Seeger at the Clearwater Festival in June 2007
|Birth name||Peter Seeger|
|Born||May 3, 1919
New York City, New York, U.S.
|Died||January 27, 2014 (aged 94)
New York City, New York, U.S.
|Genres||American folk music, protest music, Americana|
|Occupations||Musician, songwriter, activist, television host|
|Instruments||Banjo, guitar, recorder, tin whistle, mandolin, piano, ukulele|
|Labels||Folkways, Columbia, CBS, Vanguard, Sony Kids’, SME|
|Associated acts||The Weavers, The Almanac Singers, Woody Guthrie, Arlo Guthrie, Tao Rodríguez-Seeger, Lead Belly, HARP (Holly Near, Arlo Guthrie, Ronnie Gilbert & Pete Seeger)|
|Vega Pete Seeger Model longneck banjo
Martin JSO Sing Out 60th Pete Seeger Guitar, Martin J12SO Sing Out 60th Pete Seeger Guitar
Peter “Pete” Seeger (May 3, 1919 – January 27, 2014) was an American folk singer and activist. A fixture on nationwide radio in the 1940s, he also had a string of hit records during the early 1950s as a member of the Weavers, most notably their recording of Lead Belly‘s “Goodnight, Irene“, which topped the charts for 13 weeks in 1950. Members of the Weavers were blacklisted during the McCarthy Era. In the 1960s, he re-emerged on the public scene as a prominent singer of protest music in support of international disarmament, civil rights, counterculture and environmental causes.
A prolific songwriter, his best-known songs include “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” (with Joe Hickerson), “If I Had a Hammer (The Hammer Song)” (with Lee Hays of the Weavers), and “Turn! Turn! Turn!” (lyrics adapted from Ecclesiastes), which have been recorded by many artists both in and outside the folk revival movement and are sung throughout the world. “Flowers” was a hit recording for the Kingston Trio (1962); Marlene Dietrich, who recorded it in English, German and French (1962); and Johnny Rivers (1965). “If I Had a Hammer” was a hit for Peter, Paul & Mary (1962) and Trini Lopez (1963), while the Byrds had a number one hit with “Turn! Turn! Turn!” in 1965.
Seeger was one of the folksingers most responsible for popularizing the spiritual “We Shall Overcome” (also recorded by Joan Baez and many other singer-activists) that became the acknowledged anthem of the 1960s American Civil Rights Movement, soon after folk singer and activist Guy Carawan introduced it at the founding meeting of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in 1960. In the PBS American Masters episode “Pete Seeger: The Power of Song“, Seeger stated it was he who changed the lyric from the traditional “We will overcome” to the more singable “We shall overcome”.
Family and personal life
Seeger was born on May 3, 1919 at the French Hospital, Midtown Manhattan. His Yankee-Protestant family, which Seeger called “enormously Christian, in the Puritan, Calvinist New England tradition”, traced its genealogy back over 200 years. A paternal ancestor, Karl Ludwig Seeger, a physician from Württemberg, Germany, had emigrated to America during the American Revolution and married into the old New England family of Parsons in the 1780s. Pete’s father, the Harvard-trained composer and musicologist Charles Louis Seeger, Jr., was born in Mexico City, Mexico, to American parents. Charles established the first musicology curriculum in the U.S. at the University of California in 1913, helped found the American Musicological Society, and was a key founder of the academic discipline of ethnomusicology. Pete’s mother, Constance de Clyver (née Edson), raised in Tunisia and trained at the Paris Conservatory of Music, was a concert violinist and later a teacher at the Juilliard School.
In 1912, Charles Seeger was hired to establish the music department at the University of California, Berkeley, but was forced to resign in 1918 because of his outspoken pacifism during World War I. Charles and Constance moved back east, making Charles’ parents’ estate in Patterson, New York, northeast of New York City, their base of operations. When baby Pete was eighteen months old, they set out with him and his two older brothers in a homemade trailer, on a quixotic mission to bring musical uplift to the working people in the American South. Upon their return, Constance taught violin and Charles taught composition at the New York Institute of Musical Art (later Juilliard), whose president, family friend Frank Damrosch, was Constance’s adoptive “uncle”. Charles also taught part-time at the New School for Social Research. Career and money tensions led to quarrels and reconciliations, but when Charles discovered Constance had opened a secret bank account in her own name, they separated, and Charles took custody of their three sons. Beginning in 1936, Charles held various administrative positions in the federal government’s Farm Resettlement program, the WPA‘s Federal Music Project (1938–1940), and the wartime Pan American Union. After World War II, he taught ethnomusicology at the University of California and Yale University.
Charles and Constance divorced when Pete was seven, and in 1932 Charles married his composition student and assistant, Ruth Crawford Seeger, now considered by many to be one of the most important modernist composers of the 20th century. Deeply interested in folk music, Ruth had contributed musical arrangements to Carl Sandburg‘s extremely influential folk song anthology the American Songbag (1927) and later created significant original settings for eight of Sandburg’s poems. Pete’s eldest brother, Charles Seeger III, was a radio astronomer, and his next older brother, John Seeger, taught in the 1950s at the Dalton School in Manhattan and was the principal from 1960 to 1976 at Fieldston Lower School in the Bronx. Pete’s uncle, Alan Seeger, a noted poet (“I Have a Rendezvous with Death”), had been one of the first American soldiers to be killed in World War I. All four of Pete’s half siblings from his father’s second marriage – Margaret (Peggy), Mike, Barbara, and Penelope (Penny) – became folk singers. Peggy Seeger, a well-known performer in her own right, was married for many years to British folk singer and activist Ewan MacColl. Mike Seeger was a founder of the New Lost City Ramblers, one of whose members, John Cohen, married Pete’s half-sister Penny — also a talented singer who died young. Barbara Seeger joined her siblings in recording folk songs for children. In 1935, Pete attended Camp Rising Sun, an international leadership camp held every summer in upstate New York that influenced his life’s work. He visited most recently in 2012.
