Pete Seeger survived the bastards

NOTewport, Rhead Icountry—Pete Seeger was one of the few visionaries who launched the Newport Folk Festival in 1959, at a time when elite venues refused to allow the father of American folk music near a microphone. It was fitting, then, that the US Postal Service issued a stamp featuring Seeger last week on the eve of the festival, at a special ceremony in which musicians and fans honored the singer for his music and his activism.

An independent agency of the executive branch of the United States federal government issued the forever stamp in recognition of the radical who was once blacklisted for his ideas and willingness to speak truth to power.

During the height of the Red Scare in the mid-1950s, Seeger was targeted by Congressional Red-baiters, particularly members of the House Un-American Activities Committee. They identified him as an undesirable dissident who, in his youth, had aligned himself with the Communist Party when he played a leading role in organizing trade unions, campaigning against lynching and electing members of the New York City Council. Cold War-era criticism of Seeger led radio stations to ban his songs. His label dropped him. And the House Un-American Activities Committee brought him in for questioning.

As the anti-communist witch hunt began to define not only the country’s politics, but also its culture, Seeger and others on the left — like singer and actor Paul Robeson and screenwriter Lillian Hellman — were pushed to the fringes of the American public opinion. life. Conservatives of both political parties silenced many of America’s most talented artists at the height of their careers because they viewed as suspect a strong plea for desegregation, strong unions, welfare, peace and disarmament.

In the 1950s and 1960s, Seeger explained that the “group of American fascists” that targeted him had enough power to silence anyone who disagreed with them. But history has a way of rewarding the righteous. Seeger’s image is now on a USPS stamp, while the image of the most prominent of the Red-baiters, Wisconsin Senator Joe McCarthy, remains as tarnished as it was when top US attorney Joseph Walsh asked to the senator: “Have you no sense of decency, sir? Finally, have you left no sense of decency?

The grip of the McCarthy-generated Red Scare and the blacklist associated with it has loosened so slowly that many of its targets – civil rights activists, social justice advocates, peace activists and artists – didn’t live long enough to be exonerated. the court of public opinion. But Seeger, who was blacklisted after becoming an international star in the early 1950s while singing folk songs with The Weavers, sang his way back.

He continued to co-write songs, such as “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” and “If I Had a Hammer”. He popularized protest anthems such as “We Shall Overcome”, performed in union halls and open fields, inspired generations of young singers such as Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, and eventually became a father figure. playing banjo for the civil rights and anti-war movements of the 1960s. But broadcast networks didn’t allow Seeger on television until September 1967, nearly 15 years after the Conservative vendetta against him began. It appeared this fall on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Houronly for CBS censors to ban him from singing “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy,” which was heard as a protest against the growing US military involvement in Vietnam.

Eventually, Seeger became a big old man in popular music, though he maintained the radical faith that saw him marching and singing with Occupy Wall Street activists a few years before his death. While he still occasionally took red punches from the most extreme far-right politicians and pundits, American audiences brought him back into the mainstream, especially after Bruce Springsteen recorded his album of 2006, We will overcome: the Seeger sessions, and toured the country with a band that performed many of Seeger’s greatest songs. In 2009, when performing for President Barack Obama’s first inauguration, Springsteen invited a vivacious 89-year-old Seeger on stage to sing a rousing version of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land.”

Springsteen would later recall,

That day, as we were singing “This Land is Your Land”, I looked at Pete – the first black president of the United States sat to his right – and thought of the incredible journey that Pete had do. My own childhood in the 60s in cities scarred by race riots made this moment almost unbelievable, and Pete had 30 more years of struggle and real activism under his belt. He was so happy that day. It was like, Pete, you survived the bastards, man!

When Seeger died in 2014 at the age of 94, President Obama praised him for “reminding us of where we came from and showing us where we need to go.”

Obama said:

Once called “America’s tuning fork,” Pete Seeger believed deeply in the power of song. But more importantly, he believed in the power of community to stand up for what is right, speak out against what is wrong, and bring this country closer to the America he knew we could be. Over the years, Pete has used his voice and his ‘hammer’ to strike a blow for workers’ and civil rights, world peace and environmental conservation. And he always invited us to sing with him.

It was a great tribute. But there’s something even more permanent about a postage stamp, especially the forever stamp that features Seeger’s image. At a time when another group of American fascists is on the march, it reminds us that we can outlive the bastards, just like Pete Seeger did.

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