|Pete singing at a voting rights rally in Mississippi. Always on the front lines of Justice.
The sad, but not unexpected news, that Pete Seeger finally took his last breath yesterday at age 94 brings up a well of emotions. But not tears. Last thing Pete would want. Pride mostly, and unending gratitude for a life lived very well indeed. When he died Pete was probably the most beloved American—unless you were among those who were the targets of his loving outrage.
Pete Seeger was born in New York City on May 3, 1919. His father, Charles Seeger, was a noted musicologist. Both of his parents taught at Julliard School of Music. The whole family was musical. His younger half siblings Peggy and Mike, born to his father’s second marriage, also became noted folk musicians inspired by travels with their father on music collecting trips to the rural south.
On one of those trips young Pete first heard and was enthralled with the sound of the five string banjo. By the time he was 16 and a student at Avon Old Farms private prep school in Connecticut he was playing the instrument in jazz combos.
Seeger began studies at Harvard, where he founded a radical newspaper and joined the Young Communist League. But in 1938 at the age of 19 he took a job as an assistant to Library of Congress folk archivist Alan Lomax, a close friend of the family, on one of his song collecting forays through the South. The recordings made on that trip included some of the most influential ever made. Seeger helped record Huddy Ledbetter—Leadbelly.
He moved to New York City in 1939 and was introduced by Lomax to a circle of folk musicians and activists clustered around Greenwich Village. He adopted the claw-hammer banjo style he heard at mountain barn dances. He dropped out of school and was soon performing many of the songs he had learned with Lomax as he bummed around the country.
In 1940 he met Woody Guthrie, the singing Oklahoma exile who had become a popular California radio performer, when they sang together at a benefit for migrant farm workers. The experience electrified Seeger. He now knew with certainty what he wanted to do with his life. The two became close friends and sometime performing partners. He sang and played in saloons, churches, and, most of all, in union halls.
Back in 1940 he formed the highly political Almanac Singers, who became troubadours of the labor movement and of radical causes. The group was more like a large collective of singers who performed together in various settings and combination. The core included Millard Lampell, Lee Hays and Sis Cunningham In 1941 his old friend Woody Guthrie joined the group. Others who participated in the group at one time or another included Lomax’s sister Bess Lomax Hawes, Sonny Terry, Brownie McGhee, Cisco Huston, and Burl Ives among others.
Following Pete’s natural inclination toward pacifism and the Communist Party’s opposition to American entry into World War II prior to the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union, the group released a three disc, six song 78 rpm album called Songs for John Doe. Singing on the record were Seeger, Lampell, Josh White, and Sam Gary.
Less than a month after the record was released, the invasion of Russia changed everything, rendering the songs obsolete and an embarrassment as the Party and singers rapidly changed gears.
A second album, Talking Union was released in the summer of 1941 and featured the labor songs that members of the group had been singing in union halls and on picket lines for the previous two years. The album included now classic union songs—Talking Union Blues, Get Thee Behind Me, Satan, Guthrie’s Union Maid, and Florence Reece’s coal mine strike song Which Side Are You On? This time out Hays joined Seeger and Lampell in the lineup.
A third and final album, Deep Sea Chanteys and Whaling Ballads came out later that year, this time with Guthrie also singing.
Despite an already developed pacifist streak, Seeger shared Guthrie’s fierce anti-fascism—Guthrie’s guitar case had a sign on it, “This machine kills fascists.” When the U.S. joined the war, the Almanac Singers broke up and Seeger, who had protested the Selective Service Act, was drafted and willingly entered the Army. He spent his war in G.I. entertainment shows.
While in the Army in 1943 Seeger wed Toshi-Aline Ohta, the daughter of an exiled Japanese Marxist and American mother who he knew from his days in Greenwich Village. The couple’s legendarily close and supportive marriage lasted nearly 70 years until her death last year.
Seeger quit his membership in the Communist Party in the late ‘40’s and after the revelations of the worst of Stalin’s crimes later said he regretted not having done it earlier. But he refused to apologize for it and said that he remained a “communist with a small c.”
Back home after the war Seeger resumed his career as an itinerant folk musician and activist. In 1948 he joined with his former Almanac Singer partner Lee Hays, Ronnie Gilbert, and Fred Hellerman to form a new group, The Weavers. In between performing for 1948 third party presidential candidate Henry Wallace, the Weavers quickly became a popular touring and recording group. They popularized songs like On Top of Old Smokey, Kisses Sweeter than Wine, and Seeger’s version of a South African song, Wimoweh (The Lion Sleeps Tonight). By 1950 they were radio regulars and were called America’s favorite singing group. No less a folk music aficionado than Carl Sandburg said, “When I hear America Singing, the Weavers are there.” In 1950 they made a number one hit record with their version of Ledbelly’s Goodnight Irene.
The same year Seeger made his first solo record, a 10 inch album called Darling Corey, one of the first releases on the seminal Folkways label. The Weavers’s popularity continued to grow with television appearances. A Christmas Eve 1955 Carnegie Hall concert featuring the Weavers was regarded by many as the beginning of the folk music revival of the late Fifties and early Sixties.
