Pete Seeger's Statement to the Court, 1961

Reprinted from Sing Out!, Summer 1961  (Vol. 11, No. 3)

Folksinger Pete Seeger, a member of the editorial board of this magazine ever since its founding more than ten years ago, has been found guilty of "contempt of Congress." He was tried in the Federal Court House in New York and a jury convicted him on a ten-count indictment.

The indictment and subsequent trial grew out of a hearing of the Committee on Un-American Activities in the summer of 1955.  At that time, Seeger refused to answer questions relating to his political beliefs and associations.

Judge Murphy, who presided at the trial, sentenced Seeger to a year in jail on each of the ten counts ó ruling, however, that the jail terms would be served concurrently. Seeger was also fined the "costs of the prosecution." Maximum sentence could have been a total of ten years in jail and a fine of $10,000.

Before passing sentence, Judge Murphy asked Seeger if he wanted to make a statement to the court. Following is Pete Seegerís complete statement made to the court at that time:

"Thank you, your honor. After hearing myself talked about, pro and con, for three days, I am grateful for the chance to say a few unrestricted words.

First, I should like to thank my lawyer for his masterly presentation of my defense. He has worked over many long weeks and months, knowing that it is beyond my power to pay him adequately for his work. I believe that he, and great legal minds like Justice Hugo Black and Dr. Alexander Meiklejohn, have explained far better than I can why they believe the First Amendment gives an American citizen the right to refuse to speak upon occasion.

Secondly, I should like to state before this court, much as I did before Congressman Walterís committee, my conviction that I have never in my life said, or supported, or sung anything in any way subversive of my country. Congressman Walter stated that he was investigating a conspiracy. I stated under oath that I had never done anything conspiratorial. If he doubted my word, why didnít he even question it? Why didnít he have me indicted for perjury? Because, I believe, even he knew that I was speaking the truth.

Some of my ancestors were religious dissenters who came to America over 300 years ago. Others were abolitionists in New England of the 1840ís and 50ís. I believe that in choosing my present course I do no dishonor to them, or to those who may come after me.

I am 42 years old, and count myself a very lucky man. I have a wife and three healthy children, and we live in a house we built with our own hands, on the banks of the beautiful Hudson River. For twenty years I have been singing folksongs of America and other lands to people everywhere. I am proud that I never refused to sing to any group of people because I might disagree with some of the ideas of some of the people listening to me. I have sung for rich and poor, for Americans of every possible political and religious opinion and persuasion, of every race, color, and creed.

The House committee wished to pillory me because it didnít like some few of the many thousands of places I have sung for. Now it so happens that the specific song whose title was mentioned in this trial "Wasnít That A Time" is one of my favorites. The song is apropos to this case. I wonder if I might have your permission to sing it here before I close?"

(At this point the judge refused to hear Pete Seeger sing.)

"Well, perhaps you will hear it some other time. A good song can only do good, and I am proud of the songs I have sung. I hope to be able to continue singing these songs for all who want to listen, Republicans, Democrats, and independents. Do I have the right to sing these songs? Do I have the right to sing them anywhere?"