Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music



(b 3 May 1919, NYC; d 27 January 2014) Folksinger, banjo player, songwriter, spark plug: he was called 'America's tuning fork', though at times some doubted whether America deserved him. His parents were musicologist Charles Louis Seeger and his first wife, violin teacher Constance de Clyver (Edson). As a child he played with musical instruments but refused to study, practice or learn to read music; he attended private schools and university; decided to be a painter, then a journalist, but there were no jobs during the Depression and anyway he soon realized that music was all he could do, and that he had to stop playing so many instruments and learn one well. He had taken up four-string banjo at school and now tackled the more difficult five-string, eventually designing his own and writing a manual on how to play it.

He had witnessed his father's involvement in the Composers' Collective, a well-meaning attempt to write radical folksongs according to political and musical theory, and rejected it: folk music is built on work that already exists. He assisted Alan Lomax 1939-40, appeared on Lomax's radio show; worked with a Vagabond Puppets music and theatre show mid-'39, performing for union meetings and radical groups, often narrowly escaping violence, and formed the Almanac Singers with Lee Hays, Woody Guthrie and Millard Lampell. The Almanacs toured to initial derision, then applause as they got meetings singing 'Which Side Are You On?', etc. Seeger was a member of the Communist Party, attended a few meetings, a premature anti-fascist like many others. He hated injustice and knew only one way to fight it; he sang for Communists because 'they were the hardest-working people'. He meant ordinary union members, not party bosses, who were busy doing flip-flops; during the Hitler-Stalin pact of 1939-40, pro-union and anti-fascist songs were suddenly not wanted. Seeger's politics were naïve but honest; he left the party c.1951.

[A ten-CD set on Bear Family was a fascinating document of this period, with a 212-page book: Songs For Political Action: Folk Music, Topical Songs And The American Left 1928-1953 included tracks by Aunt Molly Jackson, Sarah Ogden Gunning, Guthrie, the Almanacs, the Union Boys (Seeger, Lomax, Burl Ives, Tom Glazer, Josh White, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, recorded 1944) and many more.]

The Almanacs recorded for Folkways but could not support themselves; WWII broke them up as Seeger went into the army and Guthrie to the merchant marine. Seeger was director of People's Songs Inc. in 1946 and called the concerts hootenannies, a word Seeger and Guthrie had discovered in Seattle before the war. He supported Henry Wallace for President '48, went bankrupt '49; formed People's Artists late '49 with Lomax, Paul Robeson, Irwin Silber (b 17 October 1925, NYC; d 8 September 2010, Oakland CA) and others; it began publishing Sing Out! magazine in 1950.

Meanwhile Seeger had formed a new quartet called the Weavers in 1948. He got discouraged and nearly quit everything when his family were endangered during the Robeson Riot at Peekskill NY in 1949 (see Paul Robeson’s entry) but the Weavers suddenly hit the big time (see their entry): they had million-selling hits on Decca but their gigs and TV spots vanished and their Decca contract was not renewed as McCarthyism got under way: anonymous right-wing publications attacked them; informer Harvey Matusow called three of them Communists (Hays had 'quit'). A few years later Matusow admitted making it all up and got five years for perjury (he published a book, False Witness, in 1955). Seeger, whose ancestors had fought injustice at Valley Forge, refused to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1955, using the Fifth Amendment; he was indicted for contempt and the case was thrown out by the United States Court of Appeals in May 1962; but the court merely instructed the government to prepare better documents in the future and went out of its way to insult Seeger. He did not appear on network TV for 17 years, including ABC-TV’s Hootenanny show beginning early 1963: it was like Birdland without Charlie Parker as Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Peter Paul and Mary and others refused to appear (the show also tried to turn down the Tarriers, then an interracial group, but pressure was brought to bear; Seeger depped at their club gig so they could take time off for the show).

