By Ralph Nader Common Dreams February 1, 2014
After 94 years, on January 27, 2014, the world lost Pete Seeger. The world is the lesser for that loss. The accolades for this giant of folk songs and herald of all causes just are pouring in from around the world. He is celebrated for regularly showing up at mass protests, for singing songs so transcendent (This Land is Your Land; We Shall Overcome; Where Have All the Flowers Gone) they are sung in many foreign languages all over the earth, and for his mentoring and motivating of millions of people and children.
No less than the Wall Street Journal, after reprinting an ugly commentary on Seeger’s earlier radicalism, wrote: “troubadour, rabble rouser, thorn in the side of the bloated and complacent, Seeger maintained what Mr. Springsteen called his ‘nasty optimism’ until late in life.” He’d be a living archive of America’s music and conscience.”
The man’s character shone when he was subpoenaed before the powerful House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in August 1955, along with other outspoken entertainers and actors, he refused to take the easier way out and invoke the Fifth Amendment against self-incrimination. Instead, he made himself vulnerable to later prosecution by pleading the First Amendment and his right to free speech, petition and assembly.
After rejecting the Committee’s probe about whom he associated with politically and his beliefs, he suggested that they discuss the music that the committee members found so objectionable. He offered unsuccessfully to sing his songs, then and there, before the startled politicians. “I think,” he told them, “these are very improper questions for any American to be asked especially under such compulsion as this.” In those days, that was an astounding act of courageous character.
He paid the price, when he was prosecuted and convicted before winning his appeal. In those years of “commie symps” witch-hunts by McCarthyite zealots, his career nearly collapsed. Television networks banned him for over a decade; record companies shunned him; concerts dwindled. So what did he do? He continued recording, touring among everyday people around the country, learning music from them and singing on street corners, at union halls, churches, schools and what he called “hobo jungles.”
His resilience in overcoming setbacks, ideological adversaries and smear specialists was legendary. That was because he never let his ego get in the way and wear him down and he recognized the big picture of social change and how he could use his stardom to amplify the people’s efforts for peace, justice, the environment and other necessities of the good life. It helped mightily that he was married to the stalwart Toshi for seventy years.
“The key to the future of the world,” he remarked in 1994, “is finding the optimistic stories and letting them be known.” In 2009, he said his task was “to show folks there’s a lot of good music in this world, and if used right it may help to save the planet.” He placed his greatest hope in women wisely teaching their children. He won a Grammy for his album, “Tomorrow’s Children.”
Musselman quotes Seeger as saying, “Nelson Mandela went from prison to the presidency of his country without a shot being fired. The Berlin Wall came down without a shot being fired. And did anybody think there would be peace in Northern Ireland? There is always hope when it comes to unlikely social change.”