In 1943, Pete married Toshi-Aline Ōta, whom he credited with being the support that helped make the rest of his life possible. The couple remained married until Toshi’s death in July 2013. Their first child, Peter Ōta Seeger, was born in 1944 and died at six months, while Pete was deployed overseas. Pete never saw him. They went on to have three more children: Daniel (an accomplished photographer and filmmaker), Mika (a potter and muralist), and Tinya (a potter), as well as grandchildren Tao Rodríguez-Seeger (a musician), Cassie (an artist), Kitama Cahill-Jackson (a filmmaker), Moraya (a graduate student married to the NFL player Chris DeGeare), Penny, and Isabelle. Tao is a folk musician in his own right, who sings and plays guitar, banjo, and harmonica with the Mammals. Kitama Jackson is a documentary filmmaker who was associate producer of the PBS documentary Pete Seeger: The Power of Song.
When asked about his religious or spiritual views, Seeger replied: “I feel most spiritual when I’m out in the woods. I feel part of nature. Or looking up at the stars. [I used to say] I was an atheist. Now I say, it’s all according to your definition of God. According to my definition of God, I’m not an atheist. Because I think God is everything. Whenever I open my eyes I’m looking at God. Whenever I’m listening to something I’m listening to God.”. He was a member of a Unitarian Universalist Church in New York.
Seeger lived in Beacon, New York. He remained engaged politically and maintained an active lifestyle in the Hudson Valley region of New York throughout his life. He and Toshi purchased their land in 1949 and lived there first in a trailer, then in a log cabin they built themselves. Toshi died in Beacon on July 9, 2013 and Pete died in New York City on January 27, 2014.
Career as a musician and activist
At four, Seeger was sent away to boarding school, but came home two years later, when his parents learned the school had failed to inform them he had contracted scarlet fever. He attended first and second grades in Nyack, New York, where his mother lived, before entering boarding school in Ridgefield, Connecticut. Despite being classical musicians, his parents did not press him to play an instrument. On his own, the otherwise bookish and withdrawn boy gravitated to the ukulele, becoming adept at entertaining his classmates with it, while laying the basis for his subsequent remarkable audience rapport. At thirteen, Seeger enrolled in the Avon Old Farms prep school in Avon, Connecticut from which he graduated in 1936. He was selected to attend Camp Rising Sun, the George E. Jonas Foundation‘s international summer leadership program. During the summer of 1936, while traveling with his father and stepmother, Pete heard the five-string banjo for the first time at the Mountain Dance and Folk Festival in western North Carolina near Asheville, organized by local folklorist, lecturer, and traditional music performer Bascom Lamar Lunsford, whom Charles Seeger had hired for Farm Resettlement music projects. The festival took place in a covered baseball field. There the Seegers
watched square-dance teams from Bear Wallow, Happy Hollow, Cane Creek, Spooks Branch, Cheoah Valley, Bull Creek, and Soco Gap; heard the five-string banjo player Samantha Bumgarner; and family string bands, including a group of Indians from the Cherokee reservation who played string instruments and sang ballads. They wandered among the crowds who camped out at the edge of the field, hearing music being made there as well. As Lunsford’s daughter would later recall, those country people “held the riches that Dad had discovered. They could sing, fiddle, pick the banjos, and guitars with traditional grace and style found nowhere else but deep in the mountains. I can still hear those haunting melodies drift over the ball park.”
For the Seegers, experiencing the beauty of this music firsthand was a “conversion experience”. Pete was deeply affected and, after learning basic strokes from Lunsford, spent much of the next four years trying to master the five-string banjo. The teenage Seeger also sometimes accompanied his parents to regular Saturday evening gatherings at the Greenwich Village loft of painter and art teacher Thomas Hart Benton and his wife Rita. Benton, a lover of Americana, played “Cindy” and “Old Joe Clark” with his students Charlie and Jackson Pollock; friends from the “hillbilly” recording industry; as well as avant-garde composers Carl Ruggles and Henry Cowell. It was at one of Benton’s parties that Pete heard “John Henry” for the first time. Seeger enrolled at Harvard College on a partial scholarship, but as he became increasingly involved with politics and folk music, his grades suffered and he lost his scholarship. He dropped out of college in 1938. He dreamed of a career in journalism and took courses in art, as well. His first musical gig was leading students in folk singing at the Dalton School, where his aunt was principal. He polished his performance skills during a summer stint of touring New York State with The Vagabond Puppeteers (Jerry Oberwager, 22; Mary Wallace, 22; and Harriet Holtzman, 23), a traveling puppet theater “inspired by rural education campaigns of post-revolutionary Mexico”. One of their shows coincided with a strike by dairy farmers. The group reprised its act in October in New York City. An article in the October 2, 1939, Daily Worker reported on the Puppeteers’ six-week tour this way:
During the entire trip the group never ate once in a restaurant. They slept out at night under the stars and cooked their own meals in the open, very often they were the guests of farmers. At rural affairs and union meetings, the farm women would bring “suppers” and would vie with each other to see who could feed the troupe most, and after the affair the farmers would have earnest discussions about who would have the honor of taking them home for the night.
“They fed us too well,” the girls reported. “And we could live the entire winter just by taking advantage of all the offers to spend a week on the farm.”
In the farmers’ homes they talked about politics and the farmers’ problems, about antisemitism and Unionism, about war and peace and social security—”and always,” the puppeteers report, “the farmers wanted to know what can be done to create a stronger unity between themselves and city workers. They felt the need of this more strongly than ever before, and the support of the CIO in their milk strike has given them a new understanding and a new respect for the power that lies in solidarity. One summer has convinced us that a minimum of organized effort on the part of city organizations—unions, consumers’ bodies, the American Labor Party and similar groups—can not only reach the farmers but weld them into a pretty solid front with city folks that will be one of the best guarantees for progress.
