When my older sister and I were young, our parents used to play this one record that I liked to try to sing along to: “Pete Seeger at Carnegie Hall.” I loved all the songs on that album: “Little Boxes,” and “We Shall Overcome,” and “Guantanamera,” and “Keep Your Eyes on the Prize.” I can still remember Pete Seeger’s spoken introduction to “If You Miss Me at the Back of the Bus,” when he talks about the violent measures taken against civil rights protesters. I can remember trying to memorize the words to “Little Boxes,” and in the process learning how to be critical of the assumptions undergirding middle class suburban culture, which probably helped lay the intellectual groundwork for my studies of critical theory and Marxism about ten years later, when I was in college. I had already learned from my parents how to be critical of what I was taught in school, but listening to “What Did You Learn in School Today?” made that seem fun and mischievous and delightful, and a few years later when I started working with children the memory of that song gave me a standard by to judge my own efforts as an educator.
Pete Seeger’s greatest strength was his ability to sing for children and young people. He was a teacher as much as, or more than, a musician. When he sang, he taught about big concepts like justice and human rights and racism and social inequality — he taught all these big concepts in a way that a six year old could understand them. His infectious songs and style of singing ensured that the children and young people who heard him sing would remember the lessons he taught for a long, long time.
He was a truly great song leader. His tenor voice was a little too reedy to be considered a great voice; his banjo playing was good, but he was no Earl Scruggs or Stringbean Akeman or Bela Fleck. No matter: when he got up in front of an audience with his banjo, he could get the whole audience to sing along with him. I think the reason he was so good at song leading is that he didn’t have the usual huge ego of singer-songwriters and other performing musicians. Most musicians, when they get in front of a microphone, are primarily concerned with making themselves sound good; Seeger didn’t mind sounding good, but he was more concerned with getting the audience to sound good. Early in his career, he sang for unions and leftist causes, and that contributed to his lack of ego — he kept his eyes on the big prize, whether that big prize was a successful union drive or progressive Henry Wallace’s presidential campaign; and he mostly ignored the little prize of personal success.
Pete Seeger was famously blacklisted by the House Un-American Activities Committee. He had indeed been a member of the Communist Party of the U.S.A. from 1942 to about 1949, but drifted away partly because he was disillusioned with Stalin. In his 1993 memoir, Where Have All the Flowers Gone, he wrote:
“…Today I’ll apologize for a number of things, such as thinking that Stalin was simply a ‘hard driver’ and not a supremely cruel misleader. I guess anyone who calls himself or herself a Christian should be prepared to apologize for the Inquisition…. White people in the U.S.A. could consider apologizing for stealing land from Native Americans and enslaving Africans. Europeans could apologize for worldwide conquests, Mongolians for Genghis Khan….”
When he was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), however, he did not apologize. Most of the people who were hauled before HUAC to be publicly shamed for participating in leftist politics (for HUAC was little more than chance to publicly shaming people) pled the Fifth Amendment. Not Pete Seeger. He pled the First Amendment, saying:
“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.”
For this, he was convicted of contempt of Congress, though his conviction was overturned by an appeal court. He was also blacklisted by the recording industry, and had to give up his lucrative recording and performing career — just because he stood up for his First Amendment rights. I’m sure HUAC was pleased that they were able to keep Pete Seeger from making recordings or performing at high-profile venues. However, the strategy backfired: because he was blacklisted, Pete Seeger went on the college circuit, and he introduced a whole new generation of young people to his radical ideals of fairness and equality and peace.
He continued performing for college students long after the blacklist was lifted. The only times I saw Pete Seeger perform in person was when I was a college student. Once when I was a college student, I was able to afford to go to a concert he gave with Arlo Guthrie. But I saw also saw on the stage at political rallies, getting everyone there to sing along. The concert was good enough, but I never wanted to go to another paid concert given by him. Paid concerts are essentially passive affairs; I felt Pete Seeger was at his best at political rallies — when there was a real purpose to his singing, when he could motivate and educate and inspire people to do something.
There is a great deal more to be said about Pete Seeger’s life. I haven’t talked about his pacifism. I haven’t mentioned that he was a mediocre solo songwriter, but he was excellent at collaborating with other songwriters. And there’s the fact that he considered himself a Unitarian Universalist. We could keep talking about Pete Seeger’s life for a long time. I’ll leave the talking to others; I’d rather carry on the real work that he devoted himself to, the work of educating and inspiring and motivating the next generations.