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"Excellent, a truly enjoyable and informative read."
- STEVE BUSCEMI, actor/director
"Edward Renehan does a great job of shining a light into this dark episode of American history."
- BILLY BRAGG
"Fascinating, surprising, moving, inspiring."
- ARTHUR GOLDWAG, author of The New Hate: A History of Fear and Loathing on the Populist Right
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And one brave banjo-wielding patriot willing to risk prison and professional ruin rather than acquiesce ...
"Pete [was] blacklisted during the McCarthy era and had a hard time, but he never stopped." - BOB DYLAN
"I am not going to answer any questions as to my association, my philosophical or religious beliefs or my political beliefs ... or any of these private affairs. I think these are very improper questions for any American to be asked ...." - PETE SEEGER, testifying before the House Select Committee on Un-American Activities, August 1955
When Pete Seeger died at age 94 this past January, widespread media coverage included discussion of his trials and tribulations during the McCarthy era when he, like so many other entertainers and artists, was persecuted, subjected to gross indignities, and ultimately prosecuted for Contempt of Congress during the myriad anti-Communist witch hunts of that time. Pete Seeger vs. the Un-Americans: A Tale of the Blacklist reveals never before known aspects of Seeger's experience during those deark days, including the backstory to his prosecution for Contempt (orchestrated by, of all people, Robert Kennedy).
The story is one of great personal honor and commitment to principle. As Bob Dylan has commented in a most under-stated way: "Pete [was] blacklisted during the McCarthy era and had a hard time, but he never stopped." Eleanor Roosevelt wrote admiringly: "Pete Seeger, the folksinger … lives not far from me near Beacon, NY, and is loved by many people, young and old, who have enjoyed his music. … He has refused to take the Fifth Amendment because he felt that could be construed as an admission of guilt, and chose instead to invoke the freedoms of the First Amendment. His case is now in the higher courts."
In refusing to answer questions posed by the House Select Committee on Un-American Activities (1955), and at the same time refusing to take the Fifth Amendment, Seeger consciously put himself in harm's way of prosecution for Contempt - a brave act also embarked upon by such notables as playwright Arthur Miller, economist Otto Nathan, and the Hollywood Ten. Seeger's eventual 1961 prosecution resulted in guilty verdicts on ten counts, and a one year prison sentence - a finding overturned on a technicality in the Court of Appeals one year later. Summed up, the threat of prison hung over Seeger's head for a good seven years, from 1955 to 1962.
The impact upon Seeger's career was, for a time, quite devestating. He went from selling millions of records and touring top venues with his hit group The Weavers, to playing solo at summer camps and colleges for fees sometimes as low as $25. He and his family subsisted on a shoestring budget. The one thing he was able to put in the bank was his integrity.
The story is also one of survival, endurance and eventual triumph. During the sixties - once McCarthyite hysteria subsided - Seeger's career revived and bloomed. He recorded with Columbia Records for a decade, routinely played to sell-out crowds at venues ranging from Carnegie Hall to London's Royal Albert Hall, and looked on as such Seeger-penned songs as "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?" "Turn! Turn! Turn!" and "If I Had a Hammer" became hits respectively for the Kingston Trio, the Byrds and Peter, Paul & Mary.
Watch and listen to Seeger talk about his case with Robert MacNeil.
By the end of his life, Seeger had been honored by the Kennedy Center, had received the Presidential Medal in the Arts, had been inducted (as an influence) into the Rock n' Roll Hall of Fame, and had been the subject of a PBS American Masters documentary: "Pete Seeger - The Power of Song." Upon the occassion of his 90th birthday, 18000 people gathered in Madison Square Garden for a celebration concert organized by Bruce Springsteen, including performances by Joan Baez, John Mellencamp, Dave Matthews, Arlo Guthrie, Tim Robbins, Richie Havens and many others. (Speaking at the birthday celebration, Springsteen summed things up when he said: "Pete - You outlasted the bastards.")
Ed Renehan serves as managing director of New Street Communications and its subsidiaries Dark Hall Press and New Street Nautical Audio. Renehan is the author of many books, including The Secret Six (Crown, 1995), The Lion's Pride (Oxford University Press, 1998), The Kennedys at War (Doubleday, 2002) and Dark Genius of Wall Street (Basic Books, 2006). His essays and reviews have appeared in such publications as the San Francisco Chronicle, Hearst's Veranda, and the Wall Street Journal. Renehan was close friends with Toshi and Pete Seeger for more than four decades. He lives near Newport, RI. More details at his personal web site.
Ed & Pete at play, International Yacht Restoration School, Newport RI, October 2012. Photo by Nick Rogers. Used by permission.
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