That fall Seeger took a job in Washington, D.C., assisting Alan Lomax, a friend of his father’s, at the Archive of American Folk Song of the Library of Congress. Seeger’s job was to help Lomax sift through commercial “race” and “hillbilly” music and select recordings that best represented American folk music, a project funded by the music division of the Pan American Union (later the Organization of American States), of whose music division his father, Charles Seeger, was head (1938–53). Lomax also encouraged Seeger’s folk singing vocation, and Seeger was soon appearing as a regular performer on Alan Lomax and Nicholas Ray‘s weekly Columbia Broadcasting show Back Where I Come From (1940–41) alongside of Josh White, Burl Ives, Lead Belly, and Woody Guthrie (whom he had first met at Will Geer‘s Grapes of Wrath benefit concert for migrant workers on March 3, 1940). Back Where I Come From was unique in having a racially integrated cast, which made news when it performed in March 1941 at a command performance at the White House organized by Eleanor Roosevelt called “An Evening of Songs for American Soldiers,” before an audience that included the Secretaries of War, Treasury, and the Navy, among other notables. The show was a success but was not picked up by commercial sponsors for nationwide broadcasting because of its integrated cast. During the war, Seeger also performed on nationwide radio broadcasts by Norman Corwin.
In 1936, at the age of 17, Pete Seeger joined the Young Communist League (YCL), then at the height of its popularity and influence. In 1942 he became a member of the Communist Party USA (CPUSA) itself, but left in 1949.
In the spring of 1941, the twenty-one-year-old Seeger performed as a member of the Almanac Singers along with Millard Lampell, Cisco Houston, Woody Guthrie, Butch and Bess Lomax Hawes, and Lee Hays. Seeger and the Almanacs cut several albums of 78s on Keynote and other labels, Songs for John Doe (recorded in late February or March and released in May 1941), the Talking Union, and an album each of sea chanteys and pioneer songs. Written by Millard Lampell, Songs for John Doe was performed by Lampell, Seeger, and Hays, joined by Josh White and Sam Gary. It contained lines such as, “It wouldn’t be much thrill to die for Du Pont in Brazil,” that were sharply critical of Roosevelt‘s unprecedented peacetime draft (enacted in September 1940). This anti-war/anti-draft tone reflected the Communist Party line after the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, which maintained the war was “phony” and a mere pretext for big American corporations to get Hitler to attack Soviet Russia. Seeger has said he believed this line of argument at the time—as did many fellow members of the Young Communist League (YCL). Though nominally members of the Popular Front, which was allied with Roosevelt and more moderate liberals, the YCL’s members still smarted from Roosevelt and Churchill‘s arms embargo to Loyalist Spain (which Roosevelt later called a mistake), and the alliance frayed in the confusing welter of events.
A June 16, 1941, review in Time magazine, which under its owner, Henry Luce, had become very interventionist, denounced the Almanacs’ John Doe, accusing it of scrupulously echoing what it called “the mendacious Moscow tune” that “Franklin Roosevelt is leading an unwilling people into a J. P. Morgan war.” Eleanor Roosevelt, a fan of folk music, reportedly found the album “in bad taste,” though President Roosevelt, when the album was shown to him, merely observed, correctly as it turned out, that few people would ever hear it. More alarmist was the reaction of eminent German-born Harvard Professor of Government Carl Joachim Friedrich, an adviser on domestic propaganda to the United States military. In a review in the June 1941 Atlantic Monthly, entitled “The Poison in Our System,” he pronounced Songs for John Doe “…strictly subversive and illegal,” “…whether Communist or Nazi financed,” and “a matter for the attorney general,” observing further that “mere” legal “suppression” would not be sufficient to counteract this type of populist poison, the poison being folk music, and the ease with which it could be spread.
At that point, the U.S. had not yet entered the war but was energetically re-arming. African Americans were barred from working in defense plants, a situation that greatly angered both African Americans and white progressives. Civil rights leader A. J. Muste and Black union leaders A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin began planning a huge march on Washington to protest racial discrimination in war industries and to urge desegregation of the armed forces. The march, which many regard as the first manifestation of the Civil Rights Movement, was canceled after President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 8802 (The Fair Employment Act) of June 25, 1941, barring discrimination in hiring by companies holding federal contracts for defense work. This Presidential act defused black anger considerably, although the United States Army still refused to desegregate, declining to participate in what it called “social engineering.”
Roosevelt’s order came three days after Hitler broke the non-aggression pact and invaded the Soviet Union, at which time the Communist Party quickly directed its members to get behind the draft and forbade participation in strikes for the duration of the war (angering some leftists). Copies of Songs for John Doe were removed from sale, and the remaining inventory destroyed, though a few copies may exist in the hands of private collectors. The Almanac Singers’ Talking Union album, on the other hand, was reissued as an LP by Folkways (FH 5285A) in 1955 and is still available. The following year the Almanacs issued Dear Mr. President, an album in support of Roosevelt and the war effort. The title song, “Dear Mr. President,” was a solo by Pete Seeger, and its lines expressed his lifelong credo:
Now, Mr. President, / We haven’t always agreed in the past, I know, / But that ain’t at all important now. / What is important is what we got to do, / We got to lick Mr. Hitler, and until we do, / Other things can wait.//
Now, as I think of our great land . . . / I know it ain’t perfect, but it will be someday, / Just give us a little time. // This is the reason that I want to fight, / Not ’cause everything’s perfect, or everything’s right. / No, it’s just the opposite: I’m fightin’ because / I want a better America, and better laws, / And better homes, and jobs, and schools, / And no more Jim Crow, and no more rules like / “You can’t ride on this train ’cause you’re a Negro,” / “You can’t live here ’cause you’re a Jew,”/ “You can’t work here ’cause you’re a union man.”//
So, Mr. President, / We got this one big job to do / That’s lick Mr. Hitler and when we’re through, / Let no one else ever take his place / To trample down the human race. / So what I want is you to give me a gun / So we can hurry up and get the job done.
Seeger’s critics, however, have continued to bring up the Almanacs’ repudiated Songs for John Doe. In 1942, a year after the John Doe album’s brief appearance (and disappearance), the FBI decided that the now-pro-war Almanacs were still endangering the war effort by subverting recruitment. According to the New York World Telegram (February 14, 1942), Carl Friedrich’s 1941 article “The Poison in Our System” was printed up as a pamphlet and distributed by the Council for Democracy (an organization that Friedrich and Henry Luce‘s right-hand man, C. D. Jackson, Vice President of Time magazine, had founded “…to combat all the nazi, fascist, communist, pacifist…” antiwar groups in the United States). and was shown to the Almanac’s employers in order to keep them off the air. Coincidentally, defamatory reviews and gossip items appeared in New York newspapers whenever they performed in public, and ultimately the Almanacs had to disband.
