Seeger, Pete (1919—)

views updated

Seeger, Pete (1919—)

The American singer and composer Pete Seeger was quite simply the foremost popularizer of American folk music of the twentieth century. While others engaged in field work or labored in dusty archives, Seeger recorded over 100 albums in a half a century of performing. An evangelizer with an inborn sensitivity to crowd techniques, Seeger excelled in concert and had few musical peers in working a crowd. An intimate, casual, and charming performer, he often successfully invited his audience to sing along with him. The stringbean performer, bent over his long-necked five-string banjo, dressed in an old work shirt and denims, completely reshaped American musical taste in folk, topical, and protest music. Seeger's banjo read, "This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender," and if some segments of America reviled him as a Communist sympathizer, others perceived him as standing for peace, equality, and decency in a troubled world. Seeger formed a bridge from the folk song revival of the 1940s, across the political repression of the 1950s, to the folk/protest scene of the 1960s. A gifted storyteller and musical historian, his influence on American music was incalculable.

Seeger was born in New York City in 1919, the son of a violinist mother and musicologist father, both on the faculty of the Juilliard School of Music. His uncle was the war poet Alan Seeger (who wrote "Rendezvous With Death,"), his sister Peggy became an accomplished singer and songwriter and married British folk-legend Ewan MacColl, and his brother Mike made a career as one of the foremost proponents of banjo music. Pete Seeger learned banjo, ukelele, and guitar by his teens. He received a scholarship to Harvard in 1936 (same class as John Kennedy) but left in 1938 due to disinterest and poor grades. He then journeyed through the United States, collecting songs, meeting Woody Guthrie and Huddy Ledbetter (Leadbelly), and working with noted folk archivist and field recorder Alan Lomax.

In 1940, Seeger organized the Almanac Singers with Guthrie, Lee Hays, and Mill Lampell, and they recorded an album the next year. Seeger's zeal for labor organizing was nearly religious ("Talking Union"), and the group often performed anti-war songs for left-wing audiences and organizations. After Pearl Harbor, the Almanac Singers emphasized their patriotism ("Reuben James"), and Seeger served in World War II entertaining American troops by singing folk songs. In 1944, he helped create People's Songs Inc. (PSI), which formed a national network of folk music that eventually boasted over 2,000 members. In 1948, he toured with the anti-Cold War presidential candidate Henry Wallace, but PSI drew more interest from the FBI (Federal Bureau of Investigation) than labor unions, and it eventually went bankrupt in 1949.

At the low point of his fortunes in 1948, Seeger joined with Hays, Ronnie Gilbert, and Fred Hellerman to form The Weavers. Despite their unpopular leftward leanings (they were present at the Peekskill "anti-Communist" riot of September 1949), The Weavers not only helped to revive national interest in folk music, but also enjoyed astonishing commercial success. Their second single, "Goodnight Irene" backed with Leadbelly's "Tzena, Tzena, Tzena," went to the top of the pop charts and sold over two million copies, a phenomenal amount for 1950. They followed with other hits that became (re)established in the American folk tradition, including "On Top of Old Smokey," "So Long Its Been Good to Know You," "Wimoweh (The Lion Sleeps Tonight)," "Rock Island Line," and "Kisses Sweeter Than Wine." Concert promoters and the media blacklisted the group in 1952 because of their political views and associations, and The Weavers all but disappeared; Seeger left the group to go solo in 1958 after opposing their participation in a cigarette commercial. Always active in left-wing politics, Seeger refused to answer questions when investigated by the House UnAmerican Activities Committee (HUAC) in 1955, although he never invoked the Fifth Amendment. He was indicted in 1956, convicted in 1961 on ten counts of contempt of Congress, and sentenced to an astounding ten years in jail. The United States Court of Appeals dismissed all charges against Seeger on a technicality, the very same week in 1962 that the cover version of his song "Where Have All the Flowers Gone" hit the Top 40.

