Bill Newman: Words that inspired generations of activists

Last modified: Friday, January 31, 2014
NORTHAMPTON — In August 1955, when Pete Seeger was hauled before the House Un-American Activities Committee, congressmen demanded that he name names. Did he know any Communists, Communist-sympathizers or fellow travelers?

Many who were subpoenaed by HUAC invoked their Fifth Amendment right to not testify. Given that just two years earlier Julius and Ethel Rosenberg had been executed, essentially for being Communists, invoking the privilege against self-incrimination seemed like sensible self-preservation. But Seeger didn’t claim a Fifth Amendment privilege.

When asked where and for whom he had performed, Seeger replied, “I am not going to answer any questions as to my associations, 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 ....”

Seeger went on to tell HUAC, “I feel that in my whole life I have never done anything of any conspiratorial nature, and I resent very much and very deeply the implication of being called before this committee ... because my opinions may be different from yours [Mr. Chairman], that I am any less of an American than anybody else. I love my country very deeply, sir.”

To prove his point Seeger volunteered to sing his songs to the committee. The congressmen declined his offer.

Seeger’s principled stand before the committee — defending his First Amendment rights to speak and to sing, to associate freely and to petition the government for a redress of grievances, gave courage to other political activists of his generation and to the anti-Vietnam War protesters who followed a decade later. Likewise, his statement to HUAC about patriotism resonated for generations.

“This land is your land / This land is my land / From California / To the New York Island.”

Of course, the song makes clear whose side Seeger is on — that of the poor, the dispossessed, the exploited. Those lyrics also condemn the sign that said “Private Property” and celebrate the other side of the sign where “it didn’t say nothing.”

Pete Seeger performing “This Land is Your Land” with Bruce Springsteen at the Lincoln Memorial for Barack Obama’s first inauguration helped inspire yet another generation.

The fight for social justice requires faith and optimism, and Seeger provided that:

“We shall overcome / We’ll walk hand in hand / We shall live in peace / We shall overcome someday.”

An additional stanza came from the Montgomery bus boycott. “We are not afraid / we are not afraid / we are not afraid today.”

Seeger also made us feel the consequences of what we did and what we failed to do, never more poignantly than when young men and women were being sent off to war.

“Where have all the flowers gone / Long time passing / Where have all the flowers gone / Long time ago …

“Where have all the young men gone / Gone to soldiers everyone … / Where have all the soldiers gone / Gone to graveyards everyone.”

The plaintive refrain asks the question, “When will they ever learn?” But significantly, Seeger would sometimes amend the question to, “When will we ever learn?”

Similarly, “If I had a hammer” begins with conditional sentences: “If I had a hammer ... If I had a bell,” but it ends with “I’ve got a hammer” and “I’ve got a bell” and “I have a song to sing all over this land.”

“It’s a hammer of justice / It’s a bell of freedom / It’s a song about love between brothers and sisters ....”

His belief in the power of community, of coalitions and of cooperation made many of us want to work for labor unions and peace, for the environment and for civil and human rights. His rendition of songs such as “We Shall Not Be Moved” celebrated a determination to reach for those elusive goals of social justice:

“Black and white together / women and men together / city and country together / gay and straight together / like a tree standing by the water / we shall not be moved.”

Pete Seeger died this past week. His passing makes us sadly aware of the presence of his absence. There is, nonetheless, a blessing here. Pete Seeger lives on in the lives of millions of us whom he inspired, to whom he gave hope and courage, to whom he gave voice, to whom he gave song.

Bill Newman is a Northampton lawyer and host of a WHMP weekday program. His column appears the first Saturday of the month. He can be reached at opinion@gazettenet.com.