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Seeger, Charles (Louis)

Seeger, Charles (Louis)

Seeger, Charles (Louis) , eminent American musicologist, ethnomusicologist, teacher, and composer, father of Pete(r) Seeger ; b. Mexico City (of American parents), Dec. 14, 1886; d. Bridgewater, Conn., Feb. 7, 1979. He was educated at Harvard Univ. (graduated, 1908). After conducting at the Cologne Opera (1910–11), he returned to the U.S. as chairman of the music dept. of the Univ. of Calif, at Berkeley (1912–19), where he gave the first classes in musicology in the U.S. (1916); then taught at N.Y.’s Inst. of Musical Art (1921–33) and the New School for Social Research (1931–35); at the latter, he gave the first classes (with Henry Cowell) in ethno-musicology in the U.S. (1932); was also active in contemporary music circles, as a composer and a music critic. He served as a technical adviser on music to the Resettlement Administration (1935–38), as deputy director of the Federal Music Project of the Works Progress Administration (1938–41), and as chief of the music division of the Pan-American Union (1941–53) in Washington, D.C.; was also a visiting prof. at Yale Univ. (1949–50). He subsequently was a research musicologist at the Inst. of Ethnomusicology at the Univ. of Calif, at Los Angeles (1960–70), and then taught at Harvard Univ. (from 1972). He was a founder and chairman (1930–34) of the N.Y. Musicological Soc, which he helped to reorganize as the American Musicological Soc. in 1934; was its president (1945–46) and also president of the American Soc. for Comparative Musicology (1935) and the Soc. for Ethnomusicology (1960–61; honorary president from 1972). Seeger also was instrumental (with Cowell and Joseph Schafer) in the formation of the N.Y. Composers’ Collective (1932); since he was profoundly interested in proletarian music throughout the 1930s, he wrote on the need for a revolutionary spirit in music for such publications as The Daily Worker; he also contributed songs under the name Carl Sands to The Workers Song Books (1934 and 1935). Two of his essays are of especial historical interest: “On Proletarian Music” {Modern Music, XI/3 [1934]), which lamented the dearth of folk songs in the work of professional musicians, and “Grassroots for American Composers” (Modern Music, XVI [1938–40]), which, by shedding earlier Marxist rhetoric, had wide influence on the folk movement in the 1950s. Since many of his compositions were destroyed by fire at Berkeley in 1926, his extraordinary contribution to American music rests upon his work as a scholar whose uniquely universalist vision for the unification of the field of musicology as a whole continues to challenge the various, sometimes contentious contributing factions of musicology, ethnomusicology, and comparative musicology. He was also a noted teacher; one of his most gifted students, Ruth (Porter) Crawford , became his second wife. In addition to Pete(r) Seeger, 2 other of his children became musicians: Mike (Michael) Seeger (b. N.Y., Aug. 15, 1933) was a folksinger and instrumentalist; after learning to play various folk instruments on his own, he became active in promoting the cause of authentic folk music of the American Southeast; became widely known for his expertise as a banjo player; with John Cohen and Tom Paley, he organized the New Lost City Ramblers in 1958; then founded the Strange Creek Singers in 1968. Peggy (actually, Margaret) Seeger (b. N.Y, June 17, 1935) was a folksinger, songwriter, and song collector; studied both classical and folk music; after further training at Radc-liffe Coll., she became active as a performer; settled in England in 1956, becoming a naturalized subject in 1959; became a leading figure in the folk-music revival.


With E. Stridden, Harmonic Structure and Elementary Composition (Berkeley, 1916); Music as Recreation (Washington, D.C., 1940); with R. Crawford Seeger, J. Lomax, and A. Lomax, Folk Song: USA (N.Y., 1947; second ed., rev., 1975); Music and Society: Some New World Evidence of Their Relationship (Washington, D.C., 1953); Studies in Musicology, 1935–1975 (Berkeley, 1977); ed. Essays for a Humanist: An Offering to Klaus Wachsmann (N.Y., 1977); A. Pascarella, ed., Studies in Musicology II, 1929–1979 (Berkeley, 1994).


A. Pescatello, C. S.: A Life in American Music (Pittsburgh, 1992); T. Greer, A Question of Balance: C. S.’s Philosophy of Music (Berkeley, 1998).

—Nicolas Slonimsky/Laura Kuhn/Dennis McIntire

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