Sunday, May 10, 2009

Pete Seeger Rules

To prove that I’m not just a mystery boy, here’s a review of a great new biography, The Protest Singer: An Intimate Portrait of Pete Seeger, by Alec Wilkinson (Knopf).

Wasn’t that a time

On August 18, 1955, a subcommittee of the U.S. House Committee on Un-American Activities met at 10 a.m. in room 1703 of the Federal Building, sitting stiffly in New York’s Foley Square, under the chairmanship of Francis A. Walter. Walter and other employees of that committee had a single agenda: to badger the folk singer Pete Seeger into admitting that he had entertained for--and was himself--a member of the Communist Party.

“I have sung for Americans of every political persuasion,” Seeger said as Walter tried to anger him into admitting that he was a Red. “I have sung in hobo jungles and I have sung for the Rockefellers.” More than that he wouldn't say, especially when Walter seemed to offer him a free ride for naming names.

That hearing, which ended with Walter saying, “The witness is excused,” marked a definitive point for Seeger. It effectively ended his career as a protest singer, even though several songs--“This Land Is Your Land” and “Wasn’t That a Time”--earned him lots of money. (Oddly enough, no one on the Walter committee recognized the irony of them all referring to “Wasn't That a Time” as “In This Time.”)

If you were as delighted as I was by Bruce Springsteen calling on Seeger to sing “This Land Is Your Land” at that lovely celebration after Barack Obama’s presidential inauguration in January, then The Protest Singer is a must-read. The author, a former policeman and rock singer who now writes for The New Yorker, mixes short bursts of his subject’s family history with glimpses of a very private man. Publisher Knopf has illustrated this beautiful book with photos from the Seeger family, including ones of Pete singing with Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie, and the Smothers Brothers.

In the end, Seeger seems never to have compromised on anything he thought was important. We’re lucky to have him still with us (at age 90), captured for the ages in this splendid book, strumming his banjo as he cleans up the Hudson River.

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