Pete Seeger (2014)

Pete Seeger: His whole life was a contribution

Pete Seeger testifying to a subcommittee of the House Un-American Activities Committee
PETE SEEGER TESTIFYING TO A SUBCOMMITTEE OF THE HOUSE UN-AMERICAN ACTIVITIES COMMITTEE

TRANSCRIPT

A Subcommittee of the House Committee on Un-American Activities met at 10 a.m., August 18, 1955, in room 1703 of the Federal Building, Foley Square, New York, New York, the Honorable Francis E. Walter (Chairman) presiding.

Committee members present: Representatives Walter, Edwin E. Willis, and Gordon H. Scherer. Staff members present: Frank S. Tavenner, Jr., Counsel; Donald T. Appell and Frank Bonora, Investigators; and Thomas W. Beale, Sr., Chief Clerk.

MR. TAVENNER: When and where were you born, Mr. Seeger?

MR. SEEGER: I was born in New York in 1919.

MR. TAVENNER: What is your profession or occupation?im1.shutterfly

MR. SEEGER: Well, I have worked at many things, and my main profession is a student of American folklore, and I make my living as a banjo picker – sort of damning, in some people’s opinion.

MR. TAVENNER Has New York been your headquarters for a considerable period of time?

MR. SEEGER: No, I lived here only rarely until I left school, and after a year or two or a few years living here after World War II I got back to the country, where I always felt more at home.

MR. TAVENNER: You say that you were in the Armed Forces of the United States?

MR. SEEGER: About three and a half years.

MR. TAVENNER: Will you tell us please the period of your service?

MR. SEEGER: I went in in July 1942 and I was mustered out in December 1945.

MR. TAVENNER: Did you attain the rank of an officer?

MR. SEEGER: No. After about a year I made Pfc, and just before I got out I got to be T-5, which is in the equivilant of a corporal’s rating, a long hard pull.

MR. TAVENNER: Mr. Seeger, prior to your entry in the service in 1942, were you engaged in the practice of your profession in the area of New York?

Pete Seeger on stage 1960MR. SEEGER: It is hard to call it a profession. I kind of drifted into it and I never intended to be a musician, and I am glad I am one now, and it is a very honorable profession, but when I started out actually I wanted to be a newspaperman, and when I left school –

CHAIRMAN WALTER: Will you answer the question, please?

MR. SEEGER: I have to explain that it really wasn’t my profession. I picked up a little change in it.

CHAIRMAN WALTER: Did you practice your profession?

MR. SEEGER: I sang for people, yes, before World War II, and I also did as early as 1925.

MR. TAVENNER: And upon your return from the service in December of 1945, you continued in your profession?

MR. SEEGER: I continued singing, and I expect I always will.

MR. TAVENNER: The Committee has information obtained in part from the Daily Worker indicating that, over a period of time, especially since December of 1945, you took part in numerous entertainment features. I have before me a photostatic copy of the June 20, 1947, issue of the Daily Worker. In a column entitled “What’s On” appears this advertisement: “Tonight-Bronx, hear Peter Seeger and his guitar, at Allerton Section housewarming.” May I ask you whether or not the Allerton Section was a section of the Communist Party?

MR. SEEGER: Sir, I refuse to answer that question, whether it was a quote from the New York Times or the Vegetarian Journal.

MR. TAVENNER: I don’t believe there is any more authoritative document in regard to the Communist Party than its official organ, the Daily Worker.

MR. SCHERER: He hasn’t answered the question, and he merely said he wouldn’t answer whether the article appeared in the New York Times or some other magazine. I ask you to direct the witness to answer the question.

CHAIRMAN WALTER: I direct you to answer.

MR. SEEGER: Sir, the whole line of questioning …

CHAIRMAN WALTER: You have only been asked one question, so far.

MR. SEEGER: 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. I would be very glad to tell you my life if you want to hear of it.

e9e9fbc656_pete-seeger-folk-singer-dies-at-94MR. TAVENNER: Has the witness declined to answer this specific question?

CHAIRMAN WALTER: He said that he is not going to answer any questions, any names or things.

