Pete Seeger

Pete Seeger

Pete Seeger, the son of the musicologist, Charles Seeger, was born in New York on 3rd May, 1919. He studied sociology at Harvard University and afterwards travelled the American South collecting and recording traditional songs.

A member of the Communist Party, Seeger formed the Almanac Singers in 1940 and their repertoire of radical songs heralded the start of the protest movement. After war service, Seeger became director of People's Songs, a organization devoted to publishing radical musical material.

Seeger was supporter of Henry Wallace and the Progressive Party candidate in the presidential election of 1948. In that year he also formed the Weavers and after signing a recording deal with Decca, had a number of hit songs including Goodnight Irene, Wimoweh, Kisses Sweeter than Wine and So Long It's Been Good to Know You.

Seeger's music career was severely damaged when J. Edgar Hoover leaked his FBI file to Frederick Woltman, of the New York World Telegram. He published an article revealing that the Weavers were the first musicians in American history to be investigated for sedition.

Seeger's name also appearedin Red Channels. This pamphlet, distributed to organizations involved in employing people in the entertainment industry, listed 150 people who had been involved in promoting left-wing causes. Although the Weavers had sold over four million records, radio stations now stopped playing their music. They were also banned from appearing on national television.

On 6th February, 1952, Harvey Matusow testified in front of the House of Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) that Seeger was a member of the Communist Party. It was another three years before Seeger was called before the HUAC. Whereas he was willing to talk about his own political beliefs, Seeger refused to name other members of the various left-wing groups that he had belonged to over the years.

As a result of his attitude, on 26th July, 1956, the House of Representatives voted 373 to 9 to cite Seeger, Arthur Miller, and six others for contempt. However, Seeger did not come to trial until March, 1961. He was found guilty and sentenced to 12 months in prison. After worldwide protests, the Court of Appeals ruled that Seeger's indictment was faulty and dismissed the case.

Although freed from prison, the blacklisting of Seeger continued until the late sixties. Seeger's songs written during this period often reflected his left-wing views and included We Shall Overcome, Where Have All the Flowers Gone, If I Had a Hammer, Turn, Turn, Turn, The Bells of Rhymney and Guantanamera.

Pete Seeger appearing before the House ofUn-American Activities Committee in 1955.
Pete Seeger appearing before the House of
Un-American Activities Committee
in 1955.
© , September 1997 - April 2014

Primary Sources

(1) Peter Seeger testified in front of the House of Un-American Activities Committee on 15th August, 1955 but was unwilling to name other members of the various left-wing groups that he had belonged to over the years.

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, that I am any less of an American than anyone else.

I am saying voluntarily that I have sung for almost every religious group in the country, from Jewish and Catholic, and Presbyterian and Holy Rollers and Revival Churches. I love my country very dearly, and I greatly resent the 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, make me less of an American.

(2) Pete Seeger, speech before being sentenced to 10 years imprisonment for contempt of Congress (3rd April, 1961)

Some of my ancestors were religious dissenters who came to America over three hundred years ago. Others were abolitionists in New England in the eighteen forties and fifties. I believe that my choosing my present course I do no dishonor to them, or to those who may come after me.

(3) Don McLean explained what happened to Peter Seeger after being blacklisted.

Pete went underground. He started doing fifty dollar bookings, then twenty-five dollar dates in schoolhouses, auditoriums, and eventually college campuses. He definitely pioneered what we know today as the college circuit. He persevered and went out like Kilroy, sowing seeds at a grass-roots level for many, many years. The blacklist was the best thing that happened to him; it forced him into a situation of struggle, which he thrived on.

(4) Pete Seeger, interviewed by Ruth Schultz (1989)

Historically, I believe I was correct in refusing to answer their questions. Down through the centuries, this trick has been tried by various establishments throughout the world. They force people to get involved in the kind of examination that has only one aim and that is to stamp out dissent. One of the things I'm most proud of about my country is the fact that we did lick McCarthyism back in the fifties. Many Americans knew their lives and their souls were being struggled for, and they fought for it. And I felt I should carry on.

Through the sixties I still had to occasionally free picket lines and bomb threats. But I simply went ahead, doing my thing, throughout the whole period. I fought for peace in the fifties. And in the sixties, during the Vietnam war, when anarchists and pacifists and socialists, Democrats and Republicans, decent-hearted Americans, all recoiled with horror at the bloodbath, we came together.