Pete Seeger in Washington

Pete Seeger, the folk music legend who passed away on Jan. 27 at age 94 in New York City, was a performer whose art was intertwined in close harmony with a slew of social causes, ranging from civil rights and the organized labor movement to environmentalism. As he once wrote, "Music, as any art, is not an end in itself, but is a means for achieving larger ends." While Seeger lived most of his life in upstate New York, Seeger's twin passions for music and activism often brought him to Washington, where his calm eloquence and forthrightness gave him influence in the White House — and also subjected him to peril. 

In the late 1930s, after dropping out of Harvard (where he had been a classmate of future President John F. Kennedy), Seeger came to Washington to work for musical historian and preservationist Alan Lomax at the Library of Congress Archive of Folk Song. Part of Seeger's job was to assist Lomax on trips where he recorded African-American and white hillbilly folk music. Seeger's two-year stint at the Smithsonian had a powerful formative influence upon him. As music historian David Dicaire has written: "His journeys with Alan Lomax taught him much, and in turn, Seeger passed on this knowledge to everyone he encountered." Lomax also encouraged Seeger to become a performer, and he eventually began performing on the Lomax-produced nightly CBS radio show Back Where I Come From, along with performers such as Burl Ives and Woody Guthrie.

Seeger went on to perform with Guthrie in the Almanac Singers, a politically left-leaning group whose songs backed the labor movement but also sometimes tweaked the Roosevelt Administration. As Seeger biographer Allan W. Winkler notes, one song, "The Ballad of October 16," attacked the military draft imposed by the government in the runup to World War II. (A sample of the lyrics: "Oh, Franklin Roosevelt told the people how he felt / We damn near believed what he said / He said, 'I hate war and so does Eleanor / But we won't be safe till everybody's dead.") That and other songs apparently irritated FDR, but First Lady Eleanor was amused by the group's cleverness. She actually arranged for Seeger and other musicians from Lomax's radio show to perform at the White House at an event called "An Evening of Songs for American Soldiers" in March 1941.

Pete Seeger performing at a party at the Congress of Industrial Organizations canteen in Washington DC in 1944, as First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt looks on. Credit: Library of Congress. Pete Seeger performing at a party at the Congress of Industrial Organizations canteen in Washington DC in 1944, as First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt looks on. Credit: Library of Congress.

Seeger was drafted into the Army in 1942, but he crossed paths with Mrs. Roosevelt in Washinton again in 1944, when he performed at a Valentine's Day dance for the Congress of Industrial Organizations canteen. The event was racially integrated, a daring move at the time, and the First Lady — a champion of desegregation — was an honored guest. 

In 1946, Seeger and Lee Hays, a former member of the Almanac Singers who rejoined him in the Weavers, gave a seminar called "music for action" at the School of Political Action Techniques, a Washington training prgram run by New Deal progressives. 

But as the Red Scare heated up, Seeger's involvement in the Left turned into a serious liability. In 1955, Seeger received a summons to appear before the House Un-American Activities Committee, which previously had been told by an informant that he was a communist. (As Seeger explained in a 2006 New Yorker profile, he quit the Communist Party after a couple of meetings, because "I could sing the same songs whether I belonged to the Communist Party or not, and I never liked the idea anyway of belonging to a secret organization.") Instead of invoking the Fifth Amendment, as some witnesses did, Seeger chose a more dangerous course. After a meandering explanation of his career choice — "I kind of drifted into it and never intended to be a musician, and I am glad I am one now, and it is a very honorable profession" — he politely but firmly declined to answer any questions about his past associations or to name names, because such inquiries infringed upon his First Amendment freedom of assembly. "I think these are very improper questions for any American to be asked, especially under such compulsion as this," he explained. "I would be very glad to tell you my life if you want to hear of it." 
 
As a result of Seeger's defiance, he was indicted in 1957 for contempt of Congress, and in 1961, a jury found him guilty of a crime that might have sent him to prison. Fortunately for Seeger, a federal appeals court subsequently overturned his conviction, ruling that his Constitutional challenge was valid, even if Seeger himself was "unworthy of sympathy."
 
Seeger's brush with losing his freedom didn't intimidate him. Over the next several decades, he returned again and again to Washington to headline protest rallies. At the Vietnam Mortatorium Day protest in 1969, he showed up to lead the crowd in a sing-along. (Oddly, instead of choosing one of his own songs, he opted to appeal to a younger generation by picking John Lennon's "Give Peace a Chance," which he'd only heard for the first time a few days before, and admittedly didn't actually like that much).  In 1978, Seeger performed in front of the White House at a rally calling for freedom for the "Wilmington 10," a group of mostly African-American civil rights activists who were convicted of firebombing a grocery in North Carolina in 1971 and sent to prison, even after some witnesses in the case recanted their testimony. (In 2013, the 10 were pardoned by North Carolina Gov. Beverly Purdue.) Two years later, he headlined a rally in opposition to nuclear power. In 1985, he entertained at yet another rally, this one in opposition to the Reagan Administration's covert war in Nicaragua and support of the Apartheid regime in South Africa.
 
But probably to his own surprise, Seeger eventually came be accepted in Washington. In 1994, he was honored at Kennedy Center, where Arlo Guthrie, Joan Baez and Roger McGuinn of The Byrds performed his songs, and President Clinton proclaimed him "an inconvenient artist who dared to sing things as he saw them" and noted that his blacklisting following his Congressional testimony was "a badge of honor." (Seeger himself speculated that "they decided to give the award to me for my music, and try to ignore my politics.")
 

In 2009, Seeger appeared at a concert held at the Lincoln Memorial to honor incoming President Barack Obama. Joined by Bruce Springsteen, Seeger led the crowd in a rendition of Woody Guthrie's "This Land is Your Land." Even the President-elect himself joined in the singing. But as the longtime rebel singer ascended to the apex of Washington respectability, he made sure to include two additional verses of Guthrie's song, ones that pointed out a line of impoverished Americans in a Depression-era welfare line. "As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking, Is this land made for you and me?" Seeger sang. He was a man who could not resist speaking truth to power.

 

 

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