Earning your enemies

Pete_Seeger2_-_6-16-07_Photo_by_Anthony_PepitoneIt was heartening this week to see Pete Seeger, who’s died at the age of 94, get the obituaries that he deserved after a life of radicalism. I’m not going to repeat them here, but commend Richard Williams’ towering piece in the Guardian, which underlines his influence on our music culture, Dave Marsh’s long appreciation, Billy Bragg’s short memoir, and David Corn’s note in Mother Jones, along with another video-embedded piece there.

It wouldn’t necessarily have turned out this way. Blessed is the man or woman who is lucky enough to outlive their enemies; had Seeger died in the 1950s he would have been vilified, or ignored. But his persecutors then – J. Edgar Hoover, Joe McCarthy, Roy Cohn – are now both dead and discredited.

Williams quotes the British DJ Laura Laverne as saying that it was Seeger’s destiny to be “loved and hated by precisely the right people.” But you have to earn your enemies, and Seeger understood the cost of this. He had been a member of the Communist Party, and associated with a whole range of leftist organisations, although (as The New American pointed out) it would have been easy to miss this in the media tributes. Seeger confronted the House UnAmerican Activities Committee instead of pleading either the First or Fifth Amendments, and was sentenced to a year in jail for contempt of Congress (the conviction was later quashed), and he lived from hand to mouth after being blacklisted. “He was hounded”, says David Corn. It’s worth quoting what he said to the Committee, from a profile in the New Yorker:

“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,” he said. “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.”

They didn’t. What the committee members wanted was to have him say that he had been a Communist and to give them names of others who had been, and he wouldn’t. Again and again, he said, “My answer is the same as before.”

To 21st century ears a song like “If I Had A Hammer“, co-written by Seeger with Lee Hays, sounds like a cheerful and mildly progressive singalong. But in the 1940s it was incendiary, as he explained:

In 1949 only ‘Commies’ used words like ‘peace’ and ‘freedom’. … The message was that we have got tools and that we are going to succeed. This is what a lot of spirituals say. We will overcome. I have a hammer.

Seeger was phlegmatic about the UnAmerican Activities Committee, though with hindsight he could afford to be. As he told NPR in an interview in 1985,

It feels, as I felt, that these people didn’t love America so much as their own particular version of America, which was somewhat limited, shall we say. And so those who cooperated with the committee wish they could forget it all. Those who stood up to the committee, as Lee says, if it wasn’t for the honor, he’d just as soon not been blacklisted. It was an honor.

Billy Bragg writes that,

Pete believed that music could make a difference. Not change the world, he never claimed that – he once said that if music could change the world he’d only be making music.

His music was inseparable from his activism, and as an activist, he never quit. I’ve blogged here before about his campaign to clean up the Hudson River, and at the age of  92 he was recording Dylan’s “Forever Young” with a group of kids he’d mentored. And in many ways the America of today is unrecogniseable from that of the 1950s.

People today can’t realize, though, how much America has changed as a result of the civil rights movement and one thing after another, the women’s movement. We didn’t win all the victories we hoped we would win, but we won some victories, and maybe that’s the way the world moves forward.

Bruce Springsteen takes some credit for helping Seeger regain the reputation he deserved, both in his high profile recording of Seeger’s songs, and also his part in ensuring that Seeger played at Obama’s inauguration, where they sang together the Woody Guthrie song “This Land Is Your Land”, Seeger as ever engaging the audience in the politics of the song by getting them to sing along.

By chance I once heard Seeger talk about “This Land Is Your Land” on the radio (and I won’t be able to find this). When Guthrie first played it to him, Seeger told him the song didn’t work because it was too simple. It was only later that he realised that he was wrong; its simplicity was exactly the reason it worked.


The photo of Pete Seeger at the top of the post was taken by Anthony Pepitone in 2007. It is published on Wikimedia Commons under a  Creative Commons licence.



  1. There’s a nice breadth of sources in this article. I enjoyed the linked articles too. Writers who (I suspect) are not musicians tend to emphasize Pete’s politics and activism, but the bulk of his time was spent not on either of these, but in practicing, research, correspondence and conversation about music.

    His dad basically invented ethnomusicology, and Pete learned hands-on field research from Alan Lomax, our most important field recordist and archivist. Pete never ceased trying to uncover earlier versions and cultural roots of songs he heard. Most musicians would hear Lead Belly’s “Kisses Sweeter Than Wine”, recognize a beautiful love song, and stop there. Pete spent years tracing the song’s backstory and melody through a dozen previous variants, winding back hundreds of years to a gaelic lament sung by a farmer about the death of a beloved cow named Drinnen.

    That ability to uncover earlier sources allowed him to distill and adapt a 1909 miner’s hymn into “We Shall Overcome” in 1949, but he was still learning about earlier incarnations of the hymn up to the day he died.

    His boundless curiosity about the mechanics and design of acoustic instruments lead him all over the world. He and Toshi shot the first known film documenting how oil drums were made into melodic percussion instruments. Years before sitar began appearing in rock hits, he showed home movies of Indian classical performers on his UHF music show “Rainbow Quest”. He understood the origins and relationships between the hand-made instruments of a hundred countries, from pipes to whistles to strings to skins.

    I guess that kind of specific expertise, along with a penchant for living in voluntary simplicity, is kind of radical.

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