His critics have also tried to downplay the sincerity of Seeger’s “anti-war” sentiments, and even to suggest that he was a supporter of Nazi Germany, by asserting that Seeger was only anti-war in the early 1940s because at the time the Soviet Union had a non-aggression pact with Nazi Germany, and that he immediately became pro-war after the USSR was invaded. They support this assertion by pointing out, incorrectly, that the Weavers’ album Dear Mr. President (supporting the war effort) was released “shortly” after Germany invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941. However, Dear Mr. President was actually released a year later, in June 1942, six months after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and the United States’ entry into the war. 
Seeger served in the U.S. Army in the Pacific. He was trained as an airplane mechanic, but was reassigned to entertain the American troops with music. Later, when people asked him what he did in the war, he always answered “I strummed my banjo.” After returning from service, Seeger and others established People’s Songs, conceived as a nationwide organization with branches on both coasts and designed to “Create, promote and distribute songs of labor and the American People” With Pete Seeger as its director, People’s Songs worked for the 1948 presidential campaign of Roosevelt’s former Secretary of Agriculture and Vice President, Henry A. Wallace, who ran as a third-party candidate on the Progressive Party ticket. Despite having attracted enormous crowds nationwide, however, Wallace won only in New York City, and, in the red-baiting frenzy that followed, he was excoriated (as Roosevelt had not been) for accepting the help in his campaign of Communists and fellow travelers such as Seeger and singer Paul Robeson.
Spanish Civil War songs
Seeger had been a fervent supporter of the Republican forces in the Spanish Civil War. In 1943, with Tom Glazer and Bess and Baldwin Hawes, he recorded an album of 78s called Songs of the Lincoln Battalion on Moe Asch’s Stinson label. This included such songs as “There’s a Valley in Spain called Jarama,” and “Viva la Quince Brigada.” In 1960, this collection was re-issued by Moe Asch as one side of a Folkways LP called Songs of the Lincoln and International Brigades. On the other side was a reissue of the legendary Six Songs for Democracy (originally recorded in Barcelona in 1938 while bombs were falling), performed by Ernst Busch and a chorus of members of the Thälmann Battalion, made up of refugees from Nazi Germany. The songs were: “Moorsoldaten” (“Peat Bog Soldiers”, composed by political prisoners of German concentration camps), “Die Thaelmann-Kolonne,” “Hans Beimler,” “Das Lied Von Der Einheitsfront” (“Song of The United Front” by Hanns Eisler and Bertolt Brecht), “Der Internationalen Brigaden” (“Song Of The International Brigades”), and “Los cuatro generales” (“The Four Generals,” known in English as “The Four Insurgent Generals”).
As a self-described “split tenor” (between an alto and a tenor), Pete Seeger was a founding member of two highly influential folk groups: The Almanac Singers and the Weavers. The Almanac Singers, which Seeger co-founded in 1941 with Millard Lampell and Arkansas singer and activist Lee Hays, was a topical group, designed to function as a singing newspaper promoting the industrial unionization movement, racial and religious inclusion, and other progressive causes. Its personnel included, at various times: Woody Guthrie, Bess Lomax Hawes, Sis Cunningham, Josh White, and Sam Gary. As a controversial Almanac singer, the 21-year-old Seeger performed under the stage name “Pete Bowers” to avoid compromising his father’s government career.
In 1950, the Almanacs were reconstituted as the Weavers, named after the title of an 1892 play by Gerhart Hauptmann about a workers’ strike (which contained the lines, “We’ll stand it no more, come what may!”). Besides Pete Seeger (performing under his own name), members of the Weavers included charter Almanac member Lee Hays, Ronnie Gilbert and Fred Hellerman; later Frank Hamilton, Erik Darling and Bernie Krause serially took Seeger’s place. In the atmosphere of the 1950s red scare, the Weavers’ repertoire had to be less overtly topical than that of the Almanacs had been, and its progressive message was couched in indirect language—arguably rendering it even more powerful. The Weavers on occasion performed in tuxedos (unlike the Almanacs, who had dressed informally) and their managers refused to let them perform at political venues. The Weavers’ string of major hits began with “On Top of Old Smoky” and an arrangement of Lead Belly‘s signature waltz, “Goodnight, Irene,” which topped the charts for 13 weeks in 1950 and was covered by many other pop singers. On the flip side of “Irene” was the Israeli song “Tzena, Tzena, Tzena“. Other Weaver hits included “Dusty Old Dust” (“So Long It’s Been Good to Know You” by Woody Guthrie), “Kisses Sweeter Than Wine” (by Hays, Seeger, and Lead Belly) and the South African Zulu song by Solomon Linda, “Wimoweh” (about Shaka), among others.
The Weavers’ performing career was abruptly derailed in 1953 at the peak of their popularity when blacklisting prompted radio stations to refuse to play their records and all their bookings were canceled. They briefly returned to the stage, however, at a sold-out reunion at Carnegie Hall in 1955 and in a subsequent reunion tour, which produced a hit version of Merle Travis‘s “Sixteen Tons” as well as LPs of their concert performances. “Kumbaya,” a Gullah black spiritual dating from slavery days, was also introduced to wide audiences by Pete Seeger and the Weavers (in 1959), becoming a staple of Boy and Girl Scout campfires.
In the late 1950s, the Kingston Trio was formed in direct imitation of (and homage to) the Weavers, covering much of the latter’s repertoire, though with a more buttoned-down, uncontroversial, and mainstream collegiate persona. The Kingston Trio produced another phenomenal succession of Billboard chart hits and in its turn spawned a legion of imitators, laying the groundwork for the 1960s commercial folk revival.
