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Seeger, Peter R. ("Pete")

SEEGER, Peter R. ("Pete")

(b. 3 May 1919 in New York City), folk singer, folklorist, environmentalist, and social and political critic whose words and music during the 1960s de-cried U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War.

Seeger was one of three sons born to Charles Louis Seeger, a noted musicologist and college professor, and Constance de Clyver (Edson) Seeger, a violinist and teacher. He also had three half brothers and one half sister from his father's subsequent marriage to the musicologist Ruth Crawford. Seeger received his primary education at public schools in Nyack, New York, and at the Spring Hill School in Litchfield, Connecticut. He then entered Avon Old Farms, a private boarding school in Connecticut.

His interest in grass roots music and the five-string banjo began in 1935, when he attended a folk festival in Asheville, North Carolina. In 1936 he entered Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to study sociology. In 1938 Seeger left school to perform as a singing troubadour in migrant camps and on street corners across the country; he also joined the Communist Party in 1941. On 20 July 1943 Seeger married Toshi-Aline Ohta. They raised a son and two daughters in a two-room, hand-built log cabin near Beacon, New York, overlooking the Hudson River.

During the 1940s Seeger performed with Lee Hays, Woody Guthrie, and other members of the Almanac Singers. He served in the U.S. Army Special Services from 1942 to 1945, entertaining troops stateside and in the South Pacific, and attained the rank of corporal. Seeger founded and directed People's Songs, Inc., in 1945 to encourage folk music. In 1948 the Weavers (with Seeger, Hays, Ronnie Gilbert, and Fred Hellerman) debuted at the Village Vanguard. The group disbanded temporarily in 1952, then reunited in 1955, with Seeger finally leaving the group in 1957. Seeger also performed solo during the 1950s, before capacity crowds at Carnegie Hall and Town Hall.

In 1952 the Communist informant Harvey Matusow testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) that Seeger, Gilbert, and Hellerman were members of the American Communist Party. Although Matusow later admitted to giving false testimony, the Weavers were blacklisted and banned from radio and television performances. In 1955 Seeger was called to testify by the HUAC. Rather than answer questions, he cited his freedom of speech under the First Amendment to the Constitution, but was indicted on ten counts of contempt of Congress and sentenced to ten years' imprisonment. He went to trial in March 1961 and was found guilty, but the sentence was overturned on appeal in May 1962. The blacklist, however, continued and Seeger pursued a solo career in Europe and periodically performed at U.S. college campuses. Seeger resented his treatment, saying, "I have never in my life supported or done anything subversive to my country. I am proud that I have never refused to sing for any organization because I disagreed with its beliefs."

Seeger claimed that most of his songs were adapted from older melodies. He chose themes demonstrating the strength of the working class, forbearance of indigents, and power to overcome injustices. In 1961 he signed a contract with Columbia Records, while continuing his thirteen-year partnership with Folkways Records and Service Corporation. That year his song "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?" was a popular hit. He collaborated with Lee Hays to write "If I Had a Hammer," and joined with the Weavers to write "Kisses Sweeter Than Wine," all in the same year.

Seeger and his wife also produced short educational films through Folklore Research Films. In 1963 the Seeger family performed in twenty-one countries on a world tour. During an interview that year, Seeger stated, "I feel I'm building a healthy musical life for people who seem to have lost it somewhere in the machine age." Seeger's cabin, with its small woodlot, garden, workshop, and fireplace, was a peaceful retreat for his family and friends during the political upheaval of the 1960s. It provided a contrast of rustic spirituality against a national atmosphere of physical and intellectual violence.

During the 1960s Seeger sang for the peace and civil rights movements. In February 1968 he sang his antiwar song "Waist Deep in the Big Muddy" (which the Columbia Broadcasting System had censored in 1967) on the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. Also in 1968, when civil rights and antiwar activists were advocating revolutionary violence, Seeger, his wife, and his daughter Tinya camped out with protestors in Resurrection City, the tent encampment on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. They led the crowd, singing songs of the poor and dispossessed.

Seeger told the biographer David King Dunaway, "I am a product of my family and my childhood. One thinks that one creates one's own life. So there I was at nineteen … going out to what I thought needed to be done. To my surprise, thirty-five years later, I found that I was practically carrying out what my family had trained me to do." Seeger inherited a legacy of old New England Calvinism. The radicals of 1968 thought Seeger had lost touch with their struggle, but they viewed him only superficially, failing to see his inward need to correct an imperfect society.

In 1969 Seeger launched a seventy-six-foot sloop, the Clearwater, on the Hudson River. Clearwater also was the name of what became a 12,000-member Hudson River restoration organization, symbolized by the boat. Shortly after the launch, Seeger organized a local environmental group, the Beacon Sloop Club, in a ramshackle ex-diner. Members met the first Friday of each month to plan waterfront cleanup activities and fundraisers. His words from "Rainbow Race" embraced the top of the building: "One blue sky above us, one ocean, lapping all our shores / One Earth so green and round, who could ask for more?"

Seeger's wife helped him to stay organized and directed. Without her and Harold Leventhal, his agent since 1950, Seeger was likely to start a project, then move on to create another. At six feet, six inches tall and 165 pounds, with thin and balding brown hair and blue eyes, Seeger's body provided the physical frame for the boyish, fun-loving dreamer inside. Donned in mismatched socks—a longtime trademark—Seeger confessed that he first wore the socks to protest dressing in a tuxedo for a Weavers concert. Seeger received a National Medal of the Arts in 1994 and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1996. On 26 February 1997 Seeger won a Grammy Award for best traditional folk album of 1996 for Pete.

Seeger's recordings from the 1960s include American Game and Activity Songs for Children (1962), I Can See a New Day (1964), Strangers and Cousins (1965), God Bless the Grass (1966), Abiyoyo and Other Story Songs (1967), Waist Deep in the Big Muddy and Other Love Songs (1967), and Young vs. Old (1969). Other songs from that period appear on World of Pete Seeger (1973), The Essential Pete Seeger (1978), C ircles and Seasons (1979), Carry It On: Songs of America's Working People (1987), Pete Seeger's Greatest Hits (1987), American Industrial Ballads (1992), Waist Deep in the Big Muddy (1993), and If I Had a Hammer: Songs of Hope and Struggle (1998).

Provided the advantages and opportunities of an upper-class lifestyle, Seeger refused a life of leisure to represent people caught up in the struggles of oppression. His wide-ranging recordings include songs for children, free speech, human rights, protecting the environment, promoting peace, and furthering social justice. During the upheaval of the 1960s, Seeger remained grounded in his own system of morality, and targeted a misdirected political system and its materialist culture, which he believed threatened to destroy the basic rights that all Americans deserve.

Seeger's books applicable to the 1960s are, with Robert S. Reiser, Carry It On!: A History in Song and Picture of the Working Men and Women of America (1985), and Everybody Says Freedom: The Civil Rights Movement in Words, Picture, and Song (1989). See also Seeger with Peter Blood, Where Have All the Flowers Gone? (1996). David King Dunaway, How Can I Keep from Singing: Pete Seeger (1981), gives an in-depth biography, including a bibliography and discography. Biographical information is also in Ray M. Lawless, Folksingers and Folk Songs in America: A Handbook of Biography, Bibliography, and Discography (1960); Larry Sandberg and Dick Weissman, The Folk Music Sourcebook (1976); and George T. Simon, The Best of the Music Makers (1979). Articles relating to Seeger's experiences in the 1960s are "A Minstrel with a Mission," Life (9 Oct. 1964); "Big and Muddy," Newsweek (25 Sept. 1967); "Keeping the Faith," Horizon (Oct. 1981): 42–47; "Pete Seeger's Homemade Music," The Progressive (Apr. 1986); "Pete Seeger: Keeping the Dream," Sierra (Mar./Apr. 1989); and "He Shall Overcome: Pete Seeger," New England Review (fall 1990).

Sandra Redmond Peters

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