But while the class-leveling ambitions of Seeger and his ilk may have been extreme or wrong, labeling them un-American is ahistorical, as is the conviction that they were inevitably doomed to failure. To call Seeger’s Communist affiliation un-American is to beg the question. In Seeger’s eyes, the ideas the Communist Party stood for were quintessentially American: It sought to protect the little guy and to defend him against avaricious attacks from the powerful. He and his comrades believed they were defending the ideals the country was founded on, and if they were wrong—the country was, after all, founded by wealthy landowners—that was because they were foolish enough to naively believe the national myth.
It’s harder than ever to imagine a truly leftist America today. Labor unions are on the wane, faith in government programs is at a low, and even an elaborate, market-based plan to expand healthcare is decried as socialism. (Incredibly, Seeger managed to remain optimistic, even as his brand of politics became an odd antique.) During the 1930s, when Seeger was in his twenties, that wasn't unpredictable. As Jacob Remes notes, Earl Browder, the general secretary of the Communist Party USA, was around that time using the slogan, “Communism is 20th Century Americanism," arguing for a patriotic leftism.
There’s no moral equivalence between Stalin’s regime, with its millions of victims, and the 20th century American government, but it’s important to remember that for Seeger and his comrades, the question of who was defending liberty was not so clear, especially at a remove from the Soviet Union. As Seeger notes in this video, he had friends who died fighting with the Abraham Lincoln Brigade in Spain, as part of the Communist and republican opposition to Francisco Franco, who was backed by Hitler. More to the point, Seeger was famously called before the House Un-American Activities Committee, a congressional body devoted to depriving Americans of their livelihoods and freedom. In Seeger’s case, they were nearly successful. An investigation managed to derail his band, the Weavers, and got him blacklisted. After refusing to testify before HUAC in 1955, he was charged with contempt of Congress in 1957 and sentenced to a year in prison in 1961, though the conviction was overturned. The incident limited his career opportunities for years to come.
Over the following decades, and as Seeger came to be seen more as a kindly uncle and graying institution than a dangerous radical, the same commitment to social justice that had led him to naively embrace Communism also led him to pen the defining anthem of the modern civil-rights era, “We Shall Overcome” and to stand side by side with Martin Luther King. It led him to protest the Vietnam War, and later against the war in Iraq. It led him to speak out against tobacco and to argue for environmental conservation. It led him to sing “This Land Is Your Land” on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial to celebrate Barack Obama’s inauguration, and it led him to march with Occupy Wall Street protesters, many angry at Obama, in 2011. In its strange way, it also led to his conniption when Bob Dylan plugged in at Newport, even if the story of Seeger trying to take an axe to the electrical cord is apocryphal. Many of these stands were and are politically contentious: King is now a celebrated idol, while the Vietnam War still divides. But each of them represented Seeger situating himself in the middle of a heated American political debate.