The Banjo is Mightier than the Gun

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As a person who studies and writes about school and institutional violence, I constantly encounter arguments about the Second Amendment. A popular argument in favor of the broadest interpretation of the Second Amendment (i.e., the interpretation that the Second Amendment protects citizens from any limitations on the types or number of firearms they own) is that we need firearms to stop our governments from impeding on our liberties. From NRA’s Institute for Legislative Action:

“The purpose of the Second Amendment was to assure that Americans would always possess arms of sufficient type and quantity that, at a last resort, if all other attempts to protect their rights from a tyrannical government failed — as had been the case in dealing with the king of England in the 1770s — they would be able to protect themselves.”

If you are familiar with my work, you know that I am in enamored with evidence: observable or measureable indications of the truth of a proposition. My last post lead to a discussion about whether, in the history of the U.S., the Second Amendment has, in fact, protected our freedoms from our governments.

The Federal government and state and local governments routinely take steps that expand or limit liberties. In the 1940s and 1950s, the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) of the United States House of Representative successfully limited the free speech of many of the American artists that it subpoenaed.

Now, to my point and how all of this relates to kids.

Pete Seeger died last week. Few musicians have contributed more to the children’s music tome than Seeger did.

In 1955, Seeger was called before the HUAC and questioned about the specific people who attended or sponsored his concerts. Seeger replied:

“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.”

But the questioning continued. The HUAC was looking to implicate Seeger as un-American based on the individuals and groups that Seeger entertained. Seeger offered the following:

“I am proud that I have sung for Americans of every political persuasion, and I have never refused to sing for anybody because I disagreed with their political opinion, and I am proud of the fact that my songs seem to cut across and find perhaps a unifying thing, basic humanity, and that is why I would love to be able to tell you about these songs, because I feel that you would agree with me more, sir.”

Over the course of the questioning, Seeger routinely volunteered to tell the HUAC about the content his songs. He even volunteered to sing. The HUAC, however, refused. The committee was more interested incriminating Seeger by association than they were in the actual message of his music.

Of “I Had a Hammer” in particular, the HUAC was interested in whether he premiered it at a testimonial dinner for the defendants of a Smith Act trial. Again, Seeger said that he would discuss the song but not where or to whom he had sung it. The HUAC declined the offer.

“I am sorry you are not interested in the song,” Seeger replied. “It is a good song.”

A good song indeed.

When Peter, Paul and Mary covered “If I Had a Hammer” less than a decade after the HUAC hearing, it became a Top 10 hit, and the HUAC was in decline.

From treasonous to Top 10 in ten years.

While we continue to debate the efficacy of firearms in protecting our freedoms from our governments, let us take a moment and reflect on Seeger’s life and remind ourselves and our children that the deadliest weapon against tyranny just may be a banjo.

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