On Monday, famed folksinger Pete Seeger died at age 94, and the news is awash with stories of his influence on the civil rights (he was on the march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965 and popularized "We Shall Overcome" as a rallying song), worker's rights ("Solidarity Forever" or "If I Had a Hammer" are good tastes of that), and migrant worker (his first concert was a farmworker benefit) causes. Among the various stories from Seeger's life, one that has been frequently reported is Seeger's defiance with Congress in 1955.
Seeger was, obviously, quite open with his work for lefty causes. (In fact, he has come under some justified criticism for expressing sympathies for Joseph Stalin and Fidel Castro - both of which he publically regretted later in life.) As a result of his work, he was called before Congress to testify to the House Un-American Activities Committee in August 1955. Seeger didn't appreciate the prevailing attitude in Congress that advocacy for certain causes made him somehow un-American, and he took the opportunity to convey that to the Committee. Rather than invoking the Fifth Amendment, Seeger objected generally to the right of Congress to ask questions and took offense to the notion that his beliefs or values were not properly held. In his testimony before Congress, Seeger was defiant and blunt. Some highlights:
* "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 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...that I am any less of an American than anybody else. I love my country very deeply, sir."
* "I decline to discuss, under compulsion, where I have sung, and who has sung my songs, and who else has sung with me, and the people I have known. I love my country very dearly, and I greatly resent this implication that some of the places that I have sung and some of the people that I have known, and some of my opinions, whether they are religious or philosophical, or I might be a vegetarian, make me any less of an American."
For his obstinance, Seeger was tried and convicted by a jury for "contempt of Congress," and he was sentenced to jail. (On appeal, the sentence was overturned.) He was blacklisted for years after that, and did not appear on network television until the late 1960s.
Seeger later received, from President Clinton, the National Medal of Arts. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996.
BONUS FACT: In 2006, Bruce Springsteen released We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions. The record was recorded at Springsteen's farm in New Jersey. It's full of classic songs that Seeger made famous, and is bursting with energy and joy. Try "Old Dan Tucker" or "John Henry." Actually, try the whole thing. It's great.
BONUS FACT 2: A version of "Little Boxes," which was made famous by Seeger, is the intro music to the Showtime show Weeds for seasons 1-3 and season 8. Actually versions of the song are the intro music: the show used more than 35 different covers of the song, from artists including Elvis Costello, Death Cab for Cutie, The Mountain Goats, Ben Folds, and Aimee Mann. Here's a 40+ minute (!!) video that includes (almost) all of them.