But trouble lay ahead. Called before the infamous House Un-American Activities Committee Seeger asserted his Fifth Amendment rights and scolded the committee for trying to outlaw political thought and speech. The defiance made national headlines. Seeger was a hero to many, but the Weavers were blacklisted from radio and television, lost their Decca recording contract, and saw concert dates cancelled across the country.
Worse, in 1957, Seeger was indicted on ten counts of contempt of Congress. The case dragged on for years. He was convicted on all counts and sentenced to ten concurrent one-year prison sentences. The convictions were overturned on appeal in 1961.
In the meantime the stress caused the Weavers to break up and Seeger struggled to make a living as a solo. But times and attitudes were changing. The Kingston Trio picked up Seeger’s Where Have All the Flowers Gone? In 1961, even before his conviction was overturned his old friend, the legendary producer John Hammond, signed Seeger to a Columbia Records contract and released his first record on the label, Story Songs.
Seeger was still banned from commercial television however. Hootenanny refused to book him causing the show to be boycotted by Bob Dylan, Baez, PP&M, and other top acts. But in 1965 and ‘66 Seeger made the series Rainbow Quest at WNJU-T, a New York UHF station broadcasting mostly Spanish language programing. Few people saw the first run, which was virtually directed by Toshi. Pete and a guest would sit on straight back chairs by a simple table and swap songs and stories without a studio audience. Guests included many old friends like Baez and the likes of Johnny Cash, 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, and Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee. Some years later PBS picked up the 39 shows for syndication on their affiliates.
The Smother’s Brothers famously broke the network TV ban when they booked Seeger. His first song was broadcast, but the second, his searing indictment of the Vietnam War Waist Deep in the Big Muddy was cut by censors. After a confrontation with the series stars, CBS relented and let Seeger perform the song on a subsequent program. But the controversy helped doom the popular TV show.
The folk music revival was in full swing and so was the civil rights movement. Seeger was often on the picket lines throughout the South. In June of 1963, Seeger returned to Carnegie Hall. An album recorded live at the event was released under the title We Shall Overcome. It reached number 41 on the album charts and remained on the charts for 36 weeks. The title song was a re-working of a picket line song We Will Overcome by Lucille Simmons by Seeger and friends at the Highlander Center, the training ground of Civil Rights leaders and workers. A month later Seeger appeared at the Newport Folk Festival with Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, and Phil Ochs. The era of protest music was officially launched.
Seeger introduced his own songs, including Where Have All the Flowers Gone which became a hit for the Kingston Trio in 1962 and If I Had a Hammer, co-written by Lee Hayes, and recorded by Peter Paul and Mary, to appreciative audiences in these years. His recording of Malvina Reynolds’s Little Boxes even climbed into the pop music charts. Baez, Peter Paul and Mary, and The Byrds all had hits with Seeger songs.
Through the late sixties and into the seventies, Seeger threw himself into opposition to the Vietnam War. He sung to innumerably rallies and at countless benefits and collected legions of new young fans. The highlight came in 1968 when Seeger sang to 500,000 people at the anti-war March on Washington where his fellow performers included Woody’s son Arlo Guthrie, John Denver and Peter Paul and Mary.
After seemingly rootless decades, Seeger decided to settle down on the banks of Hudson River where he and Toshi had bought land and built a log cabin in 1949. But the pollution that had turned that beautiful and historic river into an open sewer stirred Seeger to action again. In 1968 he launched the restore sloop Clearwater from which he campaigned for environmental causes for the rest of his long life.
His merciless attack on General Electric for dumping PCBs in the river led to a historic law suit and a clean-up that is still going on today. About the same time he joined the U.U. Community Church of New York City and has sung at many U.U. churches since.
In 1994 the nation that had tried to put him in prison awarded Seeger the Presidential Medal of the Arts in a Kennedy Center ceremony. In 1996 Arlo Guthrie and Harry Belafonte were the presenters when Seeger was inducted as a roots influence into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Acclaim continued with an honorary degree from his alma mater, Harvard, which had once enforced the blacklist against him and a two Grammy Awards for Best Traditional Folk Album and one for his children’s album, Tomorrow’s Children. All told, Seeger recorded over 100 albums.
In his later years Seeger’s singing voice was ravaged and his fingers sometimes painful on the banjo. But a good cause could still call him out. He would scratch out a few bars of a song then, encourage the audiences to join in the familiar songs, and let younger musicians perform. He remained clear eyed and clear headed with the same sense of selfless dedication and love of music that have propelled him for over his long life.
With grandson and frequent singing partner in his later years Tao Rodriguez-Seeger, Arlo Guthrie, and Bruce Springsteen Seeger led a huge crowd to an emotional singing of Woody Guthrie’s This Land is Your Land at Barack Obama’s first Inaugural.
In 2012 he performed at Carnegie Hall again for his annual Clearwater benefit. At the end of the show he invited the audience to walk with him down to the Occupy Wall Street encampment. Hundred followed him out of the hall and to the park where he stood on a park bench and sang for the protestors. Vintage, irrepressible Pete.