Editorial: An old folkie with a message that remained current

Last modified: Monday, March 24, 2014
Among the many songs that Pete Seeger sang in a 1972 appearance at New England College was one that required his audience to chant a one-word chorus: Garbage! Garbage! Garbage! Garbage! Through the mysteries of the internet, much of that folk concert is available online, including this grim finale to Seeger’s timely lament about pollution of all sorts:

“We’re filling up our minds with garbage. What will we do when there’s nothing left to read, and there’s nothing left to breathe, and there’s nothing left to watch, and nothing left to touch, and nothing left to walk upon and nothing left to talk about . . . nothing left to see and nothing left to be but garbage?”

It’s possible that even at that show, four decades past, Seeger’s young audience in Henniker saw him as old. Already in his 50s, he had decades of activism and music behind him. He played old-fashioned songs, often on an old-fashioned banjo – and was known as the guy who felt betrayed when Bob Dylan set aside protest songs in favor of electric rock. But Seeger, who died this week at the age of 94, promoted causes that remained remarkably current, even into his very old age.

In the 1940s and ’50s, Seeger’s sang songs about the union movement. Later he sang at civil rights marches and protests against the Vietnam War. In the 1970s he promoted environmentalism, endorsing the protest movement against the Seabrook nuclear power plant, among others. Just a few years back, at the age of 89, he performed in the Upper Valley on behalf of New England’s small farmers.

His song “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” became a well-known antiwar anthem. His version of “We Shall Overcome” became a standard at events promoting civil rights.

But, strangely perhaps, it is one of Seeger’s earliest protests that resonates most clearly today: a protest on behalf of the privacy of all American citizens.

During the McCarthy era Seeger’s political affiliations, including membership in the Communist Party in the 1940s, led to his being blacklisted and, in 1955, hauled before the House Un-American Activities Committee. His testimony before Congress was, at turns, defiant, brave, funny, wise and inspirational, as the frustrated lawmakers tried and failed to get Seeger to admit he’d sung at events where known Communists were present:

“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.”

And later: “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 . . . that I am any less of an American than anybody else. I love my country very deeply.”

Seeger was indicted on 10 counts of contempt of Congress. He was convicted and sentenced to a year in prison, though an appeals court ultimately dismissed the indictment as flawed.

Today, Seeger’s early involvement with Communism and his battle with Congress are often seen as footnotes in a long, successful career of making music. But in an age where every day seems to bring a distressing revelation about the U.S. government’s many, many new ways of spying on its citizens, Seeger’s thoughts about privacy and government overreach seem all the more urgent.