Seeger, Pete(r) R.

views updated

Seeger, Pete(r) R.

Seeger, Pete(r) R., influential American folksinger, songwriter, and banjoist; son of Charles Seeger , stepson of Ruth Crawford Seeger , and half-brother of Mike Seeger ; b. N.Y., May 3, 1919. Seeger popularized American and international folk songs, drawing from the influence of such peers and predecessors as Lead Belly and Woody Guthrie and helping to spark the folk music revival of the late 1950s and early 1960s as personified by such descendants as Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, and Peter, Paul and Mary. Despite political persecution due to his left-wing views, he gained considerable popularity in his two early groups, The Almanac Singers and the Weavers, and in a solo career lasting more than 50 years. Though best known for his engaging concert performances of stirring folk songs that he adapted and introduced, such as “We Shall Overcome,” he also wrote several songs that became hits for others, notably “If I Had a Hammer,” “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” and “Turn! Turn! Turn!” And he developed and popularized the five-string banjo, writing a widely used instruction manual for the instrument.

Seeger’s father, musicologist Dr. Charles Louis Seeger Jr., was unemployed at the time of his birth, having been dismissed from his position as music professor at the Univ. of Calif, at Berkeley the previous year because he was a conscientious objector to World War I. Seeger’s mother, Constance de Clyver Edson Seeger, was a violin teacher. During his childhood his parents became instructors at the Juilliard School of Music. He grew up at the home of his paternal grandparents in Patterson, N.Y., but attended boarding schools from the age of four. Though he scorned formal music instruction, he began to play the ukulele and the autoharp about the age of eight, and at the start of his teens he obtained a four-string banjo. Probably in the summer of 1936, his father took him to a folk music festival in Asheville, N. C, where he first heard the five-string banjo and became interested in it.

Seeger intended to become a journalist and entered Harvard in 1936 majoring in sociology. He dropped out in 1938 and sought work in journalism in N.Y., but became increasingly involved in folk music instead, meeting Aunt Molly Jackson and Lead Belly, who taught him to play the guitar. From 1939 to 1940 he worked as an assistant to Alan Lomax at the Archive of Folk Song in the Library of Congress. In May 1940 he met Woody Guthrie, whom he accompanied on a trip around the U.S. that summer. The two worked on a songbook, Hard Hitting Songs for Hard Hit People, not formally published until more than a quarter-century later. In the fall Seeger met Lee Hays, who also was working on a songbook, and with Hays’s roommate, writer Millard Lampell, formed the politically oriented Almanac Singers, a group eventually joined by Guthrie and many other performers over the two years of its existence.

Seeger left The Almanac Singers when he was inducted into the army in July 1942. On July 20, 1943, he married Toshi Aline Ohta, with whom he had four children. Assigned to the Special Services division as an entertainer, he was stationed on Saipan during World War II. After his return from the war, in December 1945 he became the national director of People’s Songs Inc., an organization formed to expand the popularity of topical folk music. Booking performers and publishing a monthly journal, People’s Songs Bulletin, to which Seeger contributed, it existed until March 1949, when it went bankrupt. Seeger launched a solo career during this period, appearing at the Village Vanguard nightclub in N.Y. in December 1946.

Seeger campaigned for and traveled with third-party presidential candidate Henry Wallace in 1948. Shortly after the end of the campaign, he teamed up with former Almanac Singer Lee Hays to form The Weavers, also featuring Ronnie Gilbert and Fred Hellerman. Early in 1949 he wrote music to Hays’s lyrics for “The Hammer Song” (aka “If I Had a Hammer”), recorded by The Weavers in December for a single released on Hootenanny Records. A phrase from the song, “Sing out,” was used as the name of a new folk-music magazine that began publishing in 1950, and the song’s sheet music was printed on the cover of the first issue. Seeger became a regular contributor to Sing Out!

The Weavers struggled until Seeger got them booked into the Village Vanguard in December 1949 for the same fee he could have received performing alone. They went on to enormous success, beginning with the million-selling single “Tzena Tzena Tzena” (music by Issachor Miron [real name Michrovsky], revised by Julius Grossman, English lyrics by Mitchell Parish)/“Goodnight Irene” (music and lyrics by Lead Belly) on Decca Records in the summer of 1950. Also in 1950 the newly formed independent Folkways label released Seeger’s first solo album, Darling Corey, some of it recorded three years earlier.

