- Musician, folksinger, songwriter, and political activist
- Joined the Communist Party in 1942
- “I'm still a Communist” -- Pete Seeger, 2004
Born in Patterson, New York in May of 1919, Pete Seeger has had a long career as a musician, singer, and songwriter. He is also well known for his political activism and his pro-communist leanings.
Seeger’s father, Charles, had been a music professor at the University of California at Berkeley until 1918, at which time he quit his teaching post because of the mounting tensions that his outspoken pacifism (vis a vis World War I) had created between him and his colleagues.
In 1932 Pete Seeger became a subscriber to the Communist monthly publication The New Masses. As a young teen he aspired to a career in journalism, but by age seventeen he had decided to pursue a music career instead.
Seeger attended Harvard University, but dropped out of college in 1939 during his sophomore year. From there, he worked briefly at the Library of Congress as an assistant at the Archive of the American Folk Song.
By 1940, Seeger was an accomplished musician who sang at many leftist political events. That year, he met the singer-songwriter Woody Guthrie at a benefit concert for migrant workers. Soon thereafter, he and Guthrie -- along with such performers as Lee Hays, Millard Lampell, Sis Cunningham, Sonny Terry, Brownie McGhee, Burl Ives, and a few others -- formed the Almanac Singers, one of the first folk music groups organized for mainly political purposes. During their brief time together (only about a year), they recorded some three-dozen songs, many of which dealt with such themes as pacifism, labor unions, and the alleged mistreatment of workers by employers and the U.S. government alike.
All of the Almanac Singers' members were involved with leftist political organizations, including the Communist Party (CP). In 1941 (not long after the signing of the 1939 Nazi-Soviet Pact), they recorded a series of "Songs for John Doe," which echoed the CP's official positions and exhorted listeners to oppose American involvement in the war against Hitler's Germany. The group performed at many union meetings and fundraising events for CP front groups.
In 1942 Seeger formally joined the Communist Party. A staunch defender of the Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, he saw himself as one of the Party's "artists in uniform" whose activism was rooted in the notion that "songs are weapons."
In 1945 Seeger became the national director of People's Songs, Inc, an organization designed to “create, promote and distribute songs of labor and the American People.” Within a few years, the California Senate Fact-finding Committee reported that:
"People's Songs is a vital Communist front … one which has spawned a horde of lesser fronts in the fields of music, stage entertainment, choral singing, folk dancing, recording, radio transcriptions and similar fields. It especially is important to Communist proselytizing and propaganda work because of its emphasis on appeal to youth, and because of its organization and technique to provide entertainment for organizations and groups as a smooth opening wedge for Marxist-Leninist-Stalinist propaganda."
Seeger parted ways with the Communist Party in 1950 and eventually renounced strict Stalinism, in favor of socialism and pro-labor activism. "I realized," says Seeger, "I could sing the same songs I sang whether I belonged to the Communist Party or not, and I never liked the idea anyway of belonging to a secret organization."
In 1955 Seeger was subpoenaed by the House Un-American Activities Committee, whose questions about his past Communist ties he answered evasively or not at all. The following year Seeger was indicted for contempt of Congress. In 1961 he was found guilty of that charge and was sentenced to ten years in prison, though in 1962 his conviction was overturned on a technicality.
In the 1960s Seeger was deeply involved in the civil rights movement and its hallmark demonstrations. His musical interpretation of an old spiritual, which he called We Shall Overcome, became a signature song of the movement. The song was played at the founding meeting of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in 1960. In subsequent years, Seeger would perform benefit concerts on SNCC's behalf.
Historian Ronald Radosh writes: "Throughout the 1950’s and 1960’s, Seeger called for peace, peaceful co-existence between the United States and the Soviet Union, singing songs like Put My Name Down, Brother, Where Do I Sign? -- a ballad in favor of the Soviet Union’s phony international peace petition that favored unilateral disarmament by the West while leaving the Soviet atomic stockpile intact. He would sing and give his support to peace rallies and marches covertly sponsored by the Soviet Union and its Western front groups and dupes -- while leaving his political criticism only for the United States and its defensive actions during the Cold War."
Seeger was an opponent of America's involvement in the Vietnam War. He similarly opposed the U.S. military campaigns and weapons buildup during the Reagan years of the Cold War. He supported the Nuclear Freeze Movement of the 1980s -- a Soviet-sponsored initiative that would have frozen Soviet nuclear and military superiority in place and would have rendered Reagan unable to close that gap to any appreciable degree.