Banjo and 12-string guitar
In 1948, Seeger wrote the first version of his now-classic How to Play the Five-String Banjo, a book that many banjo players credit with starting them off on the instrument. He went on to invent the Long Neck or Seeger banjo. This instrument is three frets longer than a typical banjo, is slightly longer than a bass guitar at 25 frets, and is tuned a minor third lower than the normal 5-string banjo. Hitherto strictly limited to the Appalachian region, the five-string banjo became known nationwide as the American folk instrument par excellence, largely thanks to Seeger’s championing of and improvements to it. According to an unnamed musician quoted in David King Dunaway‘s biography, “by nesting a resonant chord between two precise notes, a melody note and a chiming note on the fifth string”, Pete Seeger “gentrified” the more percussive traditional Appalachian “frailing” style, “with its vigorous hammering of the forearm and its percussive rapping of the fingernail on the banjo head.” Although what Dunaway’s informant describes is the age-old droned frailing style, the implication is that Seeger made this more acceptable to mass audiences by omitting some of its percussive complexities, while presumably still preserving the characteristic driving rhythmic quality associated with the style.
From the late 1950s on, Seeger also accompanied himself on the 12-string guitar, an instrument of Mexican origin that had been associated with Lead Belly, who had styled himself “the King of the 12-String Guitar”. Seeger’s distinctive custom-made guitars had a triangular soundhole. He combined the long scale length (approximately 28″) and capo-to-key techniques that he favored on the banjo with a variant of drop-D (DADGBE) tuning, tuned two whole steps down with very heavy strings, which he played with thumb and finger picks.
Introduction of the “Steel Pan” to U.S. audiences
In 1956, then “Peter” Seeger (see film credits) and his wife, Toshi, traveled to Port of Spain, Trinidad, to seek out information on the steelpan, steel drum or “Ping-Pong” as it was sometimes called. The two searched out a local panyard director Isaiah, and proceeded to film the construction, tuning and playing of the then new, national instrument of Trinidad-Tobago. He was attempting to include the unique flavor of the steel pan into America Folk music.
The McCarthy era
In the 1950s and, indeed, consistently throughout his life, Seeger continued his support of civil and labor rights, racial equality, international understanding, and anti-militarism (all of which had characterized the Wallace campaign) and he continued to believe that songs could help people achieve these goals. With the ever-growing revelations of Joseph Stalin‘s atrocities and the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, however, he became increasingly disillusioned with Soviet Communism. He left the CPUSA in 1949 but remained friends with some who did not leave it, though he argued with them about it.
On August 18, 1955, Seeger was subpoenaed to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). Alone among the many witnesses after the 1950 conviction and imprisonment of the Hollywood Ten for contempt of Congress, Seeger refused to plead the Fifth Amendment (which would have asserted that his testimony might be self incriminating) and instead, as the Hollywood Ten had done, refused to name personal and political associations on the grounds that this would violate his First Amendment rights: “I am not going to answer any questions as to my association, my philosophical or religious beliefs or my political beliefs, or how I voted in any election, or any of these private affairs. I think these are very improper questions for any American to be asked, especially under such compulsion as this.” Seeger’s refusal to answer questions that violated his fundamental Constitutional rights led to a March 26, 1957, indictment for contempt of Congress; for some years, he had to keep the federal government apprised of where he was going any time he left the Southern District of New York. He was convicted in a jury trial of contempt of Congress in March 1961, and sentenced to ten 1-year terms in jail (to be served simultaneously), but in May 1962 an appeals court ruled the indictment to be flawed and overturned his conviction.
In 1960, the San Diego school board told him that he could not play a scheduled concert at a high school unless he signed an oath pledging that the concert would not be used to promote a communist agenda or an overthrow of the government. Seeger refused, and the American Civil Liberties Union obtained an injunction against the school district, allowing the concert to go on as scheduled. Almost 50 years later, in February 2009, the San Diego School District officially extended an apology to Seeger for the actions of their predecessors.
Folk music revival
To earn money during the blacklist period of the late 1950s and early 1960s, Seeger worked gigs as a music teacher in schools and summer camps, and traveled the college campus circuit. He also recorded as many as five albums a year for Moe Asch‘s Folkways Records label. As the nuclear disarmament movement picked up steam in the late 1950s and early 1960s, Seeger’s anti-war songs, such as, “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” (co-written with Joe Hickerson), “Turn! Turn! Turn!“, adapted from the Book of Ecclesiastes, and “The Bells of Rhymney” by the Welsh poet Idris Davies (1957), gained wide currency. Seeger also was closely associated with the 1960s Civil Rights movement and in 1963 helped organize a landmark Carnegie Hall concert, featuring the youthful Freedom Singers, as a benefit for the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee. This event and Martin Luther King‘s March on Washington in August of that year brought the Civil Rights anthem “We Shall Overcome” to wide audiences. A version of this song, submitted by Zilphia Horton of Highlander, had been published in Seeger’s People’s Songs Bulletin as early as in 1947.
By this time, Seeger was a senior figure in the 1960s folk revival centered in Greenwich Village, as a longtime columnist in Sing Out!, the successor to the People’s Songs Bulletin, and as a founder of the topical Broadside magazine. To describe the new crop of politically committed folk singers, he coined the phrase “Woody’s children”, alluding to his associate and traveling companion, Woody Guthrie, who by this time had become a legendary figure. This urban folk-revival movement, a continuation of the activist tradition of the 1930s and 1940s and of People’s Songs, used adaptations of traditional tunes and lyrics to effect social change, a practice that goes back to the Industrial Workers of the World or Wobblies’ Little Red Song Book, compiled by Swedish-born union organizer Joe Hill (1879–1915). (The Little Red Song Book had been a favorite of Woody Guthrie’s, who was known to carry it around.)
Seeger toured Australia in 1963. His single “Little Boxes“, written by Malvina Reynolds, was number one in the nation’s Top 40s. That tour sparked a folk boom throughout the country at a time when popular music tastes, post-Kennedy assassination, competed between folk, the surfing craze, and the British rock boom which gave the world the Beatles and The Rolling Stones, among others. Folk clubs sprung up all over the nation, folk performers were accepted in established venues, and Australian performers singing Australian folk songs – many of their own composing – emerged in concerts and festivals, on television, and on recordings, and overseas performers were encouraged to tour Australia.