The Weavers scored a second million-seller in the spring of 1951 with “On Top of Old Smoky.” (Though it was a traditional American folk song, “On Top of Old Smoky” was copyrighted as having new lyrics and arrangement by Seeger. He later denied the credit.) That summer they reached the charts with “Kisses Sweeter Than Wine” (music by “Joel Newman” [Lead Belly], adapted from the Irish folk song “Drimmer’s Cow,” lyrics by “Paul Campbell” [The Weavers]), and in February 1952 they charted with “Wimoweh” (music and lyrics by “Paul Campbell” [The Weavers]), andin from “Mbube,” music and lyrics by Solomon Linda). But they were forced to disband in early 1953 due to red-baiting.

Though the group had been associated with left-wing causes, only Seeger had actually been a member of the Communist party during the 1940s. In the anti-Communist hysteria of the early 1950s he was forced to sustain his career performing primarily at schools, colleges, and summer camps and recording dozens of albums of traditional folk music for Folkways. On Aug. 16, 1955, he appeared as an unfriendly witness before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, declining either to answer questions or to take the Fifth Amendment. As a result he was cited for ten counts of contempt of Congress in 1956 and indicted in 1957, though his case did not come to trial for four years.

The Weavers reunited for a concert at Carnegie Hall on Christmas Eve, 1955, and thereafter went back to performing and recording for the independent Vanguard label. Pop singer Jimmie Rodgers revived “Kisses Sweeter Than Wine” for a Top Ten hit in December 1957. Seeger left The Weavers in 1958 and returned to solo work. On his recordings for Folkways he began to mix in contemporary topical songs, notably on Gazette, released in 1958, as well as some of his own compositions. The Rainbow Quest, released in July 1960, featured “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” Seeger adapted the melody from the folk song “Drill Ye Tarriers Drill” and based the lyrics on a Ukrainian folk song quoted in Mikhail Sholokov’s novel And Quiet Flows the Don. He earned his first Grammy nomination in 1960 for Best Album Created for Children for Folk Songs for Young People.

Late in 1960, Seeger signed to Columbia Records, a major label. In March 1961 he finally went on trial for the contempt charges. He was found guilty and sentenced to a year in prison, but his conviction was overturned by the U.S. Court of Appeals in May 1962. On April 30, 1961, he recorded his first Columbia album, Story Songs, live at the Village Gate coffeehouse in Greenwich Village; it was released in October. In December the Tokens hit #1 with the million-selling “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” (music and lyrics by Hugo Peretti, Luigi Creatore, George David Weiss, and Albert Stan-ton), technically based on “Mbube” but in fact an adaptation of “Wimoweh.” In March 1962 The Kingston Trio reached the Top 40 with a version of “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” that included added verses by Joe Hickerson. In October, Peter, Paul and Mary took “If I Had a Hammer” into the Top Ten.

Seeger released his second Columbia album, The Bitter and the Sweet, in November 1962. Another live album, recorded at the Bitter End club in Greenwich Village on July 23, 1962, included “Turn! Turn! Turn! (To Everything There Is a Season),” its lyrics adapted by Seeger from the Book of Ecclesiastes. In January 1963, Columbia released Children’s Concert at Town Hall, recorded the previous April, and it earned a Grammy nomination for Best Recording for Children.

Seeger appeared twice in the spring of 1963 at Carnegie Hall, first on May 2–3 for reunion concerts with The Weavers that were taped and released on two albums, then on June 8 for a solo performance recorded by Columbia. In August, as Trini Lopez’s version of “If I Had a Hammer” reached the Top Ten, Seeger and his family embarked on a trip around the world that lasted ten months.

The Carnegie Hall concert was released on a Columbia album in October as We Shall Overcome. The title song was based on the Reverend Charles Tindley’s 1903 composition “I’ll Overcome Some Day” and the traditional gospel hymn “I’ll Be All Right,” and adapted by Seeger, Zilphia Horton, Frank Hamilton, and Guy Cara-wan. It had already become an anthem of the civil rights movement, and Joan Baez’s recording of it reached the charts in November. The album also contained “Guantanamera,” Seeger and Hector Angulo’s musical setting of a poem by Cuban writer José Marti. But it was Seeger’s version of Malvina Reynolds’s satiric “Little Boxes” that Columbia released as a single and which reached the charts, becoming his only chart single as a solo performer.

We Shall Overcome, which was nominated for a Grammy for Best Folk Recording, became his only charting album, though this may have had less to do with his actual popularity than with the glut of his recordings on the market. A clause in his Columbia contract allowed him to continue to record for Folkways, which also possessed a backlog of unreleased material from the 1950s, and other labels licensed or acquired older recordings, resulting in several Seeger album releases each year until the late 1960s. The singer, meanwhile, was unavailable to follow up the success of We Shall Overcome for Columbia. By the time he returned to the U.S. in June 1964, the British Invasion led by The Beatles had changed the record market drastically.

