A Moment Of Pete: When Pete Seeger Murdered HUAC, Just Like A Communist
As we continue with our Pete Seeger remembrance, we would be remiss if we failed to mention his 1955 testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee. Go read the full thing; it’s that good. But if you’re going to be lazy and stay here, we have some highlights for you! But first, for the sake of context and celebration, let’s just watch this short clip of Bruce Springsteen introducing Pete at his 90th birthday concert:
Springsteen says of performing with Pete at the Obama inaugural concert,
“That day as we sang “This Land Is Your Land” I looked at Pete, the first black president of the United States was seated to his right, and I thought of the incredible journey that Pete had taken … Pete, you outlasted the bastards, man!”
And now, on to some of the bastards, from HUAC’s questioning of Seeger on August 18, 1955. Pete’s refusal to play their game is downright inspired, not to mention inspirational:
MR. TAVENNER: The Committee has information obtained in part from the Daily Worker indicating that, over a period of time, especially since December of 1945, you took part in numerous entertainment features. I have before me a photostatic copy of the June 20, 1947, issue of the Daily Worker. In a column entitled “What’s On” appears this advertisement: “Tonight — Bronx, hear Peter Seeger and his guitar, at Allerton Section housewarming.” May I ask you whether or not the Allerton Section was a section of the Communist Party?
MR. SEEGER: Sir, I refuse to answer that question whether it was a quote from the New York Times or the Vegetarian Journal.
MR. TAVENNER: I don’t believe there is any more authoritative document in regard to the Communist Party than its official organ, the Daily Worker.
MR. SCHERER: He hasn’t answered the question, and he merely said he wouldn’t answer whether the article appeared in the New York Times or some other magazine. I ask you to direct the witness to answer the question.
CHAIRMAN WALTER: I direct you to answer.
MR. SEEGER: Sir, the whole line of questioning-
CHAIRMAN WALTER: You have only been asked one question, so far.
MR. SEEGER: 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. I would be very glad to tell you my life if you want to hear of it.
They try again, with a question about another performance: “Did you lend your talent to the Essex County Communist Party on the occasion indicated by this article from the Daily Worker?” Seeger, again, refuses to cooperate:
MR. SEEGER: I feel that in my whole life I have never done anything of any conspiratorial nature and I resent very much and very deeply the implication of being called before this Committee that in some way because my opinions may be different from yours, or yours, Mr. Willis, or yours, Mr. Scherer, that I am any less of an American than anybody else. I love my country very deeply, sir.
CHAIRMAN WALTER: Why don’t you make a little contribution toward preserving its institutions?
MR. SEEGER: I feel that my whole life is a contribution. That is why I would like to tell you about it.
CHAIRMAN WALTER: I don’t want to hear about it.
MR. SCHERER: Let me understand. You are not relying on the Fifth Amendment, are you?
MR. SEEGER: No, sir, although I do not want to in any way discredit or depreciate or depredate the witnesses that have used the Fifth Amendment, and I simply feel it is improper for this committee to ask such questions.
MR. SCHERER: And then in answering the rest of the questions, or in refusing to answer the rest of the questions, I understand that you are not relying on the Fifth Amendment as a basis for your refusal to answer?
MR. SEEGER: No, I am not, sir.
The committee keeps trying, and Pete keeps swatting their questions away:
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.
And on he goes, beautifully refusing to answer questions that he considers “immoral to ask any American.” At one point, Seeger even tweaks the inquisitors: “I am sorry you are not interested in the song. It is a good song.” He is quite happy to say that he will sing for anyone who asks him to sing, but refuses to identify any specific groups for which he did sing:
MR. SEEGER: I decline to discuss, under compulsion, where I have sung, and who has sung my songs, and who else has sung with me, and the people I have known. I love my country very dearly, and I greatly resent this implication that some of the places that I have sung and some of the people that I have known, and some of my opinions, whether they are religious or philosophical, or I might be a vegetarian, make me any less of an American. I will tell you about my songs, but I am not interested in telling you who wrote them, and I will tell you about my songs, and I am not interested in who listened to them.
In a 1985 interview, Seeger told NPR’s Fresh Air his reason for refusing to take the fifth:
TERRY GROSS: You wanted to sing a song to the committee, right?
SEEGER: I think I did. They questioned me about a song. I said, well, that’s a good song, I’ll sing it to you. No, they didn’t want me to sing it. They wanted to know where I had sung it, at the following place. I said well, I have a right to sing a song anywhere I want to, whether I agree with the people or don’t agree with them. I’m not interested in telling you that.
They said we direct you to tell us. They said you are liable to be under contempt of Congress. Do you use the Fifth Amendment as your defense? No, I said, I just don’t think these are questions any American should be asked, especially under threat of reprisal if they give the wrong answer.
So in effect I was defending myself on the basis of the First Amendment. The Fifth Amendment in effect says you have no right to ask me this question. But the First Amendment in effect says you have no right to ask any American such questions.
Pete Seeger was found in contempt of Congress for his refusal to answer unjust questions; he was sentenced to a year in jail but appealed his case, finally getting the charge dismissed in 1961.
And that, folks, is a real First Amendment hero. Anyone who holds up Phil Robertson as a victim of “censorship” because he was criticized for his opinions might want to pay closer attention to what real threats to free speech look like.