Feb 052014
 

Pete Seeger arrives at a Federal courthouse for sentencing with his banjo over his shoulder, April 4, 1961. Seeger had been convicted of contempt of Congress on March 29 for his refusal to cooperate with HUAC in 1955. Seeger was sentenced to a year in prison, but his conviction was overturned on appeal the following year. Source: New York World-Telegram and the Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division: http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2002709318/

On January 27, 2014, the well-known folk singer and left-wing activist Pete Seeger passed away at the age of 94. In his youth, Seeger’s radical politics led him to affiliate with the Communist Party of the USA (CPUSA). He joined the Young Communist League in 1936 and the CPUSA itself several years later. After serving in the army during World War II, Seeger resumed his musical career as part of the famous folk act The Weavers. His musical prominence and continued ties to the CPUSA soon brought him to the attention of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), which by the early 1950s had adopted the mindset that communism was an alien influence that must be removed root and branch from American society.

On August 18, 1955, Pete Seeger appeared before a session of the House Un-American Activities Committee held in New York City. During his testimony before HUAC, Seeger refused to answer any questions about his political beliefs or associations. He did not, however, invoke the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution as grounds for not answering such questions. Instead, he flatly declined on principle to provide such information. As he told the committee early in his appearance:

I am not going to answer any questions as to my associations, 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. (Investigation of Communist Activities, New York Area. Part 7, p. 2449)

Seeger’s refusal to cooperate with HUAC resulted in his being indicted for contempt of Congress. He was ultimately convicted of this charge in March 1961, and sentenced to a year in prison. However, his conviction was overturned on appeal the following year.

Ironically, Seeger had already quietly backed away from the CPUSA by the time he appeared before HUAC. Eventually, he would openly abandon communism, performing at a 1982 benefit for the anti-communist Polish labor union Solidarity and condemning Joseph Stalin in his 1993 memoirs. After being blacklisted in the 1950s, Seeger reemerged in the 1960s as one of the main influences on that decade’s folk revival, while his song “We Shall Overcome” became one of the anthems of the civil rights movement. Seeger performed at President Obama’s 2009 inauguration and remained active in supporting liberal and left-wing causes until his death.

 

CWIS Sources:

The official transcript of Pete Seeger’s appearance before HUAC can be found in:

Investigation of Communist Activities, New York Area. Part 7: Entertainment. Hearings Before the Committee on Un-American Activities, House of Representatives, Eighty-Fourth Congress, First Session. August 17-18, 1955.  (Joyner Docs CWIS: Y 4: Un 1/2: C 73/55/pt. 7; additional circulating copy in Joyner Docs Stacks: Y 4: Un 1/2: C 73/55/pt. 7)

Seeger’s testimony can be found from p. 2447-2460. Additional CWIS documents referencing Pete Seeger include:

Communist Activities Among Youth Groups (Based on Testimony of Harvey M. Matusow). Hearings Before the Committee on Un-American Activities, House of Representatives, Eighty-Second Congress, Second Session. February 6-7, 1952. (Joyner Docs CWIS: Y 4: Un 1/2: C 73/29)

Investigation of Communist Activities, New York Area. Part 6: Entertainment. Hearings Before the Committee on Un-American Activities, House of Representatives, Eighty-Fourth Congress, First Session. August 15-16, 1955.  (Joyner Docs CWIS: Y 4: Un 1/2: C 73/55/pt. 6; additional circulating copy in Joyner Docs Stacks: Y 4: Un 1/2: C 73/55/pt. 6)

Testimony of Walter S. Steele Regarding Communist Activities in the U.S. Hearings Before the Committee on Un-American Activities, House of Representatives, Eightieth Congress, First Session. July 21, 1947.  (Joyner Docs CWIS: Y 4: Un 1/2: St 3)

 

Additional Sources:

Lithwick, Dahlia. ‘When Pete Seeger Faced Down the House Un-American Activities Committee‘. Slate, January 28, 2014.

Matthews, Dylan. ‘The Washington Post picked its top American Communists. Wonkblog begs to differ‘. Washington Post: Wonkblog, September 26, 2013.

Pareles, Jon. ‘Pete Seeger, Champion of Folk Music and Social Change, Dies at 94‘. New York Times, January 28, 2014.

Radosh, Ron. ‘Time for Pete Seeger To Repent‘. New York Sun, June 12, 2007.

Wakin, Daniel J. ‘This Just In: Pete Seeger Denounced Stalin Over a Decade Ago‘. New York Times, September 1, 2007.

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