Peter "Pete" Seeger (born May 3, 1919) is an American folk singer, political activist, and a key figure in the mid-20th century American folk music revival. A fixture on nationwide radio in the 1940s, he also had a string of hit records during the early 50s as a member of The Weavers, most notably the 1950 recording of Leadbelly's "Goodnight, Irene" that topped the charts for 13 weeks in 1950. As a result of an anti-communist blacklist, his career as a mainstream performer was seriously curtailed. In the 1960s, he re-emerged on the public scene as a pioneer of protest music in support of international disarmament and civil rights and, more recently, as a tireless activist for environmental causes.
As a song writer, he is best known as the author or co-author of "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?", "If I Had a Hammer (The Hammer Song)" (composed with Lee Hays of The Weavers), and "Turn, Turn, Turn!", which have been recorded by many artists both in and outside the folk revival movement and are still sung throughout the world. "Flowers" was a hit recording for The Kingston Trio (1962), Marlene Dietrich, who recorded it in English, German and French (1962), and Johnny Rivers (1965). "If I Had a Hammer" was a hit for Peter, Paul & Mary (1962) and Trini Lopez (1963), while The Byrds popularized "Turn, Turn, Turn!" in the mid-1960s. Seeger was one of the folksingers most responsible for popularizing the spiritual "We Shall Overcome" (also recorded by Joan Baez and many other singer-activists) that became the acknowledged anthem of the 1960s American Civil Rights Movement, soon after folk singer and activist Guy Carawan introduced it at the founding meeting of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in 1960.
From the late fifties on Seeger also accompanied himself on the 12-string guitar, an instrument of Mexican origin that had been associated with Lead Belly who had styled himself "the King of the Twelve String Guitar". Seeger's distinctive custom-made guitars had a triangular soundhole. He combined the long scale length (approximately 28") and capo-to-key techniques that he favored on the banjo with a variant of drop-D (DADGBE) tuning, tuned two whole steps down with very heavy strings, which he played with thumb and finger picks. Seeger's adoption of the twelve-string guitar doubtless inspired other folk performers to follow his example, ensuring its survival and contributing to its popularity in the 1960s and 70s.
In 1943 Pete married Toshi-Aline Ohta, whom he credits with being the support that helped make the rest of his life possible. Pete and Toshi have three children, Daniel, Mika and Tinya, and grandchildren Tao, Cassie, Kitama, Moraya, Penny, and Isabelle. Tao is a folk musician in his own right, singing and playing guitar, banjo and harmonica with The Mammals. Kitama Jackson is a documentary filmmaker who was associate producer of the PBS documentary Pete Seeger: Power of Song.
Seeger lives in the hamlet of Dutchess Junction in the Town of Fishkill, NY and remains very active politically, as well as maintaining an active lifestyle in the Hudson Valley Region of New York, especially in the nearby City of Beacon, NY. He and Toshi purchased their land in 1949, and lived there first in a trailer, then in a log cabin they built themselves, and eventually in a larger house. Seeger joined the Community Church (a church practicing Unitarian Universalism) and often performs at functions for the Unitarian Universalist Association.
Seeger enrolled at Harvard College on a partial scholarship, but, as he became increasingly involved with radical politics and folk music, his grades suffered and he lost his scholarship. He dropped out of college in 1938. He dreamed of a career in journalism and also took courses in art. His first musical gig was leading students in folk singing (still with four-string banjo) at the Dalton School, where his aunt was principal. Then, following a summer stint of touring with The Vagabond Puppeteers, a radical traveling puppet theater inspired by rural education campaigns of post-revolutionary Mexico, he took a job in Washington, D.C. assisting Alan Lomax, a friend of his father's, at the Archive of American Folk Song of the Library of Congress. Seeger's job was to sift through commercial "race" and "hillbilly" music and select recordings that best represented traditional folk music, a project funded by the music division of the Pan American Union (later the Organization of American States), of whose music division his father, Charles Seeger, was head (1938-53). Lomax also encouraged Seeger's folk singing vocation, and Seeger was soon appearing as a regular performer on Alan Lomax and Nicholas Ray's three-times weekly Columbia Broadcasting show Back Where I Come From (1940-41) alongside of Josh White, Burl Ives, Lead Belly, and Woody Guthrie (whom he had first met at Will Geer's Grapes of Wrath benefit concert for migrant workers on March 3, 1940). Back Where I Come From was unique in having a racially integrated cast, which made news when it performed in March 1941, at a command performance at the White House organized by Eleanor Roosevelt, called "An Evening of Songs for American Soldiers", before an audience that included the Secretaries of War, Treasury, and the Navy, among other bigwigs. During the war, Seeger also performed on nationwide radio broadcasts by Norman Corwin.
