Benjamin Britten – We Shall Overcome
In his Inaugural Address on January 20th 1961 President Kennedy vigorously defended the principle of liberty with these words: - Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans—born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage—and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this Nation has always been committed, and to which we are committed today at home and around the world. Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.
Despite this powerful rhetoric liberty was still under serious threat in the early days of the Kennedy administration. Prior to 1961 Pete Seeger had been investigated for sedition by the House Committee on Un-American Activities, harassed by the FBI and CIA, blacklisted, picketed, and stoned by conservative groups. In March 1961 Seeger (right) was convicted of contempt of Congress following his 1955 appearance before the House Committee on Un-American Activities in New York. After his conviction, and before his successful appeal, Seeger obtained the court’s permission to tour England in the autumn of 1961.
In the two years since his last visit to England Seeger had developed a large following, and an audience of four thousand turned out at London’s Royal Albert Hall, which is best know today as the home of the BBC Promenade Concerts. The concert in 1961 was promoted by the English “Pete Seeger Committee” which had been formed to support the embattled musician; Paul Robeson was president, the great ballad singer Ewan MacColl was chairman, and the sponsors were Doris Lessing, Sean O’Casey and Benjamin Britten.
With acknowledgements to David Dunaway’s excellent biography of Pete Seeger (Da Capo ISBN 0306803992).
* This Path brings together Britten and J.F. Kennedy, but another one tells the story of how Britten felt unable to compose a memorial to the slain President - see Music does not exist in a vacuum.
* Eagle eyed readers will have noted I have only mentioned three of today’s four anniversaries. The fourth one is mere trivia – November 22nd is also my birthday.
For more on pluralism in the world of music take An Overgrown Path to BBC Proms - a multicultural society?
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