By Ralph Nader
After 94 years, on January 27, 2014, the world lost Pete Seeger. The world is the lesser for that loss. The accolades for this giant of folk songs and herald of all causes just, are pouring in from around the world. He is celebrated for regularly showing up at mass protests, for singing songs so transcendent (“This Land is Your Land,” “We Shall Overcome,” “Where Have All the Flowers Gone”) they are sung in many foreign languages all over the earth and for his mentoring and motivating of millions of people and children.
Pete Seeger overcame most of his doubters and adversaries. On his famous five-string banjo, he inscribed the slogan, “This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender.”
No less than the Wall Street Journal, after reprinting an ugly commentary on Seeger’s earlier radicalism, wrote, “Troubadour, rabble rouser, thorn in the side of the bloated and complacent, recipient of the National Media of Arts, American idealist and family man, Seeger maintained what Mr. Springsteen called his ‘nasty optimism’ until late in life.”
At a Madison Square Garden songfest for Seeger’s 90th birthday, Springsteen added, “Pete Seeger decided he’d be a walking, singing reminder of all of America’s history. He’d be a living archive of America’s music and conscience.”
I met and spoke to Pete Seeger a few times and can attest to his steady determination and uplifting spirit. All the above are measures of this authentic man and his rare traits of character, personality, intuition, scope and focus.
The man’s character shone when he was subpoenaed before the powerful House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in August 1955, along with other outspoken entertainers and actors, he refused to take the easier way out and invoke the Fifth Amendment against self-incrimination. Instead, he made himself vulnerable to later prosecution by pleading the First Amendment and his right to free speech, petition and assembly.
After rejecting the Committee’s probe about whom he associated with politically and his beliefs, he suggested that they discuss the music that the committee members found so objectionable. He offered unsuccessfully to sing his songs, then and there, before the startled clenched-jaw politicians.
“I think,” he told them, “these are very improper questions for any American to be asked especially under such compulsion as this.” In those days, that was an astounding act of courageous character.
He paid the price, when he was prosecuted and convicted before winning his appeal. In those years of “commie symps” witch-hunts by McCarthyite zealots, his career nearly collapsed. Television networks banned him for over a decade; record companies shunned him; concerts dwindled. So what did he do? He continued recording, touring among everyday people around the country, learning music from them and singing on street corners, at union halls, churches, schools and what he called “hobo jungles.”
He quit a popular band he formed — the Weavers — after it did an advertisement for Lucky Strike cigarettes. More recently, according to his producer, Jim Musselman, and record label (Appleseed Recordings), he turned down an offer by BP of …read more
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