The long television blacklist of Seeger began to end in the mid-1960s, when he hosted a regionally broadcast, educational, folk-music television show, Rainbow Quest. Among his guests were Johnny Cash, June Carter, Reverend Gary Davis, Mississippi John Hurt, Doc Watson, the Stanley Brothers, Elizabeth Cotten, Patrick Sky, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Tom Paxton, Judy Collins, Donovan, Richard Fariña and Mimi Fariña, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, Mamou Cajun Band, Bernice Johnson Reagon, The Beers Family, Roscoe Holcomb, Malvina Reynolds, and Shawn Phillips. Thirty-nine hour-long programs were recorded at WNJU‘s Newark studios in 1965 and 1966, produced by Seeger and his wife Toshi, with Sholom Rubinstein. The Smothers Brothers ended Seeger’s national blacklisting by broadcasting him singing “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy” on their CBS variety show on February 25, 1968, after his similar performance in September 1967 was censored by CBS.
In November 1976, Seeger wrote and recorded the anti-death penalty song “Delbert Tibbs”, about the eponymous death-row inmate, who was later exonerated. Seeger wrote the music and selected the words from poems written by Tibbs.
Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan
Pete Seeger was one of the earliest backers of Bob Dylan and was responsible for urging A&R man John Hammond to produce Dylan’s first LP on Columbia, and for inviting him to perform at the Newport Folk Festival, of which Seeger was a board member. There was a widely repeated story that Seeger was so upset over the extremely loud amplified sound that Dylan, backed by members of the Butterfield Blues Band, brought into the 1965 Newport Folk Festival that he threatened to disconnect the equipment. There are multiple versions of what went on, some fanciful. What is certain is that tensions had been running high between Dylan’s manager, Albert Grossman, and Festival Board members (who besides Seeger also included Theodore Bikel, Bruce Jackson, Alan Lomax, festival MC Peter Yarrow, and George Wein) over the scheduling of performers and other matters. Two days earlier there had been a scuffle and brief exchange of blows between Grossman and Alan Lomax; and the Board, in an emergency session, had voted to ban Grossman from the grounds, but had backed off when George Wein pointed out that Grossman also managed highly popular draws Odetta and Peter, Paul, and Mary. Seeger has been portrayed as a folk “purist” who was one of the main opponents to Dylan’s “going electric”. but when asked in 2001 about how he recalled his “objections” to the electric style, he said:
I couldn’t understand the words. I wanted to hear the words. It was a great song, “Maggie’s Farm,” and the sound was distorted. I ran over to the guy at the controls and shouted, “Fix the sound so you can hear the words.” He hollered back, “This is the way they want it.” I said “Damn it, if I had an axe, I’d cut the cable right now.” But I was at fault. I was the MC, and I could have said to the part of the crowd that booed Bob, “you didn’t boo Howlin’ Wolf yesterday. He was electric!” Though I still prefer to hear Dylan acoustic, some of his electric songs are absolutely great. Electric music is the vernacular of the second half of the twentieth century, to use my father’s old term.
Vietnam War era
A longstanding opponent of the arms race and of the Vietnam War, Seeger satirically attacked then-President Lyndon Johnson with his 1966 recording, on the album Dangerous Songs!?, of Len Chandler‘s children’s song, “Beans in My Ears“. Beyond Chandler’s lyrics, Seeger said that “Mrs. Jay’s little son Alby” had “beans in his ears,” which, as the lyrics imply, ensures that a person does not hear what is said to them. To those opposed to continuing the Vietnam War, the phrase implied that “Alby Jay”, a loose pronunciation of Johnson’s nickname “LBJ,” did not listen to anti-war protests as he too had “beans in his ears”.
Seeger attracted wider attention starting in 1967 with his song “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy“, about a captain—referred to in the lyrics as “the big fool”—who drowned while leading a platoon on maneuvers in Louisiana during World War II. In the face of arguments with the management of CBS about whether the song’s political weight was in keeping with the usually light-hearted entertainment of the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, the final lines were “Every time I read the paper/those old feelings come on/We are waist deep in the Big Muddy and the big fool says to push on.” The lyrics could be interpreted as an allegory of Johnson as the “big fool” and the Vietnam War as the foreseeable danger. Although the performance was cut from the September 1967 show, after wide publicity it was broadcast when Seeger appeared again on the Smothers’ Brothers show in the following January.
At the November 15, 1969, Vietnam Moratorium March on Washington, DC, Seeger led 500,000 protesters in singing John Lennon‘s song “Give Peace a Chance” as they rallied across from the White House. Seeger’s voice carried over the crowd, interspersing phrases like, “Are you listening, Nixon?” between the choruses of protesters singing, “All we are saying … is give peace a chance”.
Seeger was involved in the environmental organization Hudson River Sloop Clearwater, which he co-founded in 1966. This organization has worked since then to highlight pollution in the Hudson River and worked to clean it. As part of that effort, the sloop Clearwater was launched in 1969 with its inaugural sail down from Maine to South Street Seaport Museum in New York City, and thence to the Hudson River. Amongst the inaugural crew was Don McLean, who co-edited the book Songs and Sketches of the First Clearwater Crew, with sketches by Thomas B. Allen for which Seeger wrote the foreword. Seeger and McLean sang “Shenandoah” on the 1974 Clearwater album. The sloop regularly sails the river with volunteer and professional crew members, primarily conducting environmental education programs for school groups. The Great Hudson River Revival (aka Clearwater Festival) is an annual two-day music festival held on the banks of the Hudson at Croton Point Park. This festival grew out of early fundraising concerts arranged by Seeger and friends to raise money to pay for Clearwater’s construction.
Seeger wrote and performed “That Lonesome Valley” about the then-polluted Hudson River in 1969, and his band members also wrote and performed songs commemorating the Clearwater.
The 106-foot-long sailboat, Clearwater, was built to conduct science-based environmental education aboard the sailing ship. Clearwater has education programs with many colleges and institutions, including SUNY New Paltz, and Pace University. The sail ship has become recognized for its role in the environmental movement. The Clearwater Festival brings Hudson Valley residents together to enjoy music, their cultural heritage, and support a cause. The Environmental Protection Agency said after his death that “the incredible work” of Seeger and the Clearwater organization helped make the Hudson River cleaner. “His leadership was extraordinary,” regional Administrator Judith A. Enck told United Press International.
