Remembering Pete Seeger's Legacy As An American Progressive Icon

on January 28 2014 12:11 PM
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Pete Seeger at the Clearwater Festival in 2007. Wikimedia Commons

On the day the president of the United States is set to announce a raise in the minimum wage for federal workers, a champion of the rights of those working for minimum wage is dead. Pete Seeger, a tireless advocate of workers’ rights and a hugely influential American folk music icon, died on Tuesday at 94.

Throughout his life, Seeger was associated with the American labor movement. While attending Harvard University, Seeger, who at the time planned to work as a journalist, founded a radical newspaper and became a member of the Young Communist League. After two years at Harvard, he dropped out and moved to New York City, where he met fellow folk music icon Woody Guthrie in 1940.

Guthrie and Seeger began performing together often on the CBS radio show “Back Where I Come From,” notable at the time for its racially integrated cast. At Eleanor Roosevelt’s request, Seeger and the show’s other performers held several integrated concerts throughout World War II in Washington, D.C., which was highly segregated at the time.

As the founder and editor of People’s Songs from 1946 to 1950, Seeger worked to promote and preserve traditional American folk music while at the same time providing support and encouragement to laborers across the country. “People’s Songs Bulletin,” the organization’s quarterly newsletter, published folk music and labor songs, complete with lyrics as well as sheet music and tablature for musicians of any skill level.

The Bulletin is perhaps best known for publishing and popularizing the protest song “We Shall Overcome,” which Seeger adopted from the gospel hymn “I Will Overcome.” The song, published in “People’s Songs Bulletin No. 3,” became an anthem of the Civil Rights movement beginning in 1959. Joan Baez famously led the 300,000-strong March on Washington in the song sitting on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. recited its lyrics in his final sermon on March 31, 1968, just days before he was assassinated.

Seeger came to national prominence as a member of the Weavers, a folk act. With the Weavers, he wrote and recorded some of his best-known progressive anthems, including “If I Had a Hammer,” which went on to become a major commercial success when recorded by Peter, Paul and Mary 12 years after its original release.

Though Seeger never stopped performing and recording music, his career was set back for several years during the McCarthy-era Red Scare. A blacklist led to the Weavers disbanding in 1953, and in 1955, Seeger was subpoenaed to testify before the House of Un-American Activities Committee. Disillusioned with Joseph Stalin’s brutal regime in the USSR, Seeger drifted away from the Communist Party after World War II, but he still faced scrutiny for his former beliefs.

Seeger stuck by his First Amendment rights throughout his questioning and refused to discuss his personal, political or religious beliefs before the Committee. In the 2009 biography “The Protest Singer,” Seeger was quoted as telling the Committee “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.”

Ultimately, Seeger was indicted for contempt of Congress in 1957 and faced increased government scrutiny for years. He was convicted for contempt of Congress in 1961 and sentenced to 10 years in jail, though the conviction was overturned the next year in appeals court. After his conviction, Seeger refused to back down from his progressive beliefs.

In 1966, Seeger attacked President Lyndon Johnson for his involvement in the Vietnam War by turning the children’s song “Beans in My Ears” into a protest song. In his version, Seeger sang that “Alby Jay,” or LBJ, had “beans in his ear” and refused to listen to what others said.

Seeger, who became an almost mythical figure in the Bob Dylan-led folk rock revival of the 1960s, also advocated environmentalism. He co-founded the Hudson River Sloop Clearwater in 1966, which fought to clean the then-heavily polluted Hudson River. Seeger also wrote songs about promoting environmental causes, including “That Lonesome Valley,” which he performed with Arlo Guthrie. Thanks in part to Seeger’s efforts with Clearwater, Congress passed the Clean Water Act in 1972, greatly reducing the levels of water pollution in America.

In his later years, Seeger continued to advocate for the American worker. In 2009, he stood alongside Bruce Springsteen and his grandson Tao Rodríguez-Seeger, performing Guthrie’s classic “This Land is Your Land” at President Barack Obama’s inauguration. Though the song is often taught in elementary schools today, most omit Guthrie’s overtly progressive verses and opt for a neutered version. Seeger and Springsteen did not shy away from the song’s progressive history, singing the oft-excised verse:

There was a big high wall there that tried to stop me;
Sign was painted, it said private property;
But on the back side it didn't say nothing;
That side was made for you and me

Even at the age of 92, Seeger used his music to fight for progressive causes. In 2011, Seeger marched alongside protesters for 30 blocks from New York City’s Upper East Side to Columbus Circle in support of Occupy Wall Street, singing the entire way. When he arrived at Columbus Circle, Seeger was joined by Arlo Guthrie, David Amram and Tao Rodriguez-Seeger to sing “This Little Light” for the protesters.

For 94 years, Seeger shone as an American icon, as a political radical and as a musician. Though Seeger worked to preserve and promote America’s folk music history, he also fought for the rights of dispossessed Americans everywhere, championing racial equality, workers’ rights, environmentalism and an end to the war in Vietnam.

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