Seeger continued to release acoustic live albums on Columbia, I Can See a New Day in November 1964 and Strangers and Cousins in June 1965. The latter earned a Grammy nomination for Best Folk Recording. Though he opposed the development of topical folk music into popular folk-rock in 1965, as exemplified by Bob Dylan’s appearance with a rock band at the Newport Folk Festival in July 1965, Seeger saw his songs adapted into folk-rock hits. Johnny Rivers reached the Top 40 in October 1965 with a revival of “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” and The Byrds hit #1 in December with “Turn! Turn! Turn! (To Everything There Is a Season).”

In January 1966, Columbia released Seeger’s first studio recording for the label, God Bless the Grass, a concept album that signaled his growing interest in environmentalism. Living beside the Hudson River in Beacon, N.Y., he had begun to raise money to build a sloop to sail the river and raise concerns about pollution. The album was another Grammy nominee for Best Folk Recording.

In the winter of 1965–66, Seeger, who had been blacklisted from network television since the early 1950s, hosted the series Rainbow Quest on a local N.Y. station. In September 1966 The Sandpipers scored a Top Ten hit with their version of “Guantanamera.” In November, backed by the rock group the Blues Project, Seeger recorded the Columbia album Waist Deep in the Big Muddy and Other Love Songs. Released in July 1967, it featured a Seeger- written title song that was a bitter allegory expressing opposition to the Vietnam War. “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy” was released as a single, and Seeger was engaged to sing it on the network television series The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. But though his appearance on the show in September broke his decades-long blacklist, the song was censored by the network. An uproar followed, and Seeger was allowed to sing the song on a return appearance in February 1968, by which time it had been nominated for a Grammy for Best Folk Performance.

The sloop Clearwater was launched in June 1969, and it marked Seeger’s increasing involvement in community issues and lowered national profile thereafter. He played himself in Alice’s Restaurant, the film based on Arlo Guthrie’s song, in August 1969, and sang his song “Old Devil Time” in the film Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon, released in May 1970. His album Young vs. Old, released in August 1969, earned a Grammy nomi-nation for Best Folk Performance. In November, Judy Collins reached the charts with a revival of “Turn! Turn! Turn! (To Everything There Is a Season).” Seeger had begun to record less frequently, and Rainbow Race, released in June 1971, on which he wrote eight of the ten songs himself, was his last album for Columbia. Robert John revived “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” for a millionselling Top Ten hit in February 1972.

Seeger returned to recording for Folkways with Banks of Marble and Other Songs at the end of 1974. He had begun touring with Arlo Guthrie, and the two released the double live album Together in Concert, which reached the charts in the spring of 1975. They followed it with two similar collections, Precious Friend in 1982 and More Together Again in Concert in 1994. Seeger returned to solo record-making with Circles & Seasons, released by Warner Bros. Records in July 1979. On Jan. 11, 1980, he performed a concert at Sanders Theatre in Cambridge, Mass., that was recorded by Folkways for the double album Sing Along. On Nov. 28–29, 1980, he participated in a final reunion of The Weavers at Carnegie Hall that was taped for an album, Together Again (1981), and filmed for a documentary on the group, The Weavers: Wasn’t That a Time! (1982). In September 1984 he and Arlo Guthrie joined Ronnie Gilbert and Holly Near for a concert tour chronicled on the album HARP (1985). He earned another Grammy nomination for Best Traditional Folk Recording in 1986 for his participation in the New Lost City Ramblers’ album 20th Anniversary Concert.

With the rise of compact discs and the sale of Folkways Records to the Smithsonian Institution in 1987, Seeger’s recordings began to be reissued extensively. In April 1996, Living Music released Pete, his first newly recorded studio album in 17 years, consisting mostly of familiar songs on which he was accompanied by choruses. It won a Grammy for Best Traditional Folk Album. Seeger became less active in his late seventies, but he still made occasional appearances, and he recorded new performances for both Where Have All the Flowers Gone: The Songs of Pete Seeger, a tribute album released in March 1998, and If I Had a Hammer: Songs of Hope & Struggle, a Smithsonian/Folkways compilation released in March 1998,


books: The Steel Drums of Kim hoy Wong (N.Y., 1961); How to Play the 5-String Banjo (N.Y., 1948; 2nd rev. ed., 1954; 3rd rev. ed., 1962); with J. Lester, The Twelve-String Guitar as Played by Leadbelly (NX, 1965); J. Schwartz, ed., The Incompleat Volksinger (N.Y., 1972); Henscratches and Flyspecks: How to Read Melodies from Songbooks in Twelve Confusing Lessons (N.Y., 1973); with B. Reiser, Everybody Says Freedom (N.Y, 1990); Reiser, Carry It On: The Story of American’s Working People in Song and Picture (Bethlehem, Pa., 1991); Where Have All the Flowers Gone: A Singer’s Stories, Songs, Seeds, Robberies (Bethlehem, Pa., 1993). songbooks : Ed., with W. Guthrie, The People’s Songbook (N.Y, 1948); with R. Gilbert, F. Hellerman, and L Hays, The Weavers Sing (NX, 1951); ed. with The Weavers, The Carolers’ Songbag (N.Y., 1952); ed., American Favorite Ballads (N.Y., 1961); The Goofing Off Suite (N.Y, 1961); ed., Woody Guthrie Folk Songs (N.Y, 1963); The Bells ofRhymney (N.Y, 1964); Bits and Pieces (N.Y, 1965); ed. with J. Marris and C. Metzler, Songs for Peace (N.Y, 1966); ed. with A. Lomax and W. Guthrie, HardHitting Songs for Hard Hit People (N.y,> 1967); Oh, Had I a Golden Thread (N.Y., 1968); P. S. on Record (N.y, 1971).


Darling Corey (1950); Songs to Grow On—Vol. 2 (1951); Songs to Grow On—Vol. 3 (1951); American Folk Songs for Children (1953); Pete Seeger Sampler (1954); Sing Out! Hootenanny (1959); German Folk Songs (1954); Goofing Off Suite (1954); Frontier Ballads Vols. I and II (1954); Birds, Beasts, Bugs and Little Fishes (1954); Hootenanny Tonight! (1954); How to Play the Five String Banjo (1954); The Folksinger’s Guitar Guide (1955); Folksongs of Four Continents (1955); Camp Songs (1955;) Country Dance Music Washboard Band (1956); With Voices We Sing Together (1956); American Industrial Ballads (1956;) Love Songs for Friends and Foes (1956); Studs Terkel’s Weekly Almanac on Folk Music Blues on WFMT with Big Bill Broonzy and Pete Seeger (1956); Big Bill Broonzy and Pete Seeger in Concert (1956); Sing Out with Pete! (1956–61); American Ballads (1957); American Favorite Ballads (December 1957); Pete Seeger and Sonny Terry (July 1958); Gazette with Pete Seeger—Vol. I (1958); Sleep Time (1958); Song and Play Time with Pete Seeger (1958); Hootenanny at Carnegie Hall (1958–59); American Playparties (1959); Folk Songs for Young People (1959); American Favorite Ballads—Vol. 2 (February 1959 ); American Favorite BalladsVol. 3 (1959); Nonesuch (August 1959); Indian Summer (soundtrack; 1959–60); Highlights of Pete Seeger at the Village Gate with Memphis Slim and Willie Dixon—Vol. 1 (1960); Pete Seeger at the Village Gate—Vol. 2 (1960); Songs of the Civil War (1960); American History in Ballad and SongVols. 1 and 2 (1960–61); Champlain Valley Songs (February 1960); The Rainbow Quest (July 1960); American Favorite Ballads—Vol. 4 (1961); Gazette—Vol. 2 (1961); Pete Seeger: Story Songs (April 1961); American Favorite Ballads—Vol. 5 (1962); American Game and Activity Songs for Children (1962); The 12- String Guitar as Played by Leadbelly (1962); The Bitter and the Sweet (May 1962); Pete Seeger: Children’s Concert at Town Hall (April 21, 1963); We Shall Overcome (June 8, 1963); Ballads of Sacco and Vanzetti (1963); Little Boxes and Other Broadsides (1963;) The Nativity (1963–64); Strangers and Cousins (1963–64); Songs of Struggle and Protest (January 1965); I Can See a New Day (January 1965); God Bless the Grass (January 1966); Dangerous Songs! (August 1966); Pete Seeger Sings Woody Guthrie (1967); Waist Deep in the Big Muddy (August 1967); Traditional Christmas Carols (1967); Pete Seeger Sings Leadbelly (1968); Pete Seeger Sings and Answers Questions at the Ford Hall Forum in Boston (1968); Pete Seeger Now (1968); Pete Seeger Young vs. Old (1971); Rainbow Race (1973); The World of Pete Seeger (1974); Banks of Marble (1974); Pete Seeger and Brother Kirk Visit Sesame Street (1974); Pete Seeger and Arlo Guthrie Together in Concert (1975); Fifty Sail on Newburgh Bay (1976); Circles and Seasons (1979); with Arlo Guthrie, Precious Friend (1982); Pete (1996).


D. Dunaway, How Can I Keep from Singing: P. S. (N.Y., 1981; new ed., 1990).

—William Ruhlmann