By Carley Stavis
City on a Hill Press Columnist
On the verge of McCarthy-era America, circa 1942, banjo-picking singer-songwriter and political activist Pete Seeger was blacklisted by the United States government.
The U.S. was all but cut off from the music of Seeger and his fellow bandmates in folk group the Almanac Singers. Their songs were plucked from radio waves. Their shows were canceled.
About 67 years later, on Sunday night, 89-year-old Seeger joined Bruce Springsteen to sing the Woody Guthrie song “This Land Is Your Land” to a crowd of more than 400,000, bringing a dually exciting and inspiring close to President Barack Obama’s inaugural concert.
Looking out over his former political stomping grounds at the jam-packed National Mall in Washington D.C., Seeger’s wrinkled, well-worn face was awash in an unspoken happiness. His smile told America how proud he was to have come full-circle, from being a dissident of the government to its distinguished invitee.
As Obama was sworn in on Tuesday, it was easy for me to feel a sense of pride at how far this country has come. Stories like Seeger’s only affirm this. As many of those in my company Sunday night poignantly commented on the significance of Seeger’s impending performance, “He probably never could have imagined a day would come when the U.S. government would actually invite him to sing.”
By the time he reached age 17 in 1936, Seeger was a member of the Young Communist League (YCL) and was working his way up as a musician while studying sociology at Harvard. In 1941, after leaving Harvard just before completing his final exams, 21-year-old Seeger and the Almanac Singers — which also included folk artists Lee Hays, Woody Guthrie and Millard Lampell — cut the album “Songs for John Doe,” setting the men on a path toward government blacklisting.
Lines from many of the album’s songs stridently critiqued then-president Franklin D. Roosevelt’s peacetime draft. The antiwar and antidraft sentiments the group expressed, common among members of the early 1940s Communist Party and members of the YCL, themselves became the focus of much criticism.
In June of 1941, Time magazine reviewed the album and denounced it for sending an incorrect message to Americans that Roosevelt was leading the country into a war of business rather than principle.
Eleanor Roosevelt, herself a fan of folk music, told the press she found the album to be in bad taste.
German-born Harvard professor Carl Joachim Friedrich, a high-ranking adviser to the U.S. military, wrote in an article for the June 1941 issue of Atlantic Monthly that the album was poison to the American system, calling its lyrics “strictly subversive and illegal.” Friedrich went on to write that substantial government action needed to be taken “to counteract this type of populist poison.”
This call for government action was met soon after the article ran.
Friedrich’s writing was printed up and distributed in pamphlets to the clubs and record companies that employed the Almanac Singers. The men were the subjects of endless newspaper gossip, harsh reviews, and public dismissal, leading to their disbandment in 1942.
By the time Seeger was drafted to World War II late in 1942, it is suspected that his ties to Communist views and to the party itself were well-established and that the FBI had begun building what is now undoubtedly a sizable “Pete Seeger” file.
The FBI’s Seeger file of dissent may be large. In fact, it may even be growing. Seeger still shares his political views, records his music and performs songs about the perils of war, the environment and other social issues.
But his appearance at the inaugural concert carved out an even larger, more deserved place in American cultural history. It’s refreshing to see the leadership of the United States take heed to the legendary words Seeger sang Sunday night. It seems that Barack Obama understands that this land was made for you and me — and also for Pete Seeger.