Pete Seeger: Singing Out To Seek a Better World

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tags: Pete Seeger

Ron Briley reviews books for the History News Network and is a history teacher and an assistant headmaster at Sandia Preparatory School, Albuquerque, New Mexico. He is the author of The Politics of Baseball: Essays on the Pastime and Power at Home and Abroad.

Image via Wiki Commons.

Born into a life of privilege, Pete Seeger turned his back on classical music and embraced the music of the people.  Seeger cut his teeth singing and touring with Woody Guthrie during the 1930s and 1940s while championing the rights of working people in song.  While Guthrie’s voice was stilled by disease during the 1950s, Seeger battled against the intolerance of McCarthyism which attempted to silence reform in post-World War II America.  In the 1960s, Seeger used his voice and songs to fight for civil rights and oppose the Vietnam War, while in the 1970s and 1980s he embraced environmental causes.  Plucking his banjo and seemingly always with a smile on his face, Seeger was, indeed, a happy warrior who believed in the power of song to envision a better world and enlist people from all walks of life in changing attitudes and the world.

Seeger was born May 3, 1919 in New York City to parents who were on the faculty of the Juilliard School of Music.  Following in the family tradition, Seeger learned to play the guitar and banjo during his teens.  After graduating from Avon Old Fields, a Connecticut boarding school, Seeger enrolled at Harvard University.  However, he dropped out after two years and pursued his passion of collecting folk music.  Working with folk archivist Alan Lomax, Seeger became acquainted with Guthrie and Huddie Ledbetter (Leadbelly), who emerged as major musical influences upon the young musician.

After Guthrie took Seeger along on a road tour of the South and Southwest, the duo returned to New York City, where in 1940 Seeger formed the Almanac Singers, which also included Lee Hayes and Millard Lampell.  The Almanac Singers supported the reelection campaign of Franklin Roosevelt and the organizing efforts of John L. Lewis and the Committee for Industrial Organization (CIO).  The Almanacs were criticized for following the foreign policy dictates of the Communist Party, opposing American intervention into European affairs until after the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941.  Following American entrance into the war, the Almanacs embraced the antifascist crusade.  Guthrie joined the Merchant Marine, while Seeger served in the Pacific theater of the war.

Following the Second World War, Seeger opposed the Cold War and supported the 1948 presidential candidacy of former Vice-President Henry Wallace on the Progressive Party ticket.  In the post war period, Seeger also formed People’s Songs, a national network of folk music, but the organization was harassed by the FBI as a security risk.  While People’s Songs never became the national clearinghouse envisioned by Seeger, it did commence the publication of Sing Out! in 1951, now the nation’s oldest publication devoted to folk music.

In 1948, Seeger joined with Ronnie Gilbert, Lee Hayes, and Fred Hellerman to form The Weavers.  The group’s “Good Night Irene” sold over two million copies and reached number one on the pop charts in 1950.  Other Weaver hits included “So Long Its Been Good to Know You” and “Kisses Sweeter than Wine.”  The leftist politics of the group, however, led to blacklisting and the loss of concert dates.  Seeger left the group and began a career as a solo artist, finding a receptive audience on college campuses.

Seeger was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in 1955.  Although Seeger had supposedly left the Communist Party in the early 1950s, he refused to cooperate with the Committee and answer questions about his political affiliations, The singer was cited for Contempt of Congress, but Seeger was spared imprisonment when his conviction was overturned on appeal.  Some critics continue to label Seeger a Stalinist for his failure to cooperate with HUAC and denounce the crimes of Josef Stalin.  Seeger was hardly un-American, but he was critical of the United States for not living up to its founding principles contained in the Declaration of Independence.  Much like his friend Woody Guthrie, Seeger was drawn to the Communist Party in the 1930s and 1940s as the organization seemed to be leading the fight for racial equality, better working conditions, and social justice. Unapologetic, Seeger remained proud of standing up for his political freedoms against the tyranny of McCarthyism.

The folk music revival of the late 1950s and early 1960s resurrected Seeger’s musical career.  His “Where Have All the Flowers Gone” became a Top 40 hit in 1962, while that same year Peter, Paul, and Mary scored a hit with their cover version of Seeger’s “If I Had a Hammer.”  Four years later the Byrds had a number one record with Seeger’s “Turn, Turn, Turn.”  The folk revival, however, came to a symbolic halt in 1965 at the Newport Folk Festival when Bob Dylan, whose early work was certainly influenced by Seeger and Guthrie, put down his acoustic guitar and went electric.  During an exceedingly loud version of “Maggie’s Farm,” an incensed Seeger demanded that the volume be lowered, but he did not attempt to sever the electric cords with an ax as is sometimes reported.

Although Dylan backed away from protest music, Seeger embraced activism by singing out against the Vietnam War and continuing to support the civil rights movement, who had adopted Seeger’s arrangement of “We Shall Overcome” as a theme song.  However, Seeger was increasingly uncomfortable with the black power politics of the late 1960s.  In 1967, Seeger gained national attention when he performed his anti-authority ballad “Deep in the Big Muddy” on the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour.  CBS censors perceived the performance as a criticism of President Lyndon Johnson and cut the song.  The network was deluged with complaints, and Seeger was allowed to perform the number on a later segment of the show.

During the 1970s, Seeger’s politics focused upon more local and environmental issues.  He formed the organization Clearwater and worked tirelessly for the restoration of the Hudson River.  Seeger also toured with Woody Guthrie’s son, Arlo, and deserves credit for insuring that all of Woody’s verses for This Land Is Your Land were acknowledged, including the radical lyrics questioning private property. 

Seeger lent his name and talents to virtually every progressive cause since the Great Depression, earning numerous awards and recognition in addition to the ire of many conservatives who may have admired his music but not his politics.  In 1994, Seeger was awarded a Presidential Medal of the Arts by President Bill Clinton, and two years later, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.  Seeger al had no problem with accepting a medal from Fidel Castro in 1999  One of Seeger’s last public performances was at the 2008 inauguration of President Barack Obama, yet a few years later he was marching with the Occupy Wall Street protesters and criticizing the President.  Although death finally silenced Seeger’s voice on January 27, 2014, we can continue to honor the legacy of this great American by singing out and embracing the causes of racial justice, labor rights, environmentalism, and peace which meant so much to Seeger. I think it’s time for me to listen to Bruce Springsteen’s 2006 release We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions.  Thanks, Pete.    

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