The Weavers had temporarily split up; Seeger recorded for Folkways from 1953, sang in colleges and schools, on local radio and TV, slipping in and out of town before the local witch-hunters found out, calling it 'cultural guerrilla tactics'. He toured Britain for the second time in 1961; a Pete Seeger Committee there listed Ewan MacColl (Seeger's brother-in-law), Benjamin Britten, Doris Lessing and Sean O'Casey among its sponsors; eventually he toured the world: his great talent was getting people singing and feeling good about it, the Johnny Appleseed of music: in Moscow he got 10,000 non-English-speaking people doing four-part harmony to 'Michael, Row The Boat Ashore'. He signed with Columbia Records (CBS/USA) '61, though still not welcome on CBS-TV; promotion of the CBS records was not very good, though they are still selling in the 21st century. His cover of Malvina Reynolds's 'Little Boxes' made the Hot 100 '64, Billboard calling it a 'novelty'. He helped Sis Cunningham and her husband Gordon Friesen form Broadside magazine '62: it only published 187 issues but printed over 1000 topical songs by Dylan, Phil Ochs, Tom Paxton, Eric Anderson, many more. (Agnes Cunningham had sung and played accordion with the Almanacs: d 27 June 2004 aged 95; Friesen d 1996.) Seeger marched for civil rights at Selma AL '65, the same year his neighbours in New York state tried to stop him singing at a local high school. Broken-hearted and angry when electric music was first played at a Newport Folk Festival '65 (by Paul Butterfield and Dylan), a year later he recorded Waist Deep In The Big Muddy backed by Danny Kalb's Blues Project. A long-time contributor to Sing Out!, he broke with Silber '67: against commercialism in folk music, Silber was co-owner of the largest folk-music publishing house, Oak Publications; he sold the magazine to its editorial board without mentioning its debts; when he criticized the Newport Festival '67, Seeger had had enough.

He then launched the sloop Clearwater in 1969, built by volunteers to raise money to help clean up the filthy Hudson River; even the Reader's Digest donated. He sang at a benefit for the banned Polish trade union Solidarity '81, his first (long overdue) anti-Stalinist act. By then a whole generation had grown up with Pete Seeger as its music teacher. He co-wrote 'If I Had A Hammer' c.1949 with Hays, no publisher would then touch it; it was a top ten hit by Peter Paul and Mary '62, no. 3 by Trini Lopez '63, recorded by Perry Como, Aretha Franklin, Ray Barretto etc and was soon heard on the Muzak in the supermarket. He wrote or co-wrote 'Where Have All The Flowers Gone?' '56 (words from the wartime Russian novel And Quiet Flows The Don), a hit by the Kingston Trio '62, who copyrighted it at first because they didn't know who'd written it; 'Bells Of Rhymney' '59 (about Welsh coal towns, words by Idris Davies); 'Turn! Turn! Turn! (To Everything There Is A Season)' '62, words from Ecclesiastes, a hit by the Byrds '65-6; 'Waist Deep In The Big Muddy' '69, entered the language as a reference to Vietnam; he discovered/adapted/popularized 'On Top Of Old Smokey', 'We Shall Overcome' (from a Baptist 1901 hymn), 'Guantanamera', 'Gotta Travel On', African songs 'Wimoweh' (aka 'The Lion Sleeps Tonight'), 'Abiyoyo'; much more.

A good biography was How Can I Keep From Singing '81 by David King Dunaway. More than 30 LPs on Folkways included the instrumental Goofing Off Suite, five volumes of American Favorite Ballads, two of At The Village Gate, American Industrial Ballads, Champlain Valley Songs, Sings Guthrie, Sings Leadbelly, Talking Union (with the Almanacs), With Sonny Terry, Folk And Blues with Big Bill Broonzy, etc. Columbia LPs included The Bitter And The Sweet, We Shall Overcome (live at Carnegie Hall; no. 42 hit album), Children's Concert At Town Hall, all '63; Strangers And Cousins and I Can See A New Day '65, God Bless The Grass and Dangerous Songs!? '66, Waist Deep In The Big Muddy '67, Pete Seeger Now '68, Young vs. Old '71, Rainbow Race '73, two-disc compilation The World Of Pete Seeger (includes most of the songs mentioned above, others by Woody Guthrie, Dylan, Joni Mitchell). A live two-disc set with Arlo Guthrie Together In Concert '75 was on Reprise; two-CD A Link In The Chain '97 on Columbia was a compilation in sections: Tall Tales and Stories; Songs of Freedom; Saints, Sinners, Just Plain Folks; and For the Children. Pete on Living Music had many guests; he did Carry It On ('Songs Of America's Working People') with Si Kahn and Jane Sapp on Flying Fish, still as partisan as ever.

The Power of Song 2007 was a TV tribute directed by Jim Brown, broadcast on American Masters in early 2008 and released on a Miriam Collection DVD with an accompanying compact disc. Also in 2008, he said a new CD called At 89 (Appleseed Records) would probably be his last; a song called 'Or Else (One-a These Days)' is about a future where the schools get the money they need while the Navy holds a bake sale to build a battleship.