Editor’s Note: Legendary folk singer and activist Pete Seeger died Monday at age 94. Earlier this month we published an editorial about Seeger and his group, the Weavers. Because Seeger left such an indelible mark on American popular and political culture, we’ve updated the editorial and are presenting it again today.
The dawn of each new year is the clarion for resolutions. With January first a scant month in the rearview, many of us will have already abandoned some of those grand plans — This year we’ll be thinner. We’ll save more, spend less. Visit grandma more often. We make small promises to ourselves in hopes of being just a little better than we were during the preceding turn around the sun.
We call these agreements “resolutions” because they require resolve — steadfast determination or commitment — to make them manifest. This by extension implies subscription to principles larger than ourselves.
In early January 1962, the world was shown a wonderful example of principle-driven resolution when members of the popular folk group, the Weavers, held fast to their principles and nearly ended their blossoming musical career.
It would be difficult to overstate the significance of the Weavers to the folk music and folk-rock genres. Founded by Pete Seeger and Lee Hays in Greenwich Village in 1948, the Weavers paved the way for groups like the Kingston Trio, Peter, Paul and Mary, as well as music legend, Bob Dylan. They also helped reacquaint the American public of the post-World War II era with the folk and traditional music that had arisen during the Great Depression.
Their breakout hit came in 1950. “Goodnight Irene” was a number one best seller for thirteen weeks during the spring and summer of that year. Other early hits included the multi-million-sellers, “Midnight Special” and “On Top of Old Smoky.”
Their music was lyrical, poetic and by most accounts, completely apolitical. Whatever the socio-political content of their music might have been in those days, the members of the group openly embraced pacifism, unionization and other ideas associated with early 20th century socialism.
When these leanings came to light, the group suffered swift consequences. As was widely reported at the time, the Weavers’ planned television show was canceled. They were placed under FBI surveillance. Seeger and Hays were hauled in to testify before Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s House Un-American Activities Committee. In the ensuing days, the Weavers lost their recording contract with Decca in 1951. By 1953, they were unable to book most concert venues. Having been summarily banned from appearing on television and radio, they disbanded.
While the group enjoyed a comeback in the late 1950s, they never escaped their staunch right-wing detractors. On Jan. 2, 1962, the group was called in by the producers of the Jack Paar television program. The Weavers were told that in order to continue with their scheduled appearance on the Paar show they would have to sign a statement disavowing all leftist sympathies. Seeger and Hays along with fellow members Ronnie Gilbert and Fred Hellerman all refused to sign and NBC prohibited their performance.
Even so, members of the group continued to work for the causes in which they believed. Perhaps their most notable work, The Hammer Song (If I had a Hammer) would live on to become not just an anthemic for progressive labor causes, but for the Civil Rights movement as well.
Perhaps some readers will not agree with their politics. Said politics are admittedly toward the left extreme of the spectrum. Nonetheless, one must admire the commitment to principle. Rather than taking the easy path of lucrative acquiescence, they resolved to hold fast. As we reflect on the import of Seeger’s legacy, this is a lesson we should all heed.