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Pete Seeger, Folk Legend & FBI Target: Declassified Docs Show Iconic Singer Was Spied on for Decades

StoryDecember 22, 2015
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The late folk artist Pete Seeger was a musical and political icon who helped create the modern American folk music movement. Now there’s some new pages to add to his songbook—the government has released nearly 1,800 pages that reveal the FBI spied on him for nearly 30 years. The surveillance began when Seeger protested the targeting of Japanese Americans during World War II. It continued until the early 1970s as he wrote some of the most famous anti-war songs of the 20th century. We are joined by Pete Seeger’s biographer, David King Dunaway.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Pete Seeger singing “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy,” here on Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we turn to the late musician Pete Seeger, musical, political icon who helped create modern American folk music. Seeger wrote some of most the defining songs of the 20th century peace movement—”If I Had a Hammer,” “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?,” “Turn! Turn! Turn!” expressed in melody the views of millions who opposed war and nuclear weapons and yearned to create a better world. In the '50s, Pete Seeger opposed to Senator Joe McCarthy's witch hunt. He was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee, almost jailed for refusing to answer questions. Seeger became a prominent civil rights activist, helped popularize the anthem “We Shall Overcome.” He was also a vocal critic of the Vietnam War and inspired a generation of protest singers.

As a rebel who challenged the status quo, it might not have surprised Seeger’s fans to learn this week that Pete Seeger was under government surveillance for nearly 30 years. It turns out it was not an antiwar anthem that caught the government’s eye, but a letter. Newly released documents show the FBI began spying on Pete Seeger as an Army private in 1943 because he wrote a letter protesting a proposal to deport all Japanese-American citizens at the end of World War II. That same year, Pete married his wife, Toshi Seeger, who was Japanese-American. Pete wrote, quote, “If you bar from citizenship descendants of Japanese, why not descendants of English? After all, we once fought with them too. America is great and strong as she is because we have so far been a haven to all oppressed,” he wrote.

The disclosure is contained in the FBI’s file on Seeger, obtained by Mother Jones and the Associated Press through a Freedom of Information Act request. Military intelligence agents visited his grade school and his high school, investigated his father, his wife Toshi, interviewed fellow folk singer Woody Guthrie. A military intelligence report wrote, quote, “[Seeger’s] Communistic sympathies, his unsatisfactory relations with landlords and his numerous Communist and otherwise undesirable friends, make him unfit for a position of trust or responsibility.” The documents show the government continued to spy on Seeger until the early '70s. Pete Seeger's file runs nearly 1,800 pages, with about 90 pages still withheld. Pete Seeger died last year at the age of 94.

David King Dunaway is a historian and radio host who has spent 30 years writing about Pete Seeger. He’s the author of How Can I Keep from Singing?: The Ballad of Pete Seeger. David King Dunaway joins us now from California.

Welcome to Democracy Now! Can you talk about the significance of the, what, more than 1,700 pages the National Archives have released?

DAVID KING DUNAWAY: Well, you know, that’s actually a drop in the bucket, because I sued the FBI and CIA, oh, decades ago, and actually, right before he wrote that letter, he and Woody Guthrie were out here in San Francisco singing for a guy named Harry Bridges, who helped organize the longshore workers’ union. And the FBI thought they had figured out the secret of Pete Seeger’s appeal to an audience. If I can read from an FBI document I declassified a long time ago, they said the—they characterized Pete and Woody as “extremely untidy, ragged, and dirty in appearance.” And then the song-leading technique that couldn’t fool the FBI: “After going through the song once, the majority of the audience joined in the singing,” noted their informant. “They joined in not from their own desire, but were led into it through mass psychology and apathy toward the utter control of the meeting by Communist officers and members.” So the FBI has been hunting—ghost hunting, you might say, red hunting—a long time.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to a clip from Pete on Democracy Now! This was back in 2004. We were in the firehouse studios. And I asked him about his service as a soldier in World War II.

PETE SEEGER: I first wanted to be a mechanic in the Air Force. I thought that would be an interesting thing. But then military intelligence got interested in my politics. My outfit went on to glory and death, and I stayed there in Keesler Field, Mississippi, picking up cigarette butts for six months. Finally they let me know, yes, they’d been investigating me, opening all my mail.

AMY GOODMAN: Pete Seeger, when you came back, they continued to investigate you.

PETE SEEGER: Well, I have assumed most of my life that if there wasn’t a microphone under the bed, they were tapping the phone from time to time and opening my mail from time to time. Who knows?

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Pete Seeger back in 2004. We know a little more now. David King Dunaway, you got about a thousand pages. Now, another 1,700 pages have been released. But back in 1943, when he marries his wife Toshi, who’s Japanese-American, talk about why it was this letter that prompted the FBI to open the file, at least as far as we know.

DAVID KING DUNAWAY: Well, I think the file was actually opened earlier, because Pete Seeger was a member of a very successful national group called the Almanac Singers. They were on all four radio networks at once, at one point, before a Harvard professor—ironically, since Pete went to Harvard for a year and a half in the class of JFK, that is—actually blew the whistle on the fact that before Pete Seeger was singing “Beat Hitler” songs, he was singing peace songs and union songs. And there were a lot of people that didn’t like unions in those days. And ultimately, that quality in him, the quality of what I think of as New England patriotism, the sense that we have the right to speak our minds, won out.

