The American folksinger and activist Pete Seeger (born 1919) was associated with the Communist and Progressive parties in the 1940s and 1950s, but later focused on environmental issues. He was especially admired for his fight against the blacklisting of entertainers in the 1950s because of left wing political beliefs.
American folksinger, composer, song collector and five-string banjo virtuoso Pete Seeger was born in New York City in 1919 into a family of Juilliard music professors. He spent his early years in private schools and studied sociology at Harvard College. It was in 1938, when he dropped out of Harvard after two years to ride the rails and hitchhike all over the United States, that he immersed himself in folk music. He traveled all around the country collecting songs, meeting the greats of American folk music: Leadbelly, Woody Guthrie and Earl Robinson. Two years later he briefly served as an assistant in the Archive of Folk Song at the Library of Congress. He then helped organize the Almanac Singers in 1941. The group campaigned against American entry into World War II, until Germany invaded Russia. The Almanacs then sang on behalf of the Allies. Following the war Seeger worked for better relations between the United States and international Communism, most notably by campaigning for Henry Wallace for president in 1948. During these early years Seeger was closely associated with the legendary folk singer and composer Woody Guthrie. He was also the national director of People's Songs, Inc., an effort to institutionalize left-wing music.
"Goodnight Irene" Number One Hit
In 1948 Seeger organized another singing group, the Weavers, with whom he achieved his greatest popular success. They appeared on national radio and television and recorded a song, "Goodnight Irene," that was the number one hit in 1950. But with the rise of anti-Communist feeling in the nation, the Weavers were blacklisted, along with hundreds of other leftist or formerly leftist entertainers. With the mass media closed to them, the Weavers disbanded. Seeger, who composed as well as performed and had a personal following, survived the blacklist by making recordings and giving concerts. In 1964-1965 he made a world tour with his family, performing in 24 countries. In 1967, with the blacklist easing, he appeared on the Smothers Brothers television show. But Seeger had missed the folksong vogue which flourished briefly in the late 1950s and early 1960s and never recovered his earlier popularity.
Seeger was especially active in the civil rights movement of the 1960s, appearing at rallies and fund-raising concerts. The simplicity and directness of this cause were well suited to his musical talents. He customarily appeared in shirtsleeves rolled to the elbow, accompanying himself on a banjo. Seeger did more than anyone else to revive interest in this American instrument.
Without entirely abandoning his other causes, Seeger became an effective environmentalist, water pollution being his particular object of concern. Using the Hudson River sloop Clearwater as a dramatic prop, he was a leader in the struggle to reclaim that river. He also sang on behalf of similarly endangered bodies of water.
Active as an Organizer and Promoter
Though best known as a folksinger, Seeger was equally active as an organizer and promoter, not only of socio-political causes but also of purely musical events. Among these were the Newport (Rhode Island) Folk Festivals and appearances of the reconstituted Weavers. He took particular pride in having been one of the first white Northerners to recognize the value of Southern folk music, which he ardently encouraged for close to 50 years. Dubbed "America's tuning fork" by Carl Sandburg, Seeger has written more than 100 songs in addition to manuals on playing the 5-string banjo and 12-string guitars.
The autumn of his life turned into an awards season for Seeger, as he received honors from places where he was once denounced. In 1955, after refusing to answer questions from the House Committee on Un-American Activities, Seeger was branded unpatriotic and blacklisted from television and major concert halls for 17 years; but in 1994 he returned to Washington to accept the National Medal of the Arts from President Clinton. In 1965, Seeger was accused of threatening to stop Bob Dylan's electrified rock performance at the Newport Folk Festival; in 1996, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In the late 1930s, Seeger had dropped out of Harvard after losing a partial scholarship; just before his 77th birthday, he was honored as a distinguished alumnus at that university's Arts First festival.
Further Reading on Pete Seeger
Seeger can be seen in a film of the last concert of the Weavers that is often aired on public television. A fine biography is David King Dunaway's How Can I Keep from Singing (1981). Seeger is a walking history book of American music. Songs he wrote and popularized like "If I Had a Hammer," "Kisses Sweeter Than Wine," and "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?" have become standards, and many of them are available on CDs and other sound recordings, such as The Almanac Singers: Their Complete Recordings. Seeger (along with Blood Seeger) authored Where Have All the Flowers Gone: A Singer's Stories, Sings, Seeds, Robberies in 1993. Seeger has been featured on the Arts & Entertainment (A&E) television program Biography (www.biography.com).