Seeger has used his status as a folk icon to lend support to a number of leftwing causes and initiatives. In 1999, along with Ed Asner and Ossie Davis, Seeger served as an Advisory Board Member of Mumia 911, a group of artists and performers that opposed the execution of convicted cop-killer Mumia Abu Jamal. The organization depicted Mumia’s case as an admixture of multiple elements: "racism, the death penalty, police brutality, incarceration of Black and Latino youth, persecution of revolutionaries, and government suppression of dissent." "We are building a culture of resistance to stop the killing of Mumia Abu-Jamal," said Mumia 911, "and to transform the reactionary political climate in which those clamoring for his execution have thrived."
In 2000 Seeger was a signatory to a political advertisement in the New York Times calling for an immediate end to America’s economic sanctions against Iraq. The ad charged that the U.S. was responsible for “killing … over one million Iraqis, mostly children under five.” Fellow signers included Rosie O’Donnell, Thomas Gumbleton, Daniel Berrigan, Philip Berrigan, Ed Asner, Mike Farrell, William Sloane Coffin, Rev. James Lawson, Tim Robbins, Susan Sarandon, Joan Baez, Richard Dreyfuss, Liam Neeson, Martin Sheen, Ramsey Clark, Howard Zinn, and Noam Chomsky.
In 2002 Seeger was a signatory to the “Statement of Conscience” crafted by Not In Our Name, a project of C. Clark Kissinger’s Revolutionary Communist Party. This document condemned not only the Bush administration’s “stark new measures of repression,” but also its “unjust, immoral, illegitimate, [and] openly imperial policy towards the world.”
In the months prior to the 2003 war in Iraq, Seeger appeared as a guest speaker and performer at numerous peace rallies across the United States. He supported the activities of such high-profile anti-war leaders as Medea Benjamin of Global Exchange and Leslie Cagan of United For Peace and Justice.
In 2003 Seeger endorsed a statement condemning the Smithsonian Institution’s plan to exhibit the Enola Gay, the B-29 Superfortress used in the atomic bombing of Hiroshima in 1945. He and his fellow 250+ signers -- among whom were Noam Chomsky, Martin Sheen, Norman Lear, and Oliver Stone – were opposed to the aircraft being regarded in a “celebratory” manner.
Seeger is a National Advisory Board member of the Disarm Education Fund, which seeks “to ban all private ownership of handguns.” Other board members include: Robert Schwartz, Aris Anagnos, Ed Asner, Mario Obledo, Michael Ratner, Dave Dellinger, Martin Sheen, Spike Lee, Bishop Thomas Gumbleton, Ramsey Clark, and Howard Zinn.
Between 1993 and 2006, Seeger made $3,700 in campaign contributions to political candidates, $800 of which went to Independents and $2,900 to Democrats, most notably Maurice Hinchey and Bernie Sanders.
As documented by Francis X. Gannon in the Biographical Dictionary of the Left, Seeger has been affiliated -- as an entertainer, member, sponsor, instructor, or contributor -- with a long list of Communist groups and fronts during his life. Among these are: the American Peace Mobilization; the American Youth Congress; the Communist Party; American Youth for Democracy; the Council on African Affairs; the American Committee for Yugoslav Relief; the National Council of American-Soviet Friendship; the Civil Rights Congress; the American Committee for Protection of Foreign Born [Americans]; the Committee for a Democratic Far Eastern Policy; the Jefferson School of Social Science; Veterans Against Discrimination of Civil Rights Congress; New Masses; Daily World; the Labor Youth League; the California Labor School; the National Lawyers Guild; Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade; the Committee for the First Amendment; the American Peace Crusade; the National Emergency Civil Liberties Committee; and the National Committee to Abolish the House Un-American Activities Committee.
Today, Seeger speaks plainly about his former involvement with the Communist Party and admits some regrets. “My father,” he has said, “…got me into the Communist movement. He backed out around '38. I drifted out in the '50s. I apologize for following the party line so slavishly, for not seeing that Stalin was a supremely cruel misleader.”
Still, Seeger acknowledges his support of Marxist principles. "I still call myself a communist," he said in 1995, "because communism is no more what Russia made of it than Christianity is what the churches make of it."
In 2000, Seeger reiterated: "I am still a Communist." And in an interview with Mother Jones magazine four years later, he elaborated: “I’m still a communist, in the sense that I don’t believe the world will survive with the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer.”
Seeger died on January 27, 2014.