Needless to say Pete's strong social conscience led him into some difficult spots politically. But he never backed down!
ControversiesWe live in a country where we have the right to be wrong. That's the essence of the Freedom of Speech to Pete. In the midst of the anti-communist witch-hunts of the 1950s Pete, who had been a member of the Communist Party, was called to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC).
He refused to answer the questions or give any information. Unlike others in similar situations, though, he did not use his 5th Amendment right to not self-incriminate. Instead, since he was sure he did nothing wrong- and therefore there was nothing to incriminate himself on- he took the First Amendment instead.
Freedom of Speech is the freedom not to speak as well.
He was held in contempt of Congress, a charge that was later overturned by the courts. But the damage was done. Pete was blacklisted. There was no work for him on network TV. The Weavers did continue to perform- but Pete felt he needed to leave the group when they were hired to do a cigarette commercial.
Vietnam and the Smothers Brothers
He finally got his chance with the Smothers Brothers. The comedy/variety show was given permission to have Pete as a guest in September 1967. But Vietnam was in the news and Pete had written this song about that war. He sang it on the show. When the show was aired, the song wasn't there.
The Smothers fought CBS and eventually won. The whole song was sung on another show in February 1968. I remember that evening. Many of us were gathered around a TV somewhere on campus. (I am not sure where on campus I was. I tended to roam) I do remember the electricity in the room as Pete stood there proud and sincere and sang about being "Waist deep in the big muddy as the big fool said to push on."
Don't forget that this was an era when you shouldn't trust anyone over 30. So the whole incident, with Pete as an elder statesman kind of folk hero even at the (then) seemingly over-the-hill age of 48, brought to light the depth of the political divide over the war. That year, 1968, would be the year of a radical shift in the country with King and Kennedy's deaths, Chicago's Democratic Convention and LBJ not running for president again. There was Pete!
Pete's voice was never polished or particularly smooth, as that clip shows. It didn't need to be. He wanted to get people involved. No sitting with a neutral position at his shows.
Salvador Allende and Chile
The September 11, 1973 military coup in Chile that ousted (and killed) the freely elected Marxist leader, Salvador Allende, became a flashpoint for many in Pete's world. Pete being among them. Pete had often been more than mildly interested in the sad history of American interference in Latin America. Chile and the stories heard of the horrors there in the coup only made him more incensed.
One of the martyrs who became well known in the world after the coup was Chilean poet Victor Jara. Pete's friend, Arlo Guthrie would write a song about Victor. Pete took one of Jara's poems and turned it into a song in Victor's honor. The terror of those days must not be forgotten, thought Pete. He made sure it wasn't.
Over the past week I have heard Pete's version of Jara's poem, Estadio Chile, a number of times on the Pete Seeger sidestream on Folk Alley. Like so much of Pete's work, the intensity and conviction is ever present.
One of the haunting lines in the original Spanish:
Canto qué mal me sales cuando tengo que cantar espanto!Pete sings it:
O you song, you come out so badly when I must sing — the terror!It could also be translated as
"O song, how hard it is to sing when I must sing of horror."Pete never backed away from that. He knew that the power of song could change the world- or at least not let the pain and injustice go unheard.
But Pete was no ideologue. He saw himself as an American and a patriot. He firmly believed in the principles on which this nation was built. He insisted that we not lose them. He did not fight for a political revolution, but something far deeper and more lasting than that. Perhaps one could call it the ongoing strengthening of the American revolution, bringing to light any injustice still be done- and calling us to our better nature. He wanted the truth to be known and honesty to be real.
And he was always ready to be wrong. Just give him the chance to do so and not shut him up.
“I still call myself a communist,” Seeger told The New York Times 20 years ago, “because communism is no more what Russia made of it than Christianity is what the churches make of it. But if by some freak of history communism had caught up with this country, I would have been one of the first people thrown in jail. As my father used to say: ‘The truth is a rabbit in a bramble patch. All you can do is circle around and say it’s somewhere in there.’ ”
-quoted at blood,dirt,and angels