Reflection on support for Soviet Communism
In 1982, Seeger performed at a benefit concert for Poland’s Solidarity resistance movement. His biographer David Dunaway considers this the first public manifestation of Seeger’s decades-long personal dislike of communism in its Soviet form. In the late 1980s Seeger also expressed disapproval of violent revolutions, remarking to an interviewer that he was really in favor of incremental change and that “the most lasting revolutions are those that take place over a period of time.” In his autobiography Where Have All the Flowers Gone (1993, 1997, reissued in 2009), Seeger wrote, “Should I apologize for all this? I think so.” He went on to put his thinking in context:
How could Hitler have been stopped? Litvinov, the Soviet delegate to the League of Nations in ’36, proposed a worldwide quarantine but got no takers. For more on those times check out pacifist Dave Dellinger‘s book, From Yale to Jail … At any rate, today I’ll apologize for a number of things, such as thinking that Stalin was merely a “hard driver” and not a “supremely cruel misleader.” I guess anyone who calls himself a Christian should be prepared to apologize for the Inquisition, the burning of heretics by Protestants, the slaughter of Jews and Muslims by Crusaders. White people in the U.S.A. ought to apologize for stealing land from Native Americans and enslaving blacks. Europeans could apologize for worldwide conquests, Mongolians for Genghis Khan. And supporters of Roosevelt could apologize for his support of Somoza, of Southern White Democrats, of Franco Spain, for putting Japanese Americans in concentration camps. Who should my granddaughter Moraya apologize to? She’s part African, part European, part Chinese, part Japanese, part Native American. Let’s look ahead.
In a 1995 interview, however, he insisted that “I still call myself a communist, because communism is no more what Russia made of it than Christianity is what the churches make of it.” In recent years, as the aging Seeger began to garner awards and recognition for his lifelong activism, he also found himself criticized once again for his opinions and associations of the 1930s and 1940s. In 2006, David Boaz—Voice of America and NPR commentator and president of the libertarian Cato Institute—wrote an opinion piece in The Guardian, entitled “Stalin’s Songbird” in which he excoriated The New Yorker and The New York Times for lauding Seeger. He characterized Seeger as “someone with a longtime habit of following the party line” who had only “eventually” parted ways with the CPUSA. In support of this view, he quoted lines from the Almanac Singers‘ May 1941 Songs for John Doe, contrasting them darkly with lines supporting the war from Dear Mr. President, issued in 1942, after the United States and the Soviet Union had entered the war.
In 2007, in response to criticism from a former banjo student—historian Ron Radosh, a former Trotskyite who now writes for the conservative National Review—Seeger wrote a song condemning Stalin, “Big Joe Blues”: “I’m singing about old Joe, cruel Joe. / He ruled with an iron hand. /He put an end to the dreams / Of so many in every land. / He had a chance to make / A brand new start for the human race. / Instead he set it back / Right in the same nasty place. / I got the Big Joe Blues. / Keep your mouth shut or you will die fast. / I got the Big Joe Blues. / Do this job, no questions asked. / I got the Big Joe Blues.“ The song was accompanied by a letter to Radosh, in which Seeger stated, “I think you’re right, I should have asked to see the gulags when I was in U.S.S.R [in 1965].”
On March 16, 2007, Pete Seeger, his sister Peggy, his brothers Mike and John, his wife Toshi, and other family members spoke and performed at a symposium and concert sponsored by the American Folklife Center in honor of the Seeger family, held at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., where Pete Seeger had been employed by the Archive of American Folk Song 67 years earlier.
In September 2008, Appleseed Recordings released At 89, Seeger’s first studio album in 12 years. On September 29, 2008, the 89-year-old singer-activist, once banned from commercial TV, made a rare national TV appearance on the Late Show with David Letterman, singing “Take It From Dr. King”.
On January 18, 2009, Seeger and his grandson Tao Rodríguez-Seeger joined Bruce Springsteen, and the crowd in singing the Woody Guthrie song “This Land Is Your Land” in the finale of Barack Obama’s Inaugural concert in Washington, D.C. The performance was noteworthy for the inclusion of two verses not often included in the song, one about a “private property” sign the narrator cheerfully ignores, and the other making a passing reference to a Depression-era relief office.
On May 3, 2009, at the Clearwater Concert, dozens of musicians gathered in New York at Madison Square Garden to celebrate Seeger’s 90th birthday (which was later televised on PBS during the summer), ranging from Dave Matthews, John Mellencamp, Billy Bragg, Bruce Springsteen, Tom Morello, Eric Weissberg, Ani DiFranco and Roger McGuinn to Joan Baez, Richie Havens, Joanne Shenandoah, R. Carlos Nakai, Bill Miller, Joseph Fire Crow, Margo Thunderbird, Tom Paxton, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott and Arlo Guthrie. Cuban singer-songwriter Silvio Rodríguez was also invited to appear but his visa was not approved in time by the United States government. Consistent with Seeger’s long-time advocacy for environmental concerns, the proceeds from the event benefited the Hudson River Sloop Clearwater, a non-profit organization founded by Seeger in 1966, to defend and restore the Hudson River. Seeger’s 90th Birthday was also celebrated at The College of Staten Island on May 4.
On September 19, 2009 Pete Seeger made his first appearance at the 52nd Monterey Jazz Festival, which was particularly notable because the festival does not normally feature folk artists.
On October 21, 2011, at age 92, Pete Seeger was part of a solidarity march with Occupy Wall Street to Columbus Circle in New York City. The march began with Seeger and fellow musicians exiting Symphony Space (95th and Broadway), where they had performed as part of a benefit for Seeger’s Clearwater organization. Thousands of people crowded Pete Seeger by the time they reached Columbus Circle where he performed with his grandson, Tao Rodriguez-Seeger, Arlo Guthrie, David Amram, and other celebrated musicians. The event, promoted under the name #OccupyTheCircle, was LiveStreamed, and dubbed by some as “The Pete Seeger March”.
On December 14, 2012, Seeger performed, along with Harry Belafonte, Jackson Browne, Common and others, at a concert to bring awareness to the 37-year-long ordeal of Native American Activist Leonard Peltier. The concert was held at the Beacon Theater in New York City.
