Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Remembering Pete Seeger

For everything there is a season, 
and a time for every purpose under heaven:
a time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
a time to hurt, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up;
a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
a time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
a time to seek, and a time to lose;
a time to keep, and a time to throw away;
a time to tear, and a time to sew;
a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
a time to love, and a time to hate;
a time for war, and a time for peace.
Ecclesiastes 3:1-10

Sometimes the most Christian people are those who make no confession of faith.

Pete Seeger came across that poem in Ecclesiastes one day when he was leafing through the Bible and he made it into a song called “Turn, Turn, Turn.” The song became even more popular when The Byrds recorded it.

In the 1940’s and early 1950’s Seeger became one of the most popular folk singers in the country, singing with a group called the Weavers, as well as on his own. His career was abruptly derailed when he was blacklisted during the McCarthy era.

At the top of a Slate article by Dahlia Lithwick on Pete Seeger’s testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee there is a picture of him playing his banjo and singing at the 1944 opening of the Washington labor canteen. You can see First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt sitting in the front row between two sailors, and Seeger appears to be wearing his army uniform.

The House Un-American Activities Committee investigated Seeger for performing at events like the one pictured with Eleanor Roosevelt. They wanted to know for whom he had performed, with whom he sang, and whether any of his performances had been advertised in The Daily Worker. Respectfully and politely, he refused to name names. Over and over, he gave approximately the same response:

“I feel that in my whole life I have never done anything of any conspiratorial nature. 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, essentially under such compulsion as this.”

Each time he was asked about where and when and to whom he had sung, he would say that he had never refused an invitation, that he had sung for everyone who asked, and then he would offer to talk about his music. And the committee members would tell him that they were not interested in his music, they only wanted to know to whom and for whom he had sung. For a full transcript of the hearing, click here.

Looking back from almost sixty years later, the interchange seems comical, and at one point Seeger called it silly, but it was serious business to the members of the committee. For his refusal to answer, he was convicted of contempt of Congress and sentenced to a year in prison, but he never served the sentence and his conviction was overturned in 1962.

Pete Seeger’s career revived in the 1960’s with the Civil Rights movement and the Peace movement. He popularlized the old spiritual, “We Shall Overcome,” which became an anthem for both movements. He also wrote, “Where Have All the Flowers Gone,” and “If I Had a Hammer.”

At the age of 88, he was interviewd by Wendy Schuman of Beliefnet and asked about his faith. He said,

I feel most spiritual when I’m out in the woods. I feel part of nature. Or looking up at the stars. [I used to say] I was an atheist. Now I say, it’s all according to your definition of God. According to my definition of God, I’m not an atheist. Because I think God is everything. Whenever I open my eyes I’m looking at God. Whenever I’m listening to something I’m listening to God.”

Later in that same interview, he said:

“I tell people I don’t think God is an old white man with a long white beard and no navel; nor do I think God is an old black woman with white hair and no navel. But I think God is literally everything, because I don’t believe that something can come out of nothing. And so there’s always been something. Always is a long time.”

Seeger was married to his wife, Toshi, for 63 years until she passed away last July. When asked what he thought about eternal life, Seeger told about the death of their first child, at the age of six months, while Pete was overseas in the army. His father wrote to him and said, “I don’t think I could cheer you up in the usual way. But remember this, that something good that has happened can never be made to unhappen.” Seeger commented, “That’s a nice way of putting it, don’t you think? Something that has happened can never be made to unhappen.”

No comments:

Post a Comment