(A presentation made at the Midwest Peace and Justice Summit, Indianapolis, Indiana, April 13, 2007)
Pete Seeger is a renowned folksinger and political activist who was born in New York on May 3, 1919 to musicologist Charles Seeger and classical musician Constance Seeger. He was exposed to the music of the rural South on tours with his parents. Seeger began to play the banjo as a teenager. After two-years of study at Harvard, Seeger began a lifetime career studying and singing the folk music of people from all over the world.
During his early years of exposure to and adaptation of what he regarded as people's music, Seeger was influenced by musicians who created an enduring genre of musical culture that would flower and grow in post-war America. These included Woody Guthrie, Hudie Leadbetter (Leadbelly), Lee Hayes, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, Aunt Molly Jackson, and the folk archivist Alan Lomax. Before embracing a career as a solo performer, Seeger organized and played with the Almanac Singers, during World War II, and the Weavers from 1948 until the 1960s. In later years, Seeger would perform with many folk artists and activists, including the Freedom Singers, civil rights activists, and Woody's son, Arlo Guthrie. Over the years Seeger has written hundreds of songs and performed them at over a thousand concerts.
After recording popular songs such as "On Top of Old Smoky" and "Good Night Irene", he and the Weavers were blacklisted in the 1950s for their leftwing connections. Seeger was called to testify before the red-baiting House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) in 1955 and cited for contempt of Congress when he refused to answer their questions, on first amendment grounds, about his political beliefs. Seven years later, a Federal Court of Appeals reversed the conviction and a one-year sentence on a technicality.
For much of the 1960s Seeger was prohibited from performing on network television. In January, 1968, after much conflict between the CBS network and comedians Tommy and Dick Smothers, Seeger was allowed to sing his anti-Vietnam war song, "Waist Deep in the Big Muddy" before a nationwide audience. With passion, Seeger chanted: "We are waist deep in the big muddy and the big fool says to push on."
While Seeger's music and politics has reflected virtually every progressive cause from the late 1930s until the present, his work was influenced by the variety of social movements current during different historical periods. In the late 1930s, as Seeger was learning his craft and experiencing rural life, he and Woody Guthrie performed songs about the working class and trade union organizing. Many performances were in solidarity with efforts to organize factory workers into the Congress of lndustrial Organizations (CIO). Seeger and his friends sang songs about anti-imperialism as well: for the democratic forces fighting fascism in Spain, and opposing war in Europe. After Nazi Germany attacked the Soviet Union and World War II ensued, he and the rest of the folk left began singing songs in support of a popular front against fascism.
After the war, and for another 25 years, Seeger composed and sang songs opposing the Cold War, nuclear war, and later the Vietnam War. Visiting the South in the early sixties, he put his talent behind the southern freedom movement. He helped transform an old spiritual into the anthem of the civil rights movement, "We Shall Overcome" and brought the Freedom Singers, young civil rights activists from the South, to folk concert audiences in the North in 1963. He exhorted his audiences to join the struggle for civil rights and he particularly applauded young people who, he said, had taken the lead in fighting for civil rights.
As sixties movements diversified, Seeger's music did as well. He began to sing songs about women's rights, “I'm Gonna Be An Engineer," and the environment, "Sailing Down This Golden River."
Seeger has written extensively over the years, for example in the folk magazine Sing Out, and in books about folk music and has been interviewed from time to time in magazines.
However, his political philosophy is best reflected in his music. Shaped by the Marxist lens and popular front politics characteristic of the era when he began performing, four key concepts inform his music.
First, his songs reflect historical context, the material conditions of peoples' lives, and the contradictory character of the lives of his subjects.
Second, much of his work revolves around class, race, and, more recently, gender. The folk genre as it evolved celebrated the lives of workers and down-and-out men and women who struggle in the face of economic and political adversity. Seeger took the admonition of his comrade Woody Guthrie seriously when Woody wrote that he hates songs that put people down and make them feel that they are no good.
Third, Seeger's music since the onset of the Cold War in the late 1940s has been
informed by opposition to war and U.S. imperialism (although his lyrics might not use the word). "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?'' is one of many songs performed by Seeger that articulates the belief that war is futile and destructive of the human community. During the most recent phase of his career, his songs have conceptualized how a materialistic economy has made war on the environment.
Finally, much of Seeger's work offers an alternative vision of society that emphasizes simplicity, harmony between people and between people and nature, equality, and freedom from class exploitation, racism, and sexism. While his work sometimes emphasizes how economic and political systems and dogmatic ideologies threaten the human condition, he also sings about a better tomorrow; "It's Darkest Before the Dawn," and of course, Woody Guthrie's anthem, "This Land is Your Land."
Looking at the corpus of folk music in the twentieth century, particularly a folk music that links culture and politics, Pete Seeger perhaps is the most seminal artist/activist. He popularized rural southern music, working class music, the artistry of Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly, and was the link in the chain between these figures and Joan Baez, Judy Collins, and Bob Dylan of the 1960s.
(Pete Seeger died January 27, 2014).
Further Readings and References
Dunaway, David King, How Can I Keep From Singing, McGraw·Hill, 1983.
Seeger, Pete, The Incompleat Folksinger, Simon and Schuster, 1972.
Seeger, Pete and Bob Reiser, Carry It On! A History of Song and Picture of the Working Men
and Women of America, Simon and Schuster, 1985