MR. SCHERER: He was directed to answer the question.

MR. TAVENNER: I have before me a photostatic copy of the April 30, 1948, issue of the Daily Worker which carries under the same title of “What’s On,” an advertisement of a “May Day Rally: For Peace, Security and Democracy.” The advertisement states: “Are you in a fighting mood? Then attend the May Day rally.” Expert speakers are stated to be slated for the program, and then follows a statement, “Entertainment by Pete Seeger.” At the bottom appears this: “Auspices Essex County Communist Party,” and at the top, “Tonight, Newark, N.J.” Did you lend your talent to the Essex County Communist Party on the occasion indicated by this article from the Daily Worker?

MR. SEEGER: Mr. Walter, I believe I have already answered this question, and the same answer.

CHAIRMAN WALTER: The same answer. In other words, you mean that you decline to answer because of the reasons stated before?

MR. SEEGER: I gave my answer, sir.

CHAIRMAN WALTER: What is your answer?

MR. SEEGER: You see, sir, I feel –

CHAIRMAN WALTER: What is your answer?

MR. SEEGER: I will tell you what my answer is. (Witness consulted with counsel Paul L. Ross.) 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, or yours, Mr. Willis, or yours, Mr. Scherer, that I am any less of an American than anybody else. I love my country very deeply, sir.

CHAIRMAN WALTER: Why don’t you make a little contribution toward preserving its institutions?

Francis E. Walter, Chairman of the House Un-American Activities Committee
FRANCIS E. WALTER, CHAIRMAN OF THE HOUSE UN-AMERICAN ACTIVITIES COMMITTEE

MR. SEEGER: I feel that my whole life is a contribution. That is why I would like to tell you about it.

CHAIRMAN WALTER: I don’t want to hear about it.

*

MR. SEEGER: I feel these questions are improper, sir, and I feel they are immoral to ask any American this kind of question.

MR. TAVENNER: Have you finished your answer?

MR. SEEGER: Yes, sir. . . .

Mr. TAVENNER: Did you hear Mr. George Hall’s testimony yesterday in which he stated that, as an actor, the special contribution that he was expected to make to the Communist Party was to use his talents by entertaining at Communist Party functions? Did you hear that testimony?

MR. SEEGER: I didn’t hear it, no.

MR. TAVENNER: It is a fact that he so testified. I want to know whether or not you were engaged in a similar type of service to the Communist Party in entertaining at these features.

MR. SEEGER: I have sung for Americans of every political persuasion, and I am proud that I never refuse to sing to an audience, no matter what religion or color of their skin, or situation in life. I have sung in hobo jungles, and I have sung for the Rockefellers, and I am proud that I have never refused to sing for anybody. That is the only answer I can give along that line.

Photo by Joe DiMaggio
PHOTO BY JOE DIMAGGIO

Pete Seeger, American hero, my hero, 1919-2014. What a life it was.

Let’s compare it to the life of Francis E. Walter, the chairman of the House Un-American Activities Committee and the man who said “I don’t want to hear about it” when Seeger said “I feel that my whole life is a contribution.” Although Ted Cruz lookalike Sen. Joseph McCarthygets all the ink these days, Francis Walter was every bit McCarthy’s equal in the House of Representatives. Walter’s contributions in life included:

  • In 1944 presented President Franklin D. Roosevelt with a letter opener carved from a Japanese soldier’s arm bone.
  • Was a director of the Pioneer Fund, a Nazi-inspired white-supremacist group that viewed blacks and Jews as “hereditarily diseased” and inferior.
  • Championed legislation to effectively bar all but white northern Europeans from immigrating to the United States.
  • Wrote several books, including The Communist Conspiracy, and was particularly determined to root out Communists in Hollywood.
  • Threatened those who challenged him with imprisonment for “contempt of Congress.”
  • Served 16 terms in Congress, dying in office in 1963. He was replaced as HUAC chairman by Rep. Edwin Willis, who said the civil rights movement was a Communist plot.

No wonder he didn’t like Pete Seeger. It wasn’t just the banjo.

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