Last night, 800 or so conservatives and lobbyists gathered together at the Capital Hilton in Washington, DC, to pay tribute to the scandal-scented Tom DeLay. The media accounts have noted that several prominent cons were MIA. Only about two dozen or so House Republicans bothered to show. (That's about one-tenth of DeLay's GOP colleagues.) House Speaker Denny Hastert sent a video message. (How warm and supportive!) According to The New York Times, conservative mastermind Grover Norquist, who earlier in the day told the paper that "the only way DeLay would be damaged is if his friends walked away from him," was not seen at the dinner and "seats at his table remained empty." When Representative Scott Garrett, a Republican from New Jersey, was called to the dais to speak, he was not present. (Was traffic that bad?) My favorite no-show was Representative David Dreier, the chairman of the powerful Rules Committee. His excuse: he had a previously scheduled event at the Nicaraguan embassy. Perhaps he really, really likes Central American food.
What was most amusing about the evening was the song chosen for the sing-a-long portion of the festivities. A bluegrass band coaxed the audience into singing, "If I Had a Hammer." Did they not know that the song had been cowritten by a fellow accused of being a commie?
Pete Seeger and Lee Hays wrote the tune in 1949, when both were members of the Weavers, a folk group. "Why was it controversial?" Seeger reflected years later. "In 1949 only 'commies' used words like 'peace' and 'freedom.'" The song was not a hit for Seeger and the Weavers. But nine years later a new act called Peter, Paul and Mary made the charts with a version of the song. Meanwhile, Seeger had numerous run-ins with the commie-hunters of the 1950s. He had performed in support of groups suspected by the anti-commies of being commie fronts. And in 1955, the House Un-American Activities Committee called him to testify. He was grilled him about a column that had appeared in the Daily Worker, the newspaper of the Communist Party. It's entertainment section had noted that Seeger would be performing in the Bronx at the "Allerton Section housewarming." Was the Allerton Section part of the CP? the committee asked. Seeger told the committee to piss off:
I am not going to answer any questions as to my association, my philosophical or religious beliefs or my political beliefs, or how I voted in any election, or any of these private affairs. I think these are very improper questions for any American to be asked, especially under such compulsion as this. I would be very glad to tell you my life if you want to hear of it.
The committee asked him about other gigs, in particular whether he had sung "If I Had a Hammer" at a testimonial dinner and whether the song was related to the trial of a Communist leader. Seeger hung tight, replying, "Again, I say I will be glad to tell what songs I have ever sung, because singing is my business...But I decline to say who has ever listened to them, who has written them, or other people who have sung them."
Seeger refused to invoke the Fifth Amendment and argued the committee had no right to ask him about his political beliefs or associations. For taking this stand, he was sentenced to one year in jail for contempt of Congress. But the in 1962, the verdict was overturned. Still, for years he was blacklisted and banned from performing on network television.
So it was so heartwarming to see DeLay and the other conservatives singing out Seeger's song. What a tribute to Seeger--though he might not have felt honored. And what's next? Rightwingers singing Elton John at a rally for traditional marriage? Yes, I can see them crooning, "Philadelphia freedom took me knee-high to a man." In the meantime, as DeLay's doings are investigated by the House ethics committee, perhaps he should be singing MC Hammer's, "U Can't Touch This."