In 1948, four folk singers, Ronnie Gilbert, Lee Hays, Fred Hellerman, and Pete Seeger came together to form a group called The Weavers, the name taken from Gehart Hauptmann play about the uprising of the Silesian weavers in 1844. Seeger and Hays had previously worked together in the anti-war, Communist Party affiliated Almanac Singers, which disbanded after the United States entered the war on the side of the Soviet Union, but, for the first two years, Seeger, Hellerman, Hays, and Gilbert considered themselves to be dilettantes and amateurs, not professional musicians. In 1951, however, they released a cover of Leadbelly’s song Goodnight Irene, which became a number one hit, and stayed there for a remarkable 13 weeks.
The Weavers: Wasn’t That a Time! is a wispy little documentary about their reunion in 1980 at Carnegie Hall, which was itself a nostalgic sequel to another concert they did at Carnegie Hall they did in the middle of the Red Scare in 1955. It’s deceptively simple, showing the now elderly Seeger, Hellerman, Hays, and Gilbert discussing how they got together after 25 years to play a sold out show. Seeger had left The Weavers in 1958 after a dispute about letting a cigarette company license their music. They disbanded in 1964. We see Lee Hay’s struggle with diabetes. He had both his legs amputated in the1970s and died in 1981. There are interviews with Don McLean and a young Holly Near, who talks about how Ronnie Gilbert had been her inspiration to become a professional musician. They spend a lot of time playing their instruments, chatting amiably, and reminiscing about the past. They talk about the Red Scare and Seeger’s testimony in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee.
I remember seeing advertisements for The Weavers: Wasn’t That a Time! on PBS when I was back in high-school. The impression I have now is just how old they all looked. Who would have imagined that Pete Seeger would have lived for another 32 years? He was already middle-aged before I was born. The Weavers: Wasn’t That a Time! and the 1980 concert at Carnegie Hall were supposed to be valedictions, a farewell to music. Yet, for Seeger, the documentary seems like a pause in mid-career, a brief, nostalgic look back at his youth before he began the final third of his long life as a musician and a political activist.
The day after Pete Seeger died, the Internet and the social media exploded with articles and postings about his testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1955.
The transcript of Seeger’s testimony is not only a master-class in how to face down school-yard bullies armed with state power, but also evidence of a kind of manliness that speaks with in a civil manner and with a soft, polite voice. These days we’re taught to admire jerks like Chris Christie and Donald Trump. It’s almost a truism that “nice guys don’t get the girls.” Yet Seeger faces a Congressional Committee that had not only destroyed the careers of men and women far better known than he was, but also had the power to lock him up in a cage, and never loses his civility or good humored contempt. Again and again the inquisitors badger him. Again and again, he stands his ground, and even laughs at the thugs trying to break him on the witness stand.
“I feel that in my whole life I have never done anything of any conspiratorial nature,” he says, ”and I resent very much and very deeply the implication of being called before this Committee that in some way because my opinions may be different from yours, or yours, Mr. Willis, or yours, Mr. Scherer, that I am any less of an American than anybody else. I love my country very deeply, sir.”
Unlike Lee Hays and unlike most of the leftist political and cultural figures called before HUAC, Seeger not only refused to “name names,” but even to invoke the Fifth Amendment, maintaining that the committee had no legitimacy or authority even to question him, genuine “contempt of Congress,” for which he was sentenced to a year in prison. That conviction wound up being overturned on appeal in 1962, but during the 7-year time-span he was essentially on probation. He had to register his comings and goings with the government. His career was profoundly damaged. He finally made it back on TV in 1967, but had to make his living as a music teacher in schools and summer camps and performing on the college campus circuit.
In these days of recession, NSA spying, and police repression, perhaps Seeger’s later years can teach us how he was able to weather those 7 years during which the state was trying everything in its power to destroy him, and come out almost unscathed. Folk music, unlike film or theater, is a very simple, bare bones form of expression with a low barrier to entry. You can blacklist a Hollywood film director. You can’t really blacklist a folk singer. Seeger lived a harsh, simple life, dwelling for years in Beacon New York in an unheated log cabin built with his own hands. He was preoccupied with saving the Hudson River from pollution, not with material possessions or with mingling with the rich and powerful. He was, to put it as briefly as possible, the anti-Bono. There’s very little that can touch a man who lives his life like Henry David Thoreau, who doesn’t get into debt, hooked on drugs, addicted to fame and adulation, who stays close to the land and who takes care of his already rugged body in a way that allowed him to reach his 90s without needing extensive medical care.
In the end, the only thing that took him down was the death a few months before of his wife Toshi, with whom he had lived for 70 years. He had remarked, in 1943, that she had made the rest of his life possible. After Toshi Seeger died, Pete Seeger didn’t so much expire as decide that he had lived long enough, that it was time to turn out the lights, and go to sleep.