Over his long career Pete Seger signed thousands of notes and letters to fans, friends, family, aspiring musicians, activists, and folks who who had helped him in even the smallest of ways usually adding a cartoon of his long-neck banjo. Those notes are some of the most treasured items many folks have.
Seeger passed away six years ago this week on January 27, 2014 at age 94. That
makes this year the 100th anniversary of his birth, a milestone that will be
well celebrated throughout the year. He missed some tumultuous times and we all
missed his strength and encouragement.
Of course hard times and struggle was no stranger to Pete. But despite decades on the front lines of
fights for worker’s rights, civil rights, peace and environmental justice and
the sacrifices that he made, Pete remained remarkably optimistic. He had faith in We the People. He would have loved to play this month at Joe
Biden’s inauguration as he did with Bruce Springsteen and his grandson Tao
Rodriguez-Seeger for Barack Obama.
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.
Peter Seeger (on father's
lap) with his father and mother, Charles and Constance Seeger and
brothers on a camping trip in 1921.
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
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
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.
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. One iteration of the Almanac Singers perform in 1942--Woody Guthrie, Millard Lampell, Bess Haws, Seeger, Arthur Stern, and Sis Cuningham.
in 1940 the loose Greenwich Village crowd formed the highly political Almanac Singers, which 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
combinations. The core included Millard Lampell, Lee Hays
and Sis Cunningham. In 1941 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.
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.
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 shifted gears.
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.
third and final album, Deep Sea Chanteys and Whaling Ballads
came out later that year, this time with Guthrie also singing.
an already developed pacifist streak, Seeger shared Guthrie’s fierce anti-fascism—Guthrie’s guitar 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 previously protested the Selective
Service Act, was drafted and willingly entered the Army.
He spent his war in G.I. entertainment shows.
Seeger married Toshie-Aline Ohra in 1943 while in the Army. Besides true love the marriage was a political statement at a time when Japanese-Americans were languishing in internment camps
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 in 2013.
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.”
The Weavers were one of the most popular recording artists in the late 1940s and early '50's. Left to right Seeger, Lee Hayes, Ronne Gilbert, and Fred Hellerman.
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, and with Ronnie Gilbert, and Fred
Hellerman to form a new group, The
Weavers. In between performing for
1948 third Progressive 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,
(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 #1 hit record
with their version of Ledbelly’s Goodnight Irene.
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.
trouble lay ahead. Called before the infamous House Un-American Activities Committee Seeger asserted his
First 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.
Pete Seeger testifying before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAAC). He refused to answer questions but did not invoke the Fifth Amendment but claimed that the hearing were an un-Constitutional attack on his First Amendment Rights of Free Speech and Assembly.
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 finally overturned on appeal in 1961.
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.
was still banned from commercial television however. Hootenanny refused to book him causing the show to be boycotted by Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Peter
Paul and Mary, 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 and Mimi
Fariña, and Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee. Some years later PBS picked up the 39 shows for syndication on their affiliates and millions finally saw
Seeger featured many of his folk musician friends like Richard and Mimi Fariña on his public radio program Rainbow Quest.
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.
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. Pete Seeger with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, Rev. Ralph Abernathy and an unidentified teen a the Highlander Center where he adapted earlier versions into We Shall Overcome, the anthem of the Civil Rights Movement.
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 Petefr 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.
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
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 restored sloop
from which he campaigned for
environmental causes for the rest of his long life.Seeger on the sloop Clearwater sailing the Hudson River for the environment.
His relentless 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.
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
his later years Seeger’s singing voice
was ravaged and his fingers
sometimes painful with arthritis
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.Seeger with grandson Tao Rodriguez-Seeger and Bruce Springsteen at a concert at the Lincoln Memorial for Barack Obama's first inauguration.
grandson and frequent singing partner in his later years Tao Rodriguez-Seeger 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.
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. Hundreds 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.Seeger needed a walker, but he led a spontaneous march from his annual Clearwater benefit several blocks to the Occupy Wall Street encampment in 2012.
Seeger finally took his last breath
on January 27, 2014 at age 94. When he
died Pete was probably the most beloved
American—unless you were among those who were the targets of his loving