Pete Seeger Outlasted the Bastards

Pete Seeger Outlasted the Bastards

A new stamp recognizes the proud American radical who was once blacklisted by Joe McCarthy and “a group of American fascists.”


Newport, Rhode Island—Pete Seeger was one of the handful of visionaries who started the Newport Folk Festival in 1959, at a time when elite venues refused to allow the father of American folk music anywhere near a microphone. So it was only fitting that the US Postal Service issued a stamp featuring Seeger last week on the eve of the festival, in a special ceremony where musicians and fans honored the singer for his music and his activism.

An independent agency of the executive branch of the United States federal government issued the forever stamp in recognition of the radical who was once blacklisted for his ideas and his willingness to speak truth to power.

At the height of the Red Scare in the mid-1950s, Seeger was targeted by congressional Red-baiters—particularly the members of the House Un-American Activities Committee. They identified him as an undesirable dissident who as a young man had aligned with the Communist Party when it was playing a prominent role in organizing unions, campaigning against lynching, and electing members of the New York City Council. The Cold War–era criticism of Seeger led radio stations to ban his songs. His record label dropped him. And the House Un-American Activities Committee hauled him in for questioning.

As the anti-Communist witch hunt began to define not just the politics of the country but the culture as well, Seeger and others on the left—such as singer and actor Paul Robeson and screenwriter Lillian Hellman—were pushed toward the sidelines of American public life. Conservatives in both political parties silenced many of the most talented performers in the United States at the peak of their careers because they considered suspect an ardent advocacy for desegregation, strong unions, social welfare, peace, and disarmament.

In the 1950s and ’60s, Seeger explained that the “group of American fascists” that targeted him had enough power to silence anyone who disagreed with them. But history has a way of rewarding the righteous. Seeger’s image is on a USPS stamp now, while the image of the most prominent of the Red-baiters, Wisconsin Senator Joe McCarthy, remains as tarnished as it was when the great American lawyer Joseph Walsh asked the senator, “Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?”

The grip of the Red Scare that McCarthy generated, and of the blacklist associated with it, loosened so slowly that many of its targets—civil rights campaigners, social justice advocates, peace activists, and artists—did not live long enough to be exonerated in the court of public opinion. But Seeger, who was blacklisted after becoming an international star in the early 1950s when he was singing folk songs with The Weavers, sang his way back.

He kept cowriting songs, such as “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” and “If I Had a Hammer.” He popularized protest anthems such as “We Shall Overcome,” played concerts in union halls and open fields, inspired generations of young singers such as Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, and eventually became a banjo-playing father figure for the civil rights and anti-war movements of the 1960s. But broadcast networks didn’t allow Seeger on television until September 1967—almost 15 years after the conservative vendetta against him began. He appeared that fall on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, only to have CBS censors bar him from singing “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy,” which was heard as a protest against growing US military involvement in Vietnam.

Eventually, Seeger became a grand old man of popular music, even as he maintained the radical faith that saw him marching and singing with Occupy Wall Street activists just a few years before his death. While he still took the occasional Red-baiting jab from the most extreme right-wing politicians and pundits, the American public accepted him back into the mainstream—especially after Bruce Springsteen recorded his 2006 album, We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions, and toured the country with a band that performed many of Seeger’s greatest songs. In 2009, when he performed for President Barack Obama’s first inauguration, Springsteen invited a spry 89-year-old Seeger on stage to sing a rousing version of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land.”

Springsteen would later recall,

That day, as we sang “This Land is Your Land,” I looked at Pete—the first Black president of the United States was seated at his right—and I thought of the incredible journey that Pete had taken. My own growing up in the Sixties in towns scarred by race rioting made that moment nearly unbelievable, and Pete had 30 extra years of struggle and real activism on his belt. He was so happy that day. It was like, Pete, you outlasted the bastards, man!

When Seeger died in 2014 at age 94, then-President Obama praised him for “reminding us where we come from and showing us where we need to go.”

Said Obama:

Once called “America’s tuning fork,” Pete Seeger believed deeply in the power of song. But more importantly, he believed in the power of community to stand up for what’s right, speak out against what’s wrong, and move this country closer to the America he knew we could be. Over the years, Pete used his voice, and his “hammer,” to strike blows for workers’ rights and civil rights, world peace, and environmental conservation. And he always invited us to sing along.

That was a grand tribute. But there’s something even more permanent about a postage stamp, especially the forever stamp that features Seeger’s image. In an age when another group of American fascists is on the march, it’s a reminder that we can outlast the bastards—just like Pete Seeger did.

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