Speaking truth to power, with banjos and boats: Pete Seeger's struggle for justice.
On December 4, 1994, President Clinton presented awards for outstanding contributions to American culture to one actor, one director, one composer, and one folk singer: Pete Seeger.
Cynics might answer that, while youth is idealistic, maturity brings conservatism. But though Seeger may have mellowed since his days as a Young Communist, he still speaks out for a world without war, without poverty, without injustice, without millionaires. Incidentally, Seeger defines “left extremist” as “someone who stands up to defend the Bill of Rights, the Declaration of Independence, and the Sixth Commandment (Thou Shalt Not Kill).” But not everyone who follows these principles has been sentenced to jail for contempt of Congress.
Oddly for someone so rebellious, Seeger got both his vocation and his politics from his father. Both his parents were professional musicians, and at 17 Pete accompanied his father on a field trip to collect traditional songs for a project of the Library of Congress. In 1940, at age 21, Seeger went to Washington to work for Alan Lomax, the project’s head and catalyst. There he befriended the legendary ballad-maker Woody Guthrie. Soon the two had left on a cross-country jaunt.
When Seeger and Guthrie hit the East Coast again, Lomax handed them a stack of protest songs he’d collected from farmers, miners, and textile workers and suggested the two work them into a book. Seeger transcribed words and melodies, while Guthrie wrote introductions. The book, titled Hard Hitting Songs for Hard Hit People, wasn’t published until 1967, but it shaped both Seeger’s music and the gathering American folk song revival. “Songs,” he said, “can penetrate hard shells, proliferate in prisons. If we bring life to them, they will bring life to us and our children. . . . Songs can help us explore our past and our present, and even speculate about our future.” If all this makes him sound like a Unitarian Universalist, well, so he is, though as a young man he had little use for organized religion, his father having been what Seeger now calls “a member of the Marxist church.”
In 1941, not long after the trip with Guthrie, Seeger, together with folk artists Lee Hays and Mill Lampell, formed the Almanac Singers and started singing at left-wing fundraising parties in New York. Soon, they headed west, singing for CIO Unions in Detroit, Chicago, Milwaukee, Denver, and San Francisco. Barely out of his teens—tall, lean, his head thrust forward and his face tilted up—the banjo-playing Seeger became a familiar figure in labor’s militant wing.
Seeger followed his father’s Communist line, singing out, in those days of the Hitler-Stalin pact, against U.S. involvement in World War II: “Franklin D., listen to me / You ain’t gonna send me ’cross the sea.”
Seeger now apologizes for “thinking that Stalin was simply a ‘hard driver’ and not a supremely cruel misleader.” But he challenges others to apologize for FDR’s support of Franco’s Spain and quarantining Japanese Americans. Then, taking a longer perspective, he adds, “Who should my granddaughter Moraya apologize to? Her background is part African, part European, part Chinese, part Japanese, part Native American. Let’s look ahead.”
After Germany invaded the USSR, the party line switched. Seeger recalls Woody Guthrie’s wry remark: “Well, I guess we won’t be singing any more peace songs for a while.” “In early ’42 our beat-Hitler songs actually got us a radio job or two,” Seeger recalls. But then a New York City paper attacked the Almanac Singers for their politics, and they lost not only their contracts but their agent.
Later in 1942, Seeger was drafted. The following year, in uniform, he married Toshi-Aline Ohta—his partner ever since, “without whom,” he writes, “the world would not turn nor the sun shine.” Shipped to Saipan in the South Pacific and assigned to a special service unit, Seeger drove a jeep all over the island, putting up notices asking: “Are you a musician? I can get you instruments if you will play in the army hospital.” He booked jazz trios, gospel quartets, and hillbilly bands to cheer up wounded soldiers.
Back in civilian life, Seeger sang at the 1948 Progressive Party convention that nominated Henry Wallace for the presidency. But the left-wing movement, so strong in the late 1930s, had lost its momentum, and protest songs had gone out of fashion, even with most labor unions. Meanwhile, an ugly mood fell over much of the public. In September 1949, when African American Communist Paul Robeson tried to sing at a rally in Peekskill, New York, the Ku Klux Klan broke the concert up. Many of the 10,000 who attended—including Seeger and his family—had their car windows smashed as they ran the gauntlet of “patriots” on their way out.
