After army discharge in 1945 and back at Brooklyn College, a classmate with a guitar said he was forming a group. His name was Fred Hellerman and his group was The Weavers. It was my one degree of separation from Pete Seeger. In the 1960s I heard a piece of his banjo music, wanted to use it, wrote asking how much, to have him write back saying go ahead, no charge.
A PBS documentary of Pete Seeger tells about his three-and-a-half years in the army and early struggles as an artist, not different from most except that Seeger never sought financial success. He quit the Weavers rather than do a cigarette commercial. And he always had a cause, whether marching for civil rights in Selma, or cleaning up the polluted Hudson River.
Things got rough in 1955 when the House Un-American Activities Committee hauled him up for singing at concerts they thought were connected to communist organizations. When asked to answer questions on his sympathies, he said:
“I feel that in my whole life I have never done anything of any conspiratorial nature 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.”
I’m in awe of someone with the guts to say that to a passel of self-appointed hypocrites with power to destroy his ability to earn a living. But Seeger did not roll over as did, for instance, Elia Kazan and Jerome Robbins. He was black listed, and could not find work on TV for years, instead toured the country performing for schools and community groups, happy with the rough warm hospitality of farmers and home cooked meals.
On a combat mission I watched flak explode, felt the tremor when a piece pierced the ball turret, another thumped into the leading edge of a wing. But I was there with my crew, one bomber in a flight of seven, one flight of an armada. That made it easier. Pete Seeger stood alone against a know-nothing committee of heartless hacks.
In combat I fought for the kids I hoped to have. Pete Seeger fought for them too. My war ended in 1945. Pete Seeger’s went on until 1994 when a grateful nation came to its senses and awarded him the National Medal of Arts. In 2008 he sang at the inauguration of President Barack Obama. I didn’t quite realize it during WW2, but I was fighting for a nation that could breed people like Pete Seeger.