by David Kelley
In 1955, when Hollywood stars were groveling in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee, more concerned about their careers than the First Amendment, Pete Seeger had the courage and dignity to refuse to testify about his beliefs or to name others who had been members of the Communist Party with him. He was prosecuted and convicted for contempt of Congress and sentenced to a year in jail (which was later thrown out on appeal).
After he was indicted, Seeger was blacklisted on American radio and television for the next decade. He had a wife and three children to support, and he still needed to make a living. But in 1957 when Lucky Strike cigarettes asked him to do an advertising jingle with the other members of his group, the Weavers, he refused to do anything that promoted cigarettes.
In my first year of college, almost everyone in my dorm was listening to Chicago and Santana. I was listening to folk music. I was interested in Woody Guthrie, and I knew Pete Seeger had been his friend. So one afternoon I found Seeger’s address and wrote him a letter asking if he could tell me which labels still produced Guthrie’s recordings. A week or two later I received a handwritten letter from Toshi Seeger, Pete’s wife, with a long list of labels that still sold Guthrie’s records.
Years later I was raising money for a high school music exchange between the U.S. and the then Soviet Union. I wrote to a handful of musicians asking if they would do benefit concerts, for free, to help. The first musician to say yes was a singer-songwriter named David Mallett. We became friends, and he later told me a story about Pete Seeger. When Dave first started performing, he appeared at the Toronto Folk Festival for exposure and no pay. The well-known musicians were being paid $500. After the program, Pete Seeger came over to Dave and gave him his $500 check. Seeger told Dave that he thought Dave would need the money more than he did, and he wanted Dave to keep singing.
Around that same time, I wrote to Seeger asking if he’d be willing to do a free concert for the student exchange program. Again, I received a letter back from his wife, Toshi. Toshi said they wanted to do whatever they could to help and to suggest some dates. Awhile later we had a choir coming to Vermont from Karelia, so I wrote back to Toshi and asked if Pete would appear on the same program. Toshi sent me a note and said they would do it. The morning before the concert, they drove over to Vermont with their grandson, Tao Rodriquez, who appeared with Pete, Dan and Jaye Lindner and the Karelian students.
Pete and Toshi’s generosity was unbounded. Two of their children went to the Woodstock Country School while Montpelier’s Leeds Brewer was attending that school. Pete and Toshi would visit the school a couple of times a year, and while he was there, Pete would hold a guitar/banjo workshop in a hayloft of the barn at the school. It was under Pete’s tutelage that Leed’s honed the guitar-picking skills that have helped brighten many a Montpelier evening. Fortunately for Montpelier, and probably Leeds as well, when Leeds decided he would take to the road in Pete’s footsteps the headmaster persuaded him that wasn’t a good idea.
“Terrorism” has replaced “Communism” as the demon du jour, and our Bill of Rights is as much under siege today as it was in 1955 when Pete Seeger stood up to the House Un-American Activities Committee. Likewise, we may not be selling as many Lucky Strikes as we did 50 years ago, but selfishness and greed are still alive and well.
There is a gospel children’s song that Pete Seeger liked to sing: “This little light of mine, I’m going to let it shine, let it shine, let it shine.” Toshi died unceremoniously last year. Pete’s death last week made headlines around the world. But the power of their courage, generosity and song touched millions of lives, and a lot of us will try to keep that little light shining.