Earlier that year, Seeger, together with folk musicians Lee Hays, Ronnie Gilbert, and Fred Hellerman, had formed the Weavers. But for the first year the group earned little money. “We were dead broke and about to go our separate ways,” he recalls. “As a last desperate gasp we decided to do the unthinkable: get a job in a nightclub.” Six months later, they had a recording contract and a string of hit records. Suddenly songs they had written or adapted—“Goodnight Irene,” “Tzena Tzena,” “On Top of Old Smoky,” and “So Long, It’s Been Good to Know You”—were on the lips of millions of Americans who neither knew nor cared about the singers’ politics. But the blacklisters kept after them, and in 1950, when the Weavers were offered a contract for a network TV show, the red-baiting publication Red Channels “exposed” them, the contract was torn up, and the Weavers had to call it quits for a while.
Despite the Weavers’ overall commercial success, Seeger stayed true to his convictions. Often, after an audience had sung a rousing chorus of “If I Had a Hammer”—he’s always loved getting a crowd to sing—he would challenge them by saying: “All our militance, enthusiasm, bravery will count for nothing if we can’t cross the oceans of misunderstanding between the peoples of this world.” Many in those Cold War days considered such sentiments suspect if not subversive. But as Seeger has said: “I don’t mind being controversial. . . . The human race benefits when there is controversy and suffers when there is none.”
For Seeger those were words to live by. In 1955, at the height of the McCarthyite red scare, Seeger was called to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee. He had already, as he puts it, “drifted out” of the Communist Party, no longer wanting to belong to a secret organization.
But the HUAC interrogators weren’t interested in political nuance; they wanted “names”—the names of party members. Unlike most witnesses Seeger not only refused to snitch but refused to take refuge in the Fifth Amendment. He told the committee: “I am not going to answer any question as to my association, my philosophical or religious beliefs, or my political beliefs. . . . I think these are improper questions for any American to be asked, especially under threat of reprisal.” The committee cited him for contempt, and in 1961 he was sentenced to a year in jail. Awaiting appeal, he took on every singing assignment he could get, in expectation of a year without any income. When the sentence was finally reversed on appeal, his wife thought she would have seen more of him is he had been jailed. “Next time, no appeal,” said Toshi Seeger.
If there was ever a progressive cause Pete Seeger didn’t sing about, the record doesn’t show it. As early as 1947, long before it became well known, he started singing “We Shall Overcome.” During the 1960s, he went South to oppose Jim Crow, and during the Vietnam War, he performed at college protests all over the country. “If you love your Uncle Sam, bring ’em home,” he sang. “Support our boys in Vietnam, bring ’em home, bring ’em home.” When the Smothers Brothers invited him to appear on their top-ranked television show, he sang his antiwar “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy”—but CBS higher-ups cut it out of the show. And, of course, he also wrote “Where Have All the Flowers Gone,” which became an anthem of peace movements worldwide.
After taking up sailing in the 1960s, Seeger learned how polluted the Hudson River had become. “The world was being turned into a poisonous garbage dump. By the time the meek inherited it,” he said, “it might not be worth inheriting.”
Typically, he plunged into activism to tackle this latest concern. In 1968, he led a movement to build a replica of an old-fashioned Hudson River sloop. It would be huge, he proclaimed at fundraising concerts up and down the Hudson Valley—“75 feet long, 25 feet wide, mast 105 feet, carrying one of the largest mainsails in the world.” If the Hudson was to be saved, he said, “people must learn to love it again, to come down to the water’s edge and see it close.” The Clearwater, the sloop that Seeger helped build, still sails the river today, docking at towns large and small. Schoolchildren help raise the sails, and, in Seeger’s words, “get a whiff of Hudson history, and of its biology and politics, as well.” The boat is given much credit for progress in cleaning up the Hudson. Having realized what many thought an unrealistic dream, Seeger asserts: “There is a little of Don Quixote in everybody—and a good thing, too.”
It wasn’t until recently that Seeger officially became a Unitarian Universalist. “My parents believed love was enough, so my brothers and I were not raised in any church,” he says. “Also, my father was a strong believer in letting us make up our own minds in matters of religion.”
Still, he has ties to our denomination—he had often sung in UU churches, and Stephen Fritchman, the longtime radical minister in Los Angeles, was a close friend. He finally joined the UU Community Church of New York after forming the multiracial, multicultural New York City Street Singers. “I wanted to put together a big gang of singers to sing in the streets whenever there was a demonstration or parade,” he recalls—and through a friend who was a member, the church offered rehearsal space.
