In Pete Seeger’s Letters, A Voice for Justice Sings On
The Seeger homestead was full of letters, songbooks, photos, pamphlets, and old concert posters, collected with fastidiousness by Pete, Toshi, and their many friends and admirers over the years. Here was a letter from Woody Guthrie, and there, one written to Bill Clinton, and, somewhere else, a brief missive from an inmate downriver in Ossining, N.Y., with whom Pete had been having a lively correspondence.
From time to time, Pete would come skipping up the narrow wooden stairs, pick up a letter that had yet to be read by us, and don his reading glasses. “Ah, yes,” he’d say, chuckling. Sometimes a story would follow, and other times he would simply return the letter and walk away shaking his head, muttering, “Ah, me.”
Pete Seeger at his home in Beacon N.Y. in 2007. Photo for YES! Magazine by Michael Bowman.
All these letters necessitated a lot of storage, in the form of filing cabinets, shelves, empty shoeboxes, whatever, and these vessels contained the focus of our work: My father and I were sifting through the many thousands of prose pieces written by Pete over his nearly eight decades as a folk singer, activist, and public figure. The most fascinating of these pieces would eventually be assembled and published in our book, Pete Seeger: In His Own Words. Hour after hour, we sat in the loft, poring over the seemingly infinite pages. Then when those pages, improbably, appeared to have all been cataloged, digitized, and assessed, we moved to the barn, where the volume of material was tenfold that in the loft.
“At this point, I was starting to call myself a ‘little-c’ communist.”
We had been very satisfied with our findings thus far, but the Great Find, the sort of historical piece that all archivists dream about discovering, had eluded us to this point. One day, we were sorting through a rusty filing cabinet in a corner of the barn that contained correspondence from the mid-1950s, when we found a yellowing envelope. Scrawled on its front was the following directive: “Not to be opened ’til after death of both C. L. Seeger II [his father] and Peter Seeger. Or around the year 2000 A.D.”
We held our breath. This was, after all, culled from one of the most important periods in Seeger’s life, when he was facing imprisonment for refusing to cooperate with the House Un-American Activities Committee. A letter not to be opened until the death of both Pete and his father. This could be the Holy Grail—a letter to history that gave us unprecedented access to Pete’s most intimate thoughts during the most tumultuous of times. But, of course, its being sealed posed a dilemma. There was no way to get at the contents without violating the trust and terms of our agreement with the Seegers.
As luck (or destiny) would have it, at that moment, Pete appeared in the doorway. We handed him the letter. Without hesitation or ceremony, he unsealed the envelope. “Ah ha!” he said after a moment. “At this point, I was starting to call myself a ‘little-c’ communist.” Here, he withdrew from his breast pocket the black pen he often wielded, and, bracing the letter against the doorframe, began a close line-edit, critiquing the writing and noting where apostrophes and commas had been left out. Shortly, he handed it back.
The letter did turn out to be exactly what we suspected: a sweeping exploration and explanation of his involvement in the Communist Party, written in the midst of his legal battle against the House Un-American Activities Committee. It became one of the most crucial and illuminating pieces of our entire book.
It is inspiring and moving to revisit that letter, as it is to remember Pete Seeger’s long and miraculous life. He was a man who lived for the long arc of history, whose struggles and activities, difficult or problematic as they may have been, were always animated by his sense of what was right, undergirded by an ironclad resolve and commitment to justice.
Still, when I think of him today, it is as he was that day in the barn: unpretentious and irreverent in the face of history, untroubled by the winter chill, merrily fine-tuning his words and whistling all the while.