I mean, here’s Pete Seeger investigated for 30 years by the FBI. They sent people out to Boston. They sent them out to New York City. All over the country, they were trying to find out—they sent people to his elementary school, to his high school—all of this to find out: What is this man who wrote a letter? And after all, isn’t it a right of a private citizen to write a letter expressing their feelings to the government about what it means? And what you read, Amy, sounds an awful lot like Donald Trump today.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to go back to that same interview in 2004, when Pete spent the hour on Democracy Now! talking about his life and performing a few songs. And I asked him about his father, who at one time worked at the University of California, Berkeley, and was also once connected to the Communist Party.

PETE SEEGER: Well, he was originally in charge of the music department there at the young age of 24, the youngest full professor at the university. But along comes World War I, and he had been radicalized, as people tend to when they go to Berkeley, and he made speeches against imperialist war. My mother said, “Can’t you keep your mouth shut?” He said, “But something’s wrong, you should speak out about it.” The old New England idea, goes back to Sam Adams, and before that, I guess. Well, he got fired. Later on, when the crash of ’29 came—the marriage had broken up—he married a young, extraordinary young composer named Ruth Crawford and had four more children.

But he, in those early days, linked up with the Communist movement. He and Aaron Copland and Henry Cowell and Marc Blitzstein. They had a thing they called the Composers’ Collective. After all, in Russia they had collectives this and collective that. And there, they decided, as skilled musicians, they would compose the new music for the new society. Well, their attempts were laughable. Aaron Copland put music to a poem by Alfred Hayes, same man who wrote “Joe Hill”—”Into the Streets May 1st.” But only a very expert singer could sing it, tremendous range, and only a very expert pianist could accompany it properly. Of course, no proletariat ever sang him.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Pete Seeger on Democracy Now! in 2004. He was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee August 18th, 1955. Jim Musselman was on the show with him, a longtime friend and record producer for Pete Seeger, and he talked about Pete Seeger’s defense before HUAC.

JIM MUSSELMAN: I just wanted to invoke one thing dealing with the McCarthy era and Pete. Basically he was one of the few people who invoked the First Amendment in front of the McCarthy committee. Everyone else had said the Fifth Amendment, the right against self-incrimination, and then they were dismissed. What Pete did, and what some other very powerful people who had the guts and the intestinal fortitude to stand up to the committee and say, “I’m going to invoke the First Amendment, the right of freedom of association.”

And I was actually in law school when I read the case of Seeger v. United States, and it really changed my life, because I saw the courage of what he had done and what some other people had done by invoking the First Amendment, saying, “We’re all Americans. We can associate with whoever we want to, and it doesn’t matter who we associate with.” That’s what the founding fathers set up the democracy to be. So I just really feel it’s an important part of history that people need to remember.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Jim Musselman, longtime friend and record producer for Pete Seeger. So, David, if you can talk about the last 90 pages that we believe the government has, right? There’s apparently this 1,800-page file; they’ve released all but 90 of the pages. I mean, Pete has died, his wife Toshi has died. What could they be possibly hanging onto to keep secret?

DAVID KING DUNAWAY: Well, when I spoke to an attorney here in San Francisco as part of my suit against the FBI and CIA, I said, “Why are you caring so much about this material?” And I think—I think the real reason, Amy, is that they’re concerned that maybe some of the statute of limitations has not yet expired on the crimes that were committed against American citizens as part of this, you know, Cold War, against the remnants of the Roosevelt administration. So they may be worried about their own agents and what they did.

AMY GOODMAN: What could the FBI conversation have been like with Woody Guthrie, investigating Pete Seeger, David?

DAVID KING DUNAWAY: Well, the FBI did go to Pete—to Woody and did ask him questions. And according to the summary released by their informant, which is not always quite accurate, well, they—Woody kind of soft-pedaled politics, said Pete was a liberal who believed in the common man, sic. And I think that what we can learn from all of this is, what does—what right does the government have into working with or interfering with artistic production and artists themselves? What role do we want the government to take? Do they get to pick and choose which artists they like and which they follow down hallways and skulk at in corners? I don’t think so. I don’t think America is that way. And I don’t think Pete Seeger’s tradition of intellectual and moral responsibility is appropriate here. You know, America needs heroes. We’ve lost a lot of them. Pete Seeger was one of those people who just never shut up. He felt like he had a world to defend, and he defended it.

AMY GOODMAN: As we wrap up, David, “Knee Deep in the Big Muddy,” that we played in our break, that he was supposed to sing on Smothers Brothers, but the networks stopped that song from being played. Ultimately, though, he was able to sing it there.

DAVID KING DUNAWAY: It took a while. What happened is that they cut away from Pete Seeger playing the banjo. Next thing you knew, he came back with a 12-string guitar. They made the edit a little awkward, so everybody would kind of know, I rather suspect, and Pete suspected, too, that there had been some break there, there had been some change, someone had gone in and cut something out. Eventually, yes, the next time, next year, times had changed. It was late in the 1960s during the protests against the Vietnam War. That song, “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy,” was an obvious allegory there. He got to sing the song, and then the Smothers Brothers was canceled.

AMY GOODMAN: We have to leave it there, but I want to thank you for being with us. David King Dunaway has made three major documentaries about Pete Seeger, historian and radio host.

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