On April 9, 2013, Hachette Audio Books issued an audiobook entitled Pete Seeger: The Storm King; Stories, Narratives, Poems. This two-CD spoken-word work was conceived of and produced by noted percussionist Jeff Haynes and presents Pete Seeger telling the stories of his life against a background of music performed by more than 40 musicians of varied genres. The launch of the audiobook was held at the Dia:Beacon on April 11, 2013 to an enthusiastic audience of around two hundred people, and featured many of the musicians from the project (among them Samite, Dar Williams, Dave Eggar and Richie Stearns of the Horse Flies and Natalie Merchant) performing live under the direction of producer and percussionist Haynes. April 15, 2013, Sirius XM Book Radio presented the Dia:Beacon concert as a special episode of “Cover to Cover Live with Maggie Linton and Kim Alexander” entitled “Pete Seeger:The Storm King and Friends.”
On August 9, 2013, one month widowed, Seeger was in New York City for the 400 year commemoration of the Two Row Wampum Treaty between the Iroquois and the Dutch. On an interview he gave that day to Democracy Now!, Seeger sang “I Come and Stand at Every Door” as it was also the 68th anniversary of bombing of Nagasaki.
On September 21, 2013, Pete Seeger performed at Farm Aid at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center in Saratoga Springs, New York. Joined by Wille Nelson, Neil Young, John Mellencamp, and Dave Matthews, he sang “This Land Is Your Land” and included a verse he said he had written specifically for the Farm Aid concert.
Seeger died on January 27, 2014, at the age of 94. According to his grandson, Kitama Cahill-Jackson, Seeger died peacefully in his sleep around 9:30 p.m. at New York’s Presbyterian Hospital, where he had been for six days. Family members were with him at the time of his death. Cahill-Jackson said Seeger was still as active as ever, out chopping wood ten days prior to his death.
Response and reaction to Seeger’s death quickly poured in. President Barack Obama noted that Seeger had been called “America’s tuning fork” and that he believed in “the power of song” to bring social change, “Over the years, Pete used his voice and his hammer to strike blows for workers’ rights and civil rights; world peace and environmental conservation, and he always invited us to sing along. For reminding us where we come from and showing us where we need to go, we will always be grateful to Pete Seeger.” Folksinger Billy Bragg wrote that: “Pete believed that music could make a difference. Not change the world, he never claimed that – he once said that if music could change the world he’d only be making music – but he believed that while music didn’t have agency, it did have the power to make a difference.” Bruce Springsteen said of Seeger’s death, “I lost a great friend and a great hero last night, Pete Seeger”, before performing “We Shall Overcome” while on tour in South Africa.
Tribute albums and songs
In 1998, Appleseed Records issued a double-CD tribute album: Where Have All the Flowers Gone: the Songs of Pete Seeger, which includes readings by Studs Terkel and songs by Billy Bragg, Jackson Browne, Eliza Carthy, Judy Collins, Bruce Cockburn, Donovan, Ani DiFranco, Dick Gaughan, Nanci Griffith, Richie Havens, Indigo Girls, Roger McGuinn, Holly Near, Odetta, Tom Paxton, Bonnie Raitt, Martin Simpson, and Bruce Springsteen, among others.
In 2001, Appleseed Records released If I Had a Song: The Songs of Pete Seeger, Vol. 2.
In 2003, Appleseed Records issued the double-CD Seeds: The Songs of Pete Seeger, Volume 3, the final set in its trilogy of releases celebrating Seeger’s music.
In April 2006, Bruce Springsteen released a collection of folk songs associated with Seeger’s repertoire, titled, We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions (which contained no songs actually composed by Seeger). Springsteen and his band also toured to sellout crowds in a series of concerts based on those sessions. He had previously performed the Seeger staple, “We Shall Overcome”, on Where Have All the Flowers Gone.
- A proposal was made in 2009 to name the Walkway Over the Hudson in his honor.
- A posthumous suggestion that Seeger’s name be applied to the replacement Tappan Zee Bridge being built over the Hudson River has been made by local town supervisor, Paul Feiner. Seeger’s boat, the sloop Clearwater, is based at Beacon, New York, just upriver from the bridge.
- Oakwood Friends School located in Poughkeepsie New York, not far from Seeger’s home, performed Where Have All the Flowers Gone? at one of their worship meetings. The collaboration was with three teachers (playing guitar and vocals) as well as a student harmonica player and a student vocalist.
- A free five-day memorial featuring Judy Collins, Peter Yarrow and Amanda Palmer is being planned for July 17 to 21, 2014. It is called Seeger Fest.
Seeger has been the recipient of many awards and recognitions throughout his career, including:
- Induction into the Songwriters Hall of Fame (1972)
- The Eugene V. Debs Award (1979)
- The Letelier-Moffitt Human Rights Award (1986)
- The Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award (1993)
- The National Medal of Arts from the National Endowment for the Arts (1994)
- Kennedy Center Honor (1994)
- The Harvard Arts Medal (1996)
- The James Smithson Bicentennial Medal (1996)
- Induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (1996)
- Grammy Award for Best Traditional Folk Album of 1996 for his record Pete (1997)
- The Felix Varela Medal, Cuba‘s highest honor for “his humanistic and artistic work in defense of the environment and against racism” (1999)
- The Schneider Family Book Award for his children’s picture book The Deaf Musicians. (2007)
- The Mid-Hudson Civic Center Hall of Fame (2008)- Seeger and Arlo Guthrie performed the first public concert at the Poughkeepsie, New York not-for-profit family entertainment venue, close to Seeger’s home, in 1976. Grandson Tao Rodríguez-Seeger accepted the Hall of Fame plaque on behalf of his grandfather.
- Grammy Award for Best Traditional Folk Album of 2008 for his record At 89 (2009)
- The Peace Abbey Courage of Conscience Award for his commitment to peace and social justice as a musician, songwriter, activist, and environmentalist that spans over sixty years. (2008)
- The Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize (2009)
- Grammy Award for Best Musical Album for Children of 2010 for his record Tomorrow’s Children, Pete Seeger and the Rivertown Kids and Friends (2011)
- George Peabody Medal (2013)
- Grammy Award for Best Spoken Word Album of 2013 nomination for Pete Seeger: The Storm King; Stories, Narratives, Poems (2014)
- Woody Guthrie Prize (2014) (inaugural recipient)