“Being a multicultural and interracial church, we were glad to have them,” Bruce Southworth, senior minister, says. “They had this large chorus, and when they would go to a street fair or other event, there would be this huge witness.”
To show their gratitude, the Street Singers gave two benefit concerts to help the church raise funds to make itself accessible to people with disabilities. “The music was from many different culture, and many of the songs dealt with social justice, social change, and activism,” Southworth recalls. “Pete took the lead and played the banjo and encouraged the audience to sing. His grandson was with him, and it was just glorious.” Reinforcing Seeger’s bond with the church was his relationship with CommUUnity, an interracial singing group of five church members whom he supported and nurtured. “He not only provided professional advice,” Southworth says. “He was their spiritual guide.”
Adds group member Hope Johnson: “Without Pete Seeger we would not have succeeded. We did not think of ourselves as performers—we were just singing for fun.” But having joined the Street Singers, they met Seeger at a party where he heard them sing. They asked him to recommend songs that reflect UU principles, and he became their mentor, encouraging them to sing at Clearwater and other folk festivals. Aide by a grant from the UU Funding Program, CommUUnity has now sung at two General Assemblies, as well as at numerous district meetings and other UU events.
Seeger’s vision of the ideal UU church is—like so much of his life—unconventional. “It would be like a water tower,” he says. “I would put the congregation on a platform at the very top, where they could see all around without walls. My church has always been the outdoors.”
As for the liturgy, “I am no longer leery of using the word ‘God,’” he says, “though I have my own definition. I particularly like what a French mystic said: ‘The eye through which I see God is the same eye through which God sees me.’”
Asked whether any of his many songs is specifically Unitarian Universalist, he mentions “Old Hundred,” which he calls his “unorthodoxology”:
All people that on earth do dwell,
Sing out for peace ’tween heav’n and hell.
’Tween East and West and low and high,
Sing! Peace on earth and sea and sky.*
“It hasn’t been picked up by a single hymnal,” he laughs. “On the other hand, I’ve never been kicked out of church for singing it.”
In any case he’s not a great fan of hymnbooks. He says, “I’d like UUs to learn from the gospel churches. They sing old songs like ‘Amazing Grace,’ but they also sing ones that have just been made up. They don’t depend on hymnals. I’d like to persuade Unitarian Universalists that they can sing without burying their face in a book. Writing and reading are great inventions, but they’ve been overdone.”
In fact, he distrusts words, or rather the misunderstandings they can lead to. “I think it’s the denomination’s problem . . . that we all use words we think we know the meaning of, but which have other meanings for other people. I read [UU World], and I’m fascinated by it, but it, too, needs to reach out. The great need in this world is not to talk to ourselves so much but to speak beyond the family.”
Looking back over 70 years of struggle, Seeger speaks with optimism tempered by experience. “Did you expect Nixon to leave office the way he did?” he asks rhetorically. “Did you expect the Berlin Wall to come down so peacefully? So don’t be sure there’s only doom ahead. On the other hand, the world has become more dangerous—it’s now much easier to bomb people. On balance, the human race has lots of surprises. I would like to live another 50 years to see what they’re going to be.”
As for his own life, he speaks regretfully about traveling all over the country and the world—albeit for good causes—while leaving his wife on a hillside to raise three children mostly on her own. But if he had stayed home, how could he have fulfilled his mission—which he defines as “speaking truth to power—without being thrown in jail too often”? “We can do it in a thousand ways,” he answers. “I’ve tried it with banjos and boats. Others are doing it with cooking, clothing, quilt-making, paint and paper, games and gardens, swimming and science. We just have to be aware that it is a struggle all the way.”
This article appeared in the July/August 1996 issue of World (now UU World), pages 32-35. Photograph (above): Pete Seeger performed at the 2005 General Assembly of the Unitarian Universalist Association (© 2005 Allan Stern/UUA). Lyrics quoted by permission: “Bring ’em Home,” by Pete Seeger, © 1966 (renewed) by StormKing Music Inc., all rights reserved; “Old Hundred,” words and music arrangement by Pete Seeger from an original hymn by Louis Bourgeois (1510-1561), © 1985 by Sanga Music Inc., all rights reserved.
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Warren R. Ross (1926-2015) was a longtime contributing editor to UU World, a member of the Community Unitarian Church in White Plains, New York, and the author of Funding Justice and The Premise and the Promise.
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