LOS ANGELES Nearly a half century ago, amid suspicion and fears of McCarthyism, folk singer Pete Seeger faced an ultimatum from the San Diego school district: Sign an oath against communism or cancel a concert he planned at a high school auditorium.
Seeger, who at the time of the board’s demand was under scrutiny for his leftist politics, refused to sign the oath. A judge allowed the concert to proceed anyway.
Decades later, the school board wants to make amends. In a resolution approved last night, the school district declared that the board “deeply regrets its predecessors’ actions” and offered an apology to a man who has become “one of our dearest national treasures.”
The 89-year-old songwriter appears willing to accept the board’s apology, saying the board’s resolution is a “measure of justice that our right to freedom of expression has been vindicated.”
He also quipped that the board’s demand for the oath in 1960 may have helped his career.
“This was the contradiction the poor blacklisters faced: The more they tried to target me the more they drummed up publicity for my concerts,” Seeger told the Associated Press in a telephone interview from his home in Beacon in Dutchess County, N.Y. “I like to misquote Thomas Jefferson in saying, ‘The price of liberty is eternal publicity.’”
Seeger co-wrote “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?”, “If I Had a Hammer (The Hammer Song)” and “Turn, Turn, Turn!” He popularized traditional tunes such as “We Shall Overcome,” “Goodnight, Irene” and “John Henry,” which are now part of the canon of American music.
Seeger was scheduled to perform at Hoover High School in May 1960 when the board ordered him to pledge that the concert would not be used to promote a communist agenda or an overthrow of the government.
Seeger, who had been under indictment for not answering questions from a congressional committee about whether he had communist ties, said he refused to sign the pledge because he wanted to stand up to McCarthyism.
“It’s worth remembering how hysterical people felt back then,” he said.
Seeger, who dropped out of the Communist Party in 1949, spent years playing underground at schools and small venues because he was blacklisted and unwelcome at larger entertainment venues.
The local American Legion heard that Seeger was planning to play at Hoover High School’s auditorium and pressured the school board to act. The board then ordered Seeger to sign the oath or cancel the concert.
“I was used to things like this, way back in what I call the Frightened ‘50s. They were dangerous times,” Seeger said.
Two days before the concert, attorneys for the American Civil Liberties Union filed a last-minute court motion asking for an injunction against the school district. They argued that the oath interfered with Seeger’s civil liberties after he had already signed a contract with the district.
“It was all political,” Louis Katz, one of two ACLU lawyers who represented Seeger, told The San Diego Union-Tribune.
The judge agreed and signed an order on a Saturday morning, just hours before the concert was scheduled to begin for 1,400 fans.
School board member Katherine Nakamura, who wrote the apology resolution, said that seeing Seeger on television singing before President Barack Obama’s inauguration last month inspired her to right the decades-old wrong.
Seeger and Bruce Springsteen sang “This Land Is Your Land,” a song written by his friend Woody Guthrie, on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.
“It just seemed to me to be the right thing to do, and I had an opportunity to do it,” Nakamura said after the meeting, where she and fellow board members voted 5-0 for the resolution. “You don’t always get a chance to reflect on these things and the way they might have been or should have been.”
The resolution also invited Seeger to return to San Diego to perform.
Seeger said if he could sing for the school board, he’d sing “Take it from Dr. King,” a song from his latest album, “At 89,” which won a Grammy on Sunday for Best Traditional Folk Album.