Saturday, November 17

How Can I Keep From Singing?

I originally posted this on Daily Kos. It got lots of great feedback and comments, so I figured I'd post it here as well

On August 18th, 1950, Pete Seeger was called to testify before the House Unamerican Activities Committee. But first, just because it's amazing, here's Pete Seeger on the Smothers Brothers show from 40 years ago.

The relevance?

First, a sidenote: I do not sing, because I know my strengths and I know my weaknesses. But I'm an evil genius with the guitar and stick to the things I know. But the title of this diary is still appropriate because Seeger never gave up on his music or his activism.

Seeger's been a protester and an activist for his entire life, and that activism got him blacklisted in 1950's. When he was called before the House Unamerican Activities Committee, he gave them quite a run, being serious, while still being funny, and refusing to ever give them a thing they wanted, without ever being anything but civil and polite.

Bear with me. This quote is a bit long, but the original testimony is a bit longer:

MR. TAVENNER: You said that you would tell us about the songs. Did you participate in a program at Wingdale Lodge in the State of New York, which is a summer camp for adults and children, on the weekend of July Fourth of this year?

(Witness consulted with counsel.)

MR. SEEGER: Again, I say I will be glad to tell what songs I have ever sung, because singing is my business.

MR. TAVENNER: I am going to ask you.

MR. SEEGER: But I decline to say who has ever listened to them, who has written them, or other people who have sung them.

MR. TAVENNER: Did you sing this song, to which we have referred, "Now Is the Time," at Wingdale Lodge on the weekend of July Fourth?

MR. SEEGER: I don't know any song by that name, and I know a song with a similar name. It is called "Wasn't That a Time." Is that the song?

CHAIRMAN WALTER: Did you sing that song?

MR. SEEGER: I can sing it. I don't know how well I can do it without my banjo.

CHAIRMAN WALTER: I said, Did you sing it on that occasion?

MR. SEEGER: I have sung that song. I am not going to go into where I have sung it. I have sung it many places.

CHAIRMAN WALTER: Did you sing it on this particular occasion? That is what you are being asked.

MR. SEEGER: Again my answer is the same.

CHAIRMAN WALTER: You said that you would tell us about it.

MR. SEEGER: I will tell you about the songs, but I am not going to tell you or try to explain-

CHAIRMAN WALTER: I direct you to answer the question. Did you sing this particular song on the Fourth of July at Wingdale Lodge in New York?

MR. SEEGER: I have already given you my answer to that question, and all questions such as that. I feel that is improper: to ask about my associations and opinions. I have said that I would be voluntarily glad to tell you any song, or what I have done in my life.

CHAIRMAN WALTER: I think it is my duty to inform you that we don't accept this answer and the others, and I give you an opportunity now to answer these questions, particularly the last one.

MR. SEEGER: Sir, my answer is always the same.

MR. SEEGER: I shall he glad to answer about the song, sir, and I am not interested in carrying on the line of questioning about where I have sung any songs.

MR. TAVENNER: I ask a direction.

CHAIRMAN WALTER: You may not he interested, but we are, however. I direct you to answer. You can answer that question.

MR. SEEGER: I feel these questions are improper, sir, and I feel they are immoral to ask any American this kind of question.

MR. TAVENNER: Have you finished your answer?

MR. SEEGER: Yes, sir.

MR. TAVENNER: I desire to offer the document in evidence and ask that it be marked "Seeger exhibit No.4," for identification only, and to be made a part of the Committee files.

MR. SEEGER: I am sorry you are not interested in the song. It is a good song.

MR. TAVENNER: Were you present in the hearing room while the former witnesses testified?

MR. SEEGER: I have been here all morning, yes, sir.

MR. TAVENNER: I assume then that you heard me read the testimony of Mr. [Elia] Kazan about the purpose of the Communist Party in having its actors entertain for the henefit of Communist fronts and the Communist Party. Did you hear that testimony?

MR. SEEGER: Yes, I have heard all of the testimony today.

MR. TAVENNER: Did you hear Mr. George Hall's testimony yesterday in which he stated that, as an actor, the special contribution that he was expected to make to the Communist Party was to use his talents by entertaining at Communist Party functions? Did you hear that testimony?

MR. SEEGER: I didn't hear it, no.

MR. TAVENNER: It is a fact that he so testified. I want to know whether or not you were engaged in a similar type of service to the Communist Party in entertaining at these features.

(Witness consulted with counsel.)

MR. SEEGER: I have sung for Americans of every political persuasion, and I am proud that I never refuse to sing to an audience, 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.

Think for a minute about this: here's a man with everything to lose. A working musician who knew who and what he was facing and just decided he was going to do exactly what the right thing was. What's more, he did it with humor, with passion, with grace and with dignity.

Can you imagine going before Congress and offering to sing for them when they ask you about a song, and when they question your patriotism, telling them you're sorry they're not interested in the song?

And he suffered consequences for this::

Seeger, Arthur Miller, and six others were indicted for contempt of Congress by an overwhelming vote in the House of Representatives. In 1961 he was found guilty of contempt and on April 2 he was sentenced to ten years in prison. The following year his ordeal ended when the case was dismissed on a technicality.

The video clip above is from Seeger, years after these events. Blacklisting, contempt charges, threats, intimidation, and yet still...

I saw Pete Seeger at Clearwater a few years ago. A tall, skinny, grizzled old man without the voice he used to have and without the banjo chops or the vocal resonance he once had, but still present, powerful and magnificent.

Seeger is pushing 90, but his voice, his power, his resonance make a difference today.

Even something as simple as coming onto a prime time TV show and singing about war and being accurate about war and what people are like during it, paying attention to history-- I don't think we see much of that any longer and it's something that saddens me-- it's not just that Seeger's anti-war: he's anti war, and incredibly articulate about it.

And Seeger's refusal to bow to HUAC-- this is relevant, because he was willing to stand up to them and take the challenge directly to them. He refused to plead the fifth in front of HUAC. He instead pled the 1st: freedom of speech and freedom of association. This was a much bigger challenge to the committee than simply refusing to self-incriminate. As Jim Musselman put it:

...Everyone else had said the Fifth Amendment, the right against self-incrimination, and then they were dismissed. What Pete did, and what some other very powerful people who had the guts and the intestinal fortitude to stand up to the committee and say, "I'm gonna invoke the First Amendment, the right of freedom of association...." "

"...The case of Seeger v. United States... changed my life, because I saw the courage of what he had done and what some other people had done by invoking the First Amendment, saying, "We're all Americans. We can associate with whoever we want to, and it doesn't matter who we associate with." That's what the founding fathers set up democracy to be. So I just really feel it's an important part of history that people need to remember."

What we do today can cause ripples into the future. The rights we stand up for today can influence the next generations, and the cowardice we show today will affect our children and our grandchildren.

What Seeger showed us was that any one of us can challenge the power of the system around us. Any one of us can stand up and say "we have the right to be who we are, speak to the issues that are relevant to us and the government has no business intervening in any peaceful act."

Seeger may not be with us a lot longer (like I said, he's 88), but he'll be a part of my life long after he's gone.

UPDATE, from the comments, a great stanza from "Wasn't That a Time:"

The wars are long, the peace is frail, the madmen come again.
There is no freedom in a land where fear and hate prevail.

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