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Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Under the Privilege of the Fifth Amendment

“I don’t think I have ever felt so damned alone as on that day” 
 Lee Hays on his experience testifying before the House of Un-American Activities Committee

Subpoena received by Hays, 1955. Lee Hays Papers.
Hays_02_02_055_001. Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives and Collections
In 1955, two members of The Weavers, (a folk group comprised of Pete Seeger, Lee Hays, Fred Hellerman, and Ronnie Gilbert) were called to appear before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). HUAC was formed in 1938 in order to discover Nazis within the states, however, it became infamous during the Cold War for interrogating private citizens suspected of having Communist ties.

Lee Hays and Pete Seeger had been identified as Communists by an FBI informant.  During this time, being identified as a Communist could be detrimental to one's livelihood. In the case of Lee Hays it led to a commercial blacklisting that would cast a shadow over the next several decades of his career.  The Weavers and Lee Hays were responsible for penning hits in support of the working class such as "Roll the Union On" and "If I Had a Hammer".  

Pete Seeger and Lee Hays. Photograph by Joe Thompson. Lee Hays Papers,
Hays_02_073_j016. Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives and Collections.
Hays, along with Seeger, founded People’s Songs which was "organized to create, promote and distribute songs of labor and the American people."  Unfortunately, these politically charged songs came to be at the height of McCarthyism.  That is, when Senator Joseph McCarthy encouraged Americans to turn in their neighbors, friends, and family on suspicions of being a Communist.  In retrospect, McCarthyism has been seen as invasive, a witch-hunt, and in a twist of irony, distinctly un-American.

On August 16, 1955 best-selling folksinger Lee Hays appeared before HUAC to defend his political beliefs. 

What follows is a short selection from his trial transcript:

Mr. Tavenner: What I am trying to get at, Mr. Hays, is to learn to what extent the Communist Party has used you in its program to advance the cause of the Communist Party in this country.
Mr. Hays: I don’t know what you mean, sir, by the use of the word ‘used’.
Mr. Tavenner: I mean used in the sense that you contributed your talent and your services, and your time, and your effort knowingly to assist the Communist Party in the field of your talent.
Mr. Hays: You are asking questions which to me are highly argumentative and debatable, and I don’t propose to get into that debate and argument because it is an area that deals with associations and beliefs and so I do decline to answer that under the reasons stated.
Chairman Walter: You decline to answer because of the fifth amendment, is that right?
Mr. Hays: Under the privilege of the fifth amendment.

Lee Hays, throughout his trial, declined to answer any questions that would identify anyone as being a communist. In personal correspondence, Hays has described the experience as being harrowing.  He found it immoral and un-American to provide information on others' personal and political beliefs; even if they were not Communists or sympathizers.

Letter of condemnation, 1955. Lee Hays Papers,
 Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives and Collections.
Letter of Support, 1955. Lee Hays Papers, Hays_02_02_054_015.
Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives and Collections.

Hays was a popular enough figure in 1955 that the public had many opinions regarding his trial.  Contained in the Lee Hays Papers are letters of support and condemnation that Hays received immediately following his appearance before HUAC.  Following the trial, Hays and Seeger were placed on a commercial blacklist which only allowed them to find work in underground circles. The blacklisting lasted into the late 60's and once it was lifted, Hays went on to enjoy several reunions with The Weavers.

Nichole Procopenko

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