In 1950 the Almanacs were reconstituted as The Weavers, named after the title of a 1892 play by Gerhart Hauptmann about a workers' strike (which contained the lines, "We'll stand it no more, come what may!"). Besides Pete Seeger (performing under his own name), members of the Weavers included charter Almanac member Lee Hays, Ronnie Gilbert, Fred Hellerman, and later, Frank Hamilton and Erik Darling. In the atmosphere of the 1950s red scare, the Weavers' repertoire had to be less overtly topical than that of the Almanacs had been, and its progressive message was couched in indirect language -- arguably rendering it even more powerful. The Weavers even on occasion performed in tuxedos (unlike the Almanacs, who had dressed informally) and their managers refused to let them perform at political venues. Because of this, the somewhat hokey string orchestra and chorus arrangements on a few of their hit numbers, and, no doubt also because of their considerable, if temporary, financial success, the Weavers incurred criticism from some progressives for supposedly compromising their political integrity. It was a tricky dilemma, but the Seeger and the other Weavers felt that the imperative of getting their music and their message out to the widest possible audience amply justified these measures.
The Weavers' string of major hits began with an arrangement of Lead Belly's signature waltz, "Goodnight, Irene", which topped the charts for 13 weeks in 1950 and was covered by many other pop singers. On the flip side of "Irene" was the Israeli song "Tzena, Tzena", a daring move at a time when Zionism still had few backers (one of the most vociferous backers of the creation of the state of Israel had been the Soviet Union and Truman had only recognized Israel in 1948). Other Weaver hits included, "So Long It's Been Good to Know You" (by Woody Guthrie), "Kisses Sweeter Than Wine" (by Hays, Seeger, and Lead Belly), the South African Zulu song, "Wimoweh" (about "the lion", warrior chief Shaka the Zulu, who had successfully battled the colonial powers), to name a few.
The Weavers's performing career was abruptly halted in 1953 at the peak of their popularity when blacklisting prompted radio stations to refuse to play their records and all their bookings were canceled. They briefly returned to the stage, however, at a sold-out reunion at Carnegie Hall in 1955 and in a subsequent reunion tour, which produced a hit version of Merle Travis's "Sixteen Tons" as well as LPs of their concert performances. "Kumbaya" a Gullah black spiritual dating from slavery days, was also introduced to wide audiences by Pete Seeger and the Weavers (in 1959), becoming a staple of Boy Scout campfires and Roman Catholic "folk" and lay masses.
In the late fifties, the Kingston Trio was formed in direct imitation of the Weavers and covered much of its repertoire, producing another phenomenal succession of Billboard chart hits, and, in its turn spawning a legion of imitators, laying the groundwork for the 1960s commercial folk revival.
As of 2008 Pete Seeger is still actively performing and recording. On September 29, 2008, the 89-year-old singer-activist, long banned from commercial TV, made a rare nationwide appearance on the David Letterman Show, singing "Don't say it can't be done, our work is just begun . .. take it from Dr. King and learn to sing and drop the gun." In September 2008, Appleseed Recordings released At 89, Seeger's first studio album in 12 years. During the summer of 2008, he played a limited number of dates throughout Canada and the U.S. with his grandson Tao Rodriguez-Seeger and Guy Davis, including a fund-raiser in Ridgefield, Connecticut, for the public radio station WPKN on September 11, 2008.
In 1936, at the age of 17 Pete Seeger joined the Young Communist League, then at the height of its popularity and influence, and, in 1942, he became a member of the adult version of the Communist Party (see #Quotes From Seeger), drifting away from it after the war. In the spring of 1941, the twenty-one year old Seeger performed as a member of the Almanac Singers along with Millard Lampell, Cisco Houston, Woody Guthrie, Butch and Bess Lomax Hawes, and Lee Hays. Seeger and the Almanacs cut several albums of 78s on Keynote and other labels, Songs for John Doe (recorded in late February or March and released in May, 1941), the Talking Union, and an album each of sea chanteys and pioneer songs. Written by Millard Lampell, Songs for John Doe was performed by Lampell, Seeger, and Hays, joined by Josh White and Sam Gary. It contained lines such as, "It wouldn't be much thrill to die for Du Pont in Brazil") that were sharply criticical of Roosevelt's unprecedented peacetime draft (enacted in September, 1940). This anti-war/anti-draft tone reflected the Moscow Party line after the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, which maintained the war was "phony" and a mere pretext for big American corporations (many, if not most of whom had actively supported and helped to re-arm Hitler's Germany as a bulwark against Communism) to get Hitler to to