, Howie Richmond, begging him to write a new hit song. Richmond had in mind something like “Goodnight, Irene,” the Lead Belly ballad that had been a tremendous success for the Weavers. He believed that “protest songs” were not marketable. Seeger was angry—he had a new song in mind, with words from a poem that he had set to music, and he believed it was, in a deep and significant sense, a song of protest. As Seeger recalled later, “I put a reel of blank tape on and said, ‘Howie, you better get yourself another songwriter, this is the only kind of song I know how to write.’” Then he recorded the new song and mailed it off to Richmond, sure that he was right in sticking to his principles. “I got a nice letter from him two weeks later,” Seeger remembered, with humor in his voice. “He says, ‘wonderful, just what I was looking for, and I found a group to sing it.’” The song, of course, was “Turn! Turn! Turn! (To Everything There Is a Season),” which continues to be performed and recorded by many artists, and most famously became a huge folk-rock hit for The Byrds. It was as though, despite himself, Seeger produced a hit song, even when commercial popularity was the furthest thing from his mind—an example of how inseparably his songwriting talents and political principles were bound together. The truth, as they say, is the whole, and the whole truth about Pete Seeger must contain both aspects of his life. Guided by a sense of radical conviction, he used his talent accidentally to write one of the great popular songs of the 1960s, if not the twentieth century. But that was not enough. Later, he began donating a portion of the royalties to the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions; the song’s lyrics, after all, were mostly adapted from the Book of Ecclesiastes, and Seeger figured some of the profits ought to flow back to the source region, to do some good. “I sent $10,000 to a nice man who’s trying to bring Israeli Jews and Palestinians together,” he said. “And who knows?”22
Seeger collected and wrote songs that were rooted in the world. He devoted himself to offering a critique that also was infused with hope for a better society. He devoted his craft to challenging the commodification of everything and the isolation produced by the capital system. For Seeger, music served as an instrument of rebellion and resistance. In a 1971 interview, he said he supported “people who worked outside of the system—people like John Brown, who was considered an outlaw, Frederick Douglas and the abolitionists.”23 He insisted that “changing the system” was necessary and that “there is no other word for that but socialist.”24 In concerts, Seeger often sang the famous Cuban song, “Guantanamera,” which is based on verses by the revolutionary poet José Martí. Seeger argued that this song carries a message of unity in struggle. The closing verse is “Con los pobres de la tierra / Quiero yo mi suerte echar / El arroyo de la sierra / Me complace más que el mar” (“With the poor of the earth / I want to share my fate /
The streams of the mountains / Please me more than the sea”). Pete Seeger may be dead, but his message still resonates.
- ↩Pete Seeger, testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee, August 18, 1955, .
- ↩Pete Seeger: The Power of Song, directed by Jim Brown, 2007.
- ↩Seeger testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee.
- ↩Pete Seeger, How to Play the 5-String Banjo, third edition (Beacon, NY: Published by Author, 1962), 3, 61.
- ↩Pete Seeger: The Power of Song.
- ↩Will Kaufman, Woody Guthrie: American Radical (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2011), 47–59.
- ↩Kaufman, Woody Guthrie, 73–74; Richard A. Reuss and Joanne C. Reuss, American Folk Music & Left Wing Politics 1927–1957 (Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2000).
- ↩Robbie Lieberman, “My Song is My Weapon”: People’s Songs, American Communism, and the Politics of Culture, 1930–50 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1995), 63.
- ↩Seeger as quoted in Kaufman, Woody Guthrie, 120.
- ↩Pete Seeger, “Foreword,” in Irwin Silber, ed., Reprints from the People’s Songs Bulletin, 1946–1949 (New York: Oak Publications, 1961), 3.
- ↩“,” Down Home Radio Show, October 2007, http://downhomeradioshow.com; Ronald D. Cohen, Rainbow Quest: The Folk Music Revival and American Society, 1940-1970 (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2002), 78.
- ↩“,” Penthouse, January 1971, http://peteseeger.net.
- ↩“Interview with Pete Seeger.”
- ↩“Penthouse Interview: Pete Seeger.”
- ↩Dave Marsh, “RRC Extra No. 41: Dave Marsh on Pete Seeger,” Rock and Rap Confidential Newsletter, January 30, 2014.
- ↩Environmental Protection Agency, “Hudson River Cleanup,” http://epa.gov/hudson/cleanup.html. By the 1970s, the Hudson River had become unswimmable, and in 1976, the state banned fishing in the river in due to PCB contamination. In 1983, 200 miles of the river were designated as a Superfund site.
- ↩Jack Hope, “,” Audubon, March 1971, http://peteseeger.net.
- ↩Hope, “A Man, A Boat, A River, A Dream.”
- ↩Pete Seeger interviewed by Linda C. Forbes, “,” Monthly Review 56, no. 8 (2005): 14–26; Hope, “A Man, A Boat, A River, A Dream.”
- ↩Pete Seeger: The Power of Song.
- ↩“Interview with Pete Seeger”; Nir Hasson, “,” Haaretz, November 7, 2009, http://haaretz.com.
- ↩“Penthouse Interview: Pete Seeger.”