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"There Was No Barrier Between [Seeger] and All of His Friends and Supporters"

Image via Wiki Commons.

You outlasted the bastards, man.

-- Bruce Springsteen at Pete Seeger’s ninetieth birthday celebration

When legendary musician and social activist Pete Seeger died on Monday, January 27, at the age of 94, the world lost a powerful voice for peace and justice.

Seeger may be best known for his musical performances and the revival of American folk music with the enduring songs he collected and those he penned such as “If I Had a Hammer” and “Turn, Turn, Turn,” but he also bravely stood up for his political beliefs and never wavered in his fervor for human rights, tolerance, and social change. 

In the fifties, he was blacklisted and convicted for contempt of Congress after defying the House Un-American Activities Committee. He continued to perform in small venues despite hate mail and death threats. Then his singing career blossomed again in the 1960s with performances at antiwar and civil rights events and television appearances. And eventually, in 2009, he performed at the inaugural concert for President Barack Obama.

University of Washington history professor Michael K. Honey got to know Pete Seeger when he worked as an organizer for civil rights and labor activities in the South in the 1970s and remained in touch with Mr. Seeger through the years. Dr. Honey especially appreciated Seeger’s assistance with arcane historical research and his willingness to share his immense knowledge of overlooked or forgotten African-American and traditional music.

Seeger wrote the preface to Dr. Honey’s most recent book Sharecropper’s Troubadour: John L. Handcox, the Southern Tenant Farmers’ Union, and the African American Song Tradition (Palgrave Studies in Oral History). Seeger introduced Dr. Honey to the African-American singer and labor activist Handcox, which led to this new book of oral history.

Dr. Honey will be reading from Sharecropper’s Troubadour at the Tacoma Public Library on February 12 at 7:00 PM, and also at an event with the Seattle Labor Chorus on March 13 at 7:00 PM at the University Bookstore in Seattle.

Dr. Honey is a professor of labor ethnic and gender studies and American history, and the Haley Professor of Humanities, at the University of Washington-Tacoma. His previous books include the award-winning histories Going Down Jericho Road: The Memphis Strike, Martin Luther King's Last Campaign; Black Workers Remember: An Oral History of Unionism, Segregation and the Freedom Struggle; and Southern Labor and Black Civil Rights: Organizing Memphis Workers.  He is also a folk musician and performed with Mr. Seeger on several occasion over the decades, including at the 1997 Seattle Folklife Festival.

Dr. Honey recently shared some of his memories of Mr. Seeger and commented on his influence on history.

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Robin Lindley: You performed and worked with Pete Seeger over the years. How did you get to know him?

Michael Honey: I met him in the movement in the South when I was an organizer from 1970 to 1976. I was working with Carl and Anne Braden in the Southern Conference Educational Fund, a progressive support group for the civil rights movement and antiwar movement.

Pete knew all of those people because they were all victims of the Red Scare together. Carl Braden had gone to prison twice for refusing to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee for integrationist activities—the same intimidation Pete faced. Pete supported them in their fight for civil liberties and, when I worked for the Bradens, I first got to know him that way. I also became the Director of the Southern Committee Against Repressive Legislation, formerly the committee to Abolish the House Un-American Activities Committee. We had a lot in common.

I met Pete in various settings in the seventies.  He came in and raised money for the movement. Somebody once said that Pete “was the most accessible famous person in the world.” And he was. He was easy to talk to and he just considered himself a part of the movement for a better world.

Pete also did a great job of helping (African-American activist) Angela Davis when she was prosecuted for death-penalty charges, and I also worked on that case a lot. And I was starting to use music myself as a way to rally people and following his model of how to use music in a creative way. One time, at a civil liberties meeting in New York City where Pete sang, [I sang also with a friend from Washington, D.C., David Sawyer. Pete was gracious about letting amateurs like us take the stage with him and encouraged us].

We also worked together in the Great Labor Arts Exchange in Washington, D.C. I got to know him well then when I organized a panel on Civil Rights Songs of the South at the Labor Heritage Foundation in Silver Spring, Maryland.  Pete brought in the singer John Handcox, who I knew from Pete’s book about depression-era songs, Hard Hitting Songs for a Hard Hit People. Nobody knew what had happened to John whose songs had been recorded by Pete’s father Charles (an ethnomusicologist) way back in 1937. Pete’s father brought these tapes home from the Library of Congress. Pete listened to them, and he discovered John Handcox learned African-American spiritual and traditional African-American songs, which John had put into the very political context of the Southern Tenant Farmers’ Union. 

After our workshop on civil rights and labor songs, I was asked by the director of the Smithsonian Folklife Festival to interview John Handcox. I did that, and now they are part of my new book Sharecropper’s Troubadour. Pete wrote the preface for that. I sent him the book about six weeks ago. I had planned to call him this weekend to see how he liked it.

Do you have other impressions of Pete Seeger as you got to know him?

I could always call him and he was glad to talk with me, and I think he was like that with thousands of people.  If you called his house in New York, there was no answering machine or assistant. Pete would answer the phone and there was no barrier between him and all of his friends and supporters. 

How did Pete influence you and the course of your career?

As a political person, he provided a model of how you get people to work in unity. He was in the Communist Party early on, but he was always the antithesis of sectarianism. He was always reaching out to everybody.  When he realized what he was going on in the Soviet Union, he left the party, but said he was still a communist with a small “c.” 

He had an egalitarian philosophy and he showed people ways of working together on many issues, and he did it with this emotive power of song. John Handcox said, “You can do more with a song than you can with a speech,” and both he and Pete could get people singing together and move them emotionally to work together. Politically, he was a great force and he influenced me very much on that level.

Secondly, I benefitted greatly from his collection of music. A lot of the work I did on the 1930s drew on the songs of working people in the South that showed up in his book Hard Hitting Songs. The songs he collected showed that the Southern working class was not un-political and disengaged. People who were in very hard situations were often the rebels of their time. And, if you follow his path as a song collector and singer, he leads you to into great places in the South. 

Another important thing about Pete is, from the very beginning, his connection to and inspiration from African-American musicians.  One of the first people he followed was Huddie Ledbetter or Leadbelly.  He started learning things from Leadbelly when he was in his late teens and then Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry and Big Bill Broonzy and a raft of other musicians. 

Then in the civil rights days of the fifties and sixties he worked with the SNCC Freedom Singers, Bernice Johnson Reagon, and others. Civil rights singer Jimmy Collier worked a lot with Pete, including on the Clearwater sloop with the Hudson River Revival.

And Pete he, cut was always connected to black freedom music. That wasn’t his forte as a musician, but it was always connected to what he did. And he opened the way for many African-American musicians who appreciated what he was doing.

Didn’t Seeger revive many traditional and labor songs from the early twentieth century?

Yes. “We Shall Overcome” is probably the best known example. It was originally a church song in the black community, and we don’t know who wrote it or its exact origin. That’s like a lot of songs. It was used on a picket line in 1947 in Charleston, South Carolina. Zilphia Horton from Highlander Folk School learned the song on the picket line, and Pete learned it from her. He taught it to Guy Carawan who carried the song into the founding convention of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. 

Pete picked up and passed along many of what we call folk songs, songs that we don’t know who wrote and came out of a long tradition. He popularized hundreds of songs and got them into a broader stream of people.           

Did he have a direct influence on your decision to pursue a career as a labor and civil rights historian?

My experience in the movement prompted me to want to know more about how things got to be the way they are. But his music and the other things I learned in movement organizing made me much more curious about the past and asking the questions how did things get this way and what can we do about it? Pete and the other people I met in the Southern movement always asked that second question: what can we do about it?

Are there particular works of Pete’s that have a special resonance for you?

His work as a musicologist was tremendous.  If you talked with Pete, he had an encyclopedic memory. I was studying Southern labor history, and he could tell me where the material came from in great detail, and the story would often include how he collected the songs himself. He told me the story of Joe Gelders in Birmingham, Alabama, who was a popular front activist working to end segregation in the 1930s, which could cost you your life. He was kidnapped by the Klan, beaten horribly, and later died from that. Pete knew him and probably got some songs from him. 

When I started my first book, Southern Labor and Black Civil Rights, Pete helped my interpret a song that came up in Memphis in 1940 in a labor school led by a left-wing union that was organizing black and white cotton workers.  It started out as “Gospel Train” and became “Union Train,” and the Almanac Singers with Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie and others picked that song up and spread it around the country. By talking to Pete about a song, he could put you right back in that time and place and help you to understand it.

How do you see Seeger’s legacy as an activist who committed his life to movements for a more just and peaceful world?

His legacy is about uniting the largest group of people to move to a better place.  Despite all the attacks against him -- picket lines when he would sing, hate mail, campaigns against him in the fifties and sixties -- he would always reach out to even the people who attacked him. It seemed he never gave up on anybody, yet he boldly stood out for the issues he believed in. He provided a model that fits with the democratic heritage of the United States and showed a way to be a political person who is on the best side of what the country represents while getting away from the worst side of genocide, imperialism and racism.

Pete’s profile was very low during the Red Scare of the fifties and his black listing and until he was re-introduced to a wide audience in the sixties with his civil rights work and appearance on The Smothers Brothers television show.

Yes. I remember that well.  I was a teenager growing up in a small town in Michigan where there were almost no progressive political influences. I listened to his records and learned these songs, and it opened another side of American culture and American history to me, and it also got me very interested in music. 

During that period, even when he was still blacklisted, he had an amazing outreach to people. He overcame the censors by working at the grassroots as a musician by playing before small audiences and working at summer camps and schools. His Folkways albums didn’t sell a lot, but they reached a lot of people anyway.

Almost everybody I know who’s a political person in my generation learned something from Pete Seeger. 

And many other groups such as Peter, Paul and Mary and the Byrds further popularized his songs.

He could be commercially successful without being interested in that. He was interested in the music and everyone becoming involved [and not] interested in the money aspect of it.  That was a great strength because he wasn’t sucked into commercialism and the dead ends from that.

Is there anything you like to add about your days with Pete Seeger?

I don’t want to sound like I’m important in the story, because I’m not. I’m just maybe one example of a lot of people whose world got larger by knowing him and by learning not just from his example as a musician but as a political person and also the tremendous song collecting that he did.

He wrote a column for Sing Out magazine for many years modeled after Johnny Appleseed and that was like him, planting seeds all over the place. I’m not unique at all. I’m just one of those seeds that he helped to plant.