If you’re interested in witnessing perhaps the most perfect example of the absurdity that was the House Un-American Activities Committee in action, Pete Seeger’s 1955 testimony reads like the bones of a Beckett play that never made it to the stage. Committee members hounded Seeger with inane questions, and the folk singer most often responded, “My answer is the same as before, sir.”
All these years later, grasping the awkwardness of the back-and-forth recorded in that transcript is still easy, and the benefit of hindsight shows what an incredible waste of time and energy the committee was. It’s hard to say how much we lost, culturally, because of the blacklist — all the filmmakers and writers and musicians who went underground or fled the country altogether instead of facing persecution. Most of the stories that come out of that era in American politics are sad ones. Yet there is a moment, a line from the Seeger transcript, that stands as not only a shining statement of defiance in the face of the committee, but also a motto that Seeger lived by until he drew his last breath yesterday, at the age of 94: “I continued singing, and I expect I always will.”
Growing up amid the socialist influences many of my family members carried over with them from the Old Country (and a whiff of the peace-and-love generation still in the air), Seeger’s voice was one that I heard quite often. We sang the songs he performed at summer camp; he didn’t write them, but we always sang them in the key of Seeger, because he was the person who made sure they survived. You never heard him on the radio, but when I started listening to Bob Dylan, The Clash, and Bruce Springsteen, I could instantly detect his influence. Seeger showed us, and everybody who came after him, that creating something new wasn’t the only important thing an artist can do — that how you preserved and interpreted the wisdom of the past could be just as important.
Seeger will forever be remembered as the singer who passed on to new generations the most important music in American history — the songs of immigrants from all over the world, African Americans in the Jim Crow South, and all those who stood up against oppression and hardship. His repertoire ranged from Lead Belly to his friend Woody Guthrie.
He will forever be thought of as one of American music’s most important figures because of these songs, because he believed in the power of music as a form of communication. But Pete Seeger’s lasting legacy will be that he spent a lifetime trying to be a good person, to live according to his principles. It might sound like a simple thing, something we all try to do, but Seeger’s attempt was shaped by the fact that he was a rare type of humanist — one who, imperfect as he might have been, spent his life looking for the best in the people of America and our songs. Those songs will live on for decades or maybe centuries, thanks in large part to Pete Seeger. Hopefully the example he set, of truly living while striving to also let others live, will as well.