When looking back over Pete Seeger’s life, it’s hard to fathom all that he accomplished. He helped clean up the Hudson River. His voice was a force for ending the Vietnam War. Before that, he sang in support of worker’s rights. He entertained Eleanor Roosevelt, and helped inaugurate Barack Obama. He inspired Dylan and Baez and the Byrds and Springsteen. And – probably most importantly to him – he sang to generations of school kids and churchgoers and college kids and folk music fans. That’s what he did: he sang.
But within the catalog of Seeger’s life – sung so well for so long – is one song that is so dark and scary that today it’s hard to believe it was ever sung. In August of 1955, Seeger was compelled to appear in room 1703 of the Federal Building in Foley Square, New York City, and give testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee. For most of an hour, the inquisitors demanded he provide information about his politics and the politics of his friends. For most of an hour, Seeger refused. Over 40 times, the Government demanded that he “answer the question.” Each time, Seeger responded with some variation of, “my answer is the same.” But in between the questioning, as he was staring down the paranoid fury of the United States government, Seeger provided a few moments of sanity, and a little light in the darkness. Here it is, all of his testimony that day, with minimal editing but in full, chronological order: the bravest performance of Pete Seeger’s life.
I was born in New York in 1919.
I have worked at many things, and my main profession is a student of American folklore, and I make my living as a banjo picker – sort of damning, in some people’s opinion. I lived in New York only rarely until I left school, and after a few years living here I went into the army in July 1942. After about a year I made Pfc, and just before I got out I got to be T-5, which is in the equivalent of a corporal’s rating, a long hard pull. I was mustered out in December 1945. After World War II I got back to the country, where I always felt more at home.
Music really wasn’t my profession. I picked up a little change in it. It is hard to call it a profession. I kind of drifted into it and I never intended to be a musician, and I am glad I am one now, and it is a very honorable profession, but when I started out actually I wanted to be a newspaperman, and when I left school…
I sang for people, yes, before World War II, and I also did as early as 1925. I continued singing, and I expect I always will.
I refuse to answer that question whether it was a quote from the New York Times or the Vegetarian Journal. 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. I would be very glad to tell you my life if you want to hear of it.
I feel that my whole life is a contribution. That is why I would like to tell you about it.
No, sir, although I do not want to in any way discredit or depreciate or depredate the witnesses that have used the Fifth Amendment, and I simply feel it is improper for this committee to ask such questions.
I will be glad to tell what songs I have ever sung, because singing is my business. But I decline to say who has ever listened to them, who has written them, or other people who have sung them.
I don’t know any song by that name (Now is the Time), and I know a song with a similar name. It is called “Wasn’t That a Time.” Is that the song? I can sing it. I don’t know how well I can do it without my banjo. I have sung that song. I am not going to go into where I have sung it. I have sung it many places.
I feel that is improper to ask about my associations and opinions. I have said that I would be voluntarily glad to tell you about any song, or what I have done in my life.
I shall be glad to answer about the song, sir, and I am not interested in carrying on the line of questioning about where I have sung any songs.
I feel these questions are improper, sir, and I feel they are immoral to ask any American this kind of question.
I am sorry you are not interested in the song. It is a good song.
I have sung for Americans of every political persuasion, and I am proud that I never refuse to sing to an audience, no matter what religion or color of their skin, or situation in life. I have sung in hobo jungles, and I have sung for the Rockefellers, and I am proud that I have never refused to sing for anybody. That is the only answer I can give along that line.
I am proud that I have sung for Americans of every political persuasion, and I have never refused to sing for anybody because I disagreed with their political opinion, and I am proud of the fact that my songs seem to cut across and find perhaps a unifying thing, basic humanity, and that is why I would love to be able to tell you about these songs, because I feel that you would agree with me more, sir. I know many beautiful songs from your home county, Carbon, and Monroe, and I hitchhiked through there and stayed in the homes of miners.
I feel it is improper to say who has sung my songs or who I have sung them to, especially under such compulsion as this.
I have already told you, sir, that I believe my associations, whatever they are, are my own private affairs.
It is like Jesus Christ when asked by Pontius Pilate, “Are you king of the Jews?”
Why don’t you ask me about the churches and schools and other places?
I am saying voluntarily that I have sung for almost every religious group in the country, from Jewish and Catholic, and Presbyterian and Holy Rollers and Revival Churches, and I do this voluntarily. I have sung for many, many different groups-and it is hard for perhaps one person to believe, I was looking back over the twenty years or so that I have sung around these forty-eight states, that I have sung in so many different places.
I decline to discuss, under compulsion, where I have sung, and who has sung my songs, and who else has sung with me, and the people I have known. I love my country very dearly, and I greatly resent this implication that some of the places that I have sung and some of the people that I have known, and some of my opinions, whether they are religious or philosophical, or I might be a vegetarian, make me any less of an American. I will tell you about my songs, but I am not interested in telling you who wrote them, and I will tell you about my songs, and I am not interested in who listened to them.
I can only infer from your lack of interest in my songs that you are actually scared to know what these songs are like, because there is nothing wrong with my songs, sir.
I have sung for pacifists and I have sung for soldiers.
Of course, I would be curious to know what you think of a song like this very great Negro spiritual, “I’m Gonna Lay Down My Sword and Shield, Down by the Riverside.”
For his performance on that day, Pete Seeger was found guilty of 10 counts of contempt of Congress, which were overturned in 1962.
For his performances over his lifetime, Seeger was awarded the National Endowment for the Arts’ Medal, and a Kennedy Center Honor, in 1994.