In 1958, the success of the Kingston Trio touched off an enormous five-year folk music revival. Seeger's music was "rediscovered" and his career once again ascended. In 1962, Peter, Paul, and Mary made a hit out of "If I Had a Hammer," a song Seeger co-wrote in his Weavers' days. The Byrds covered "The Bells of Rhymney," and eventually had a huge number one hit with "Turn! Turn! Turn!" (1966), a biblical passage from Ecclesiastes that Seeger had set to music. In 1964, commercial radio listeners heard Seeger's voice for the first time in 12 years when his version of Malvina Reynolds' "Little Boxes" became a minor hit. Since the 1940s, Seeger had been one of the guiding lights of folk magazine Sing Out! (20,000 subscribers in 1965; bankrupt in 1967); in 1961 he helped Sis and Gordon Friese found Broadside, a bulletin of topical songs which helped stimulate the careers of singer/songwriters such as Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs, Tom Paxton, and Eric Anderson.

Paradoxically, Seeger had become a semi-popular success despite being one of the most picketed and blacklisted singers in American history. In 1962, the refusal of the ABC television folk music show, Hootenanny, to allow Seeger to perform resulted in a boycott that tore the folk community in half. The incident hurt him commercially, but only served to reinforce his standing as a martyr for freedom of speech. By the mid-1960s, Seeger had become a cultural hero through his outspoken commitment to the anti-war and civil rights struggle. He was involved in several civil rights campaigns in 1962-1965, and helped popularize the anthemic "We Shall Overcome" with mainstream audiences. Even supporters had felt that Seeger's belief that music could transform society was hopelessly naive, but for a moment, it all seemed to be coming true. This period of his greatest influence is wonderfully captured on the recording of his concert at Carnegie Hall in June 1963.

Then it all fell apart. The folk-topical song revival came to a crashing halt at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965, when Bob Dylan appeared with electric accompaniment. Seeger, who distrusted electric music as unauthentic, was crestfallen, and literally tried to pull the plug on the amplifiers. He fought on, however, despite Dylan's defection, the crumbling of the civil rights movement, and the escalation of the war in Asia. His anti-Vietnam War ballad, "Waist Deep in the Big Muddy," became a classic of the 1960s, and he dusted off a series of anti-war ballads he had performed with the Almanac Singers a generation before. His disdain for wealth and worldly vanities seemed hopelessly outdated in an indulgent age, but his moral rectitude still inspired, or infuriated, vast numbers of Americans.

In the 1970s, Seeger mirrored the movement away from mass politics to localism and community control. He became particularly interested in ecology, co-founding the organization Clearwater, dedicated to the cleanup and revival of the Hudson river. Through sheer tenacity, he had become a living legend, more frequently parodied than banned. Critics from all over the spectrum praised his life's work, and the grandchildren of his original listeners attended his concerts.

Seeger widely influenced countless performers, and his instructional books and records inspired generations of self-taught musicians and folksingers. He always believed there was something in the best music to inform, stir, rally, direct, or cause social and personal interaction. His moral earnestness often overflowed into self-righteousness, but both friends and foes conceded his indominability. Perhaps his optimism was often naive, but his music helped unionize workers, inspired Americans to revere their own musical traditions, encouraged civil rights and anti-war activists, and helped clean up a river. In his case, at least, one person could make a difference, and the United States was a better place for his having lived in it.

—Jon Sterngass

Further Reading:

Cantwell, Robert. When We Were Good: The Folk Revival. Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1996.

Dunaway, David King. How Can I Keep from Singing: Pete Seeger. New York, McGraw-Hill, 1981.

Seeger, Pete. Where Have All The Flowers Gone: A Singer's Stories, Songs, Seeds, Robberies. Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, Sing Out, 1993.

Seeger, Pete, and Jo Schwartz. The Incomplete Folksinger. New York, Simon and Schuster, 1972.