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The Protest Singer: An Intimate Portrait of Pete Seegerby Alec Wilkinson
Synopses & Reviews
SEEGER'S POLITICS are of the most extravagantly conservative kind. He believes ardently in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. His interpretation of them is literal. In his years of activism, through the movements for workers' rights, civil rights, the movement against the Vietnam War, and the ecological movement, in all of which he figured prominently, there is no conceit that he has more emphatically embraced than that all human beings are created equal and have equal rights. In the early and middle parts of the twentieth century, such a conviction made a person not a patriot, but a socialist. When Seeger moved to Beacon, in 1949, he held a couple of meetings with a middle- age couple, the only other Communists around, then quit the party. I thought it was pointless, he said. “I realized I could sing the same songs I sang whether I belonged to the Communist Party or not, and I never liked the idea anyway of belonging to a secret organization.
After lunch we went out and looked at the river, and I could see where Seeger had been standing, in 1955, when a car arrived, and the man driving it asked if he was Pete Seeger. Then he handed Seeger an envelope and left. Seeger opened the envelope and called out to Toshi, They've finally got around to me. He had been summoned to testify before the House Un- American Activities Committee, in August.
Toshi found a lawyer who told Seeger that the option most commonly invoked was to cite the Fifth Amendment, which would lead to the case's being dismissed. Seeger didn’t care for the inference of guilt that the gesture implied. People who had done so were sometimes described as Fifth Amendment Communists. The lawyer also said that Seeger could choose to talk about himself to the committee but refuse to talk about other people. I had known I could do that, Seeger told me, “because my father, in 1952, I think it was, had to resign his job inWashington when the FBI came and spoke to him, and he said, ‘I'm willing to undress myself in a sentence, but I’m not going to tell about anyone else I know.’ They said, ‘You’ve got to tell about everyone.’ He said he wasn't willing to do that. He knew he would be fired, so he walked in the next morning and resigned. He was head of the music department of the Pan American Union. He’d hoped to hang on for a few years, since he hadn't the savings, but he closed down his house-a great big house that he’d raised four kids in—and his wife had just died a few months earlier, and my sister was going to Radcliffe, so he went up and got a crowded little apartment in Cambridge. Anyway, the lawyer told me if, at the hearing, I answered the question, ‘Are you a member of the Communist Party?' the next question would be, ‘Who did you know?'
The third choice was to rely on the First Amendment, which guarantees freedom of speech and the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances. The Hollywood Ten, a group of screenwriters and producers, had tried this in 1947, and been convicted of contempt, jailed for a year, and then blacklisted. Employing this tactic, Seeger might spend years in court, have his career ruined, and still go to jail. The lawyer left the choice to Seeger. He told him not to bait the committee, to be polite, to answer their questions,
Presents a portrait of the folk singer, tracing his career and influence as a singer and surveying his political development.
A spirited and intimate look at American icon and activist Pete Seeger, and his life and his accomplishments.
Pete Seeger transformed a classic American musical style into a form ofpeaceful protest against war, segregation, and nuclear weapons. Drawing on his extensive talks with Seeger, Alec Wilkinson delivers a first hand look at Seeger's unique blend of independence and commitment, charm, courage, energy, and belief in human equality and American democracy. We see Seeger, the child, instilled with a love of music by his parents; Seeger, the teenager, hearing real folk music for the first time; Seeger, the youngadult, singing with Woody Guthrie. And finally, Seeger the man marching with the Rev. Martin Luther King in Selma, standing up to McCarthyism, and fighting for his beloved Hudson River. The gigantic life captured in thisslender volume is truly an American anthem.
From the Trade Paperback edition.
About the Author
Alec Wilkinson began writing for The New Yorker in 1980. Before that, he was a policeman in Wellfleet, Massachusetts, and before that a rock-and-roll musician. He has published eight other books—two memoirs, two collections of essays, two biographical portraits, and two pieces of reporting. His honors include a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Lyndhurst Prize, and a Robert F. Kennedy Book Award. He lives with his wife and son in New York City.
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