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Among the sufferings of those pursued during the McCarthy era, the situation of folksingers and folklorists was unique. Suspected by their government, they were hunted by the FBI almost everywhere. Thanks to the Freedom of Information Act, one can now know the extent of privacy crimes committed against Pete Seeger and other folk musicians. For over twenty years, the FBI and CIA conducted surveillance on folk musicians and folklorists organizing the folksong revivals of the 1930s and ‘40s. As a result of David Dunaway’s successful suit under the Freedom of Information Act, it is now possible to reveal the text of that surveillance, and how it affected history.
This is the story of men who came in from the cold into hootenannies and union meetings, and the havoc they wrought. It’s a tale of trash covers, phone taps, and infiltration of informers into the folksong community. The evidence presented includes songs, documents, and interview excerpts. This is the story of those who sought unsuccessfully to stifle our dangerous songs. Music has always served as a barometer of society, whether or not those listening reflect on what it tells of their era. In our own era, music and politics have often been combined, with mixed success.
In 1951, the U.S. Senate Internal Security Subcommittee held hearings on prosecuting a popular folksong quartet, the Weavers, for “Sedition and Overthrowing the Government by Force and Violence”-for singing! What does it tell us of the U.S. intelligence community that in the 1940s they found folk music so subversive? What does it say about the power of folk music? The documents cited in this lecture were obtained through a five-year lawsuit against the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Central Intelligence Agency for documents under the Freedom of Information Act, relevant to The Almanac Singers, People’s Songs, People’s Artists, and The Weavers. The lawsuit was part of the research for Pete Seeger, How Can I Keep From Singing (1989/90;Villard Press/Random House, 2008), awarded the Deems Taylor Award from ASCAP.
Pete Seeger is a musician who has scored J.S. Bach for the banjo and performed Irving Berlin on the steel drum. Bob Dylan once called him a “saint” and Joan Baez has said, “We all owe our careers to him. ”The son of Dr. Charles Seeger, pioneering ethnomusicologist, Pete’s first professional job was as a clerk and transcriber at the Archive of Folk Song in the Library of Congress, which is now part of the American Folklife Center. He is among the most-recorded musicians, with some hundred and fifty albums, as documented in the Pete Seeger Discography (Lanham, MD.: Scarecrow Press, 2009).
Although politically oriented musicians such as Pete Seeger or Bob Marley have tried to collapse the distance separating singing and organizing, songs seem ephemeral when compared with bullets or votes. Their effect is subtle and virtually impossible to measure. The impact of a song is often separate in time and space from the original singer. Nevertheless, the United States has a long tradition of songs of reform starting with a colonial governor who burned ballads he disagreed with, when he couldn’t punish its authors. Music captures the soul in ways that few political speeches can; it has encouraged and inspired revolutions. Realizing this, governments have tortured musicians like Victor Jara in Chile or Mikos Theodorakis in Greece, hoping to destroy a song by silencing its composer. But songs are made of unbreakable stuff, words and music, which need only breath and spirit to live.
David King Dunaway
David King Dunaway received the first Ph.D. in American Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, in folklore, history, and literature. For the last thirty years he has been documenting the life and work of Pete Seeger, resulting in How Can I Keep from Singing: Pete Seeger, published initially by McGraw Hill in 1981, and to be republished in March, 2008, in a revised and updated edition, by Villard Press at Random House. Dunaway has served as a visiting lecturer and Fulbright Scholar at the Universities of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, Copenhagen University, Nairobi University, and the Universidad Nacional de Colombia. Author of a half dozen volumes of history and biography, his specialty is the presentation of folklore, literature, and history via broadcasting. Over the last decade, he has been executive producer in a number of national radio series for Public Radio International; his reporting appears in NPR’s “Weekend Edition” and “All Things Considered.” He is currently Professor of English at the University of New Mexico.
The American Folklife Center was created by Congress in 1976 and placed at the Library of Congress to "preserve and present American Folklife" through programs of research, documentation, archival preservation, reference service, live performance, exhibition, public programs, and training. The Center includes the American Folklife Center Archive of folk culture, which was established in 1928 and is now one of the largest collections of ethnographic material from the United States and around the world. Please visit our web site.
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event archive >> botkin lecture archive >> 2008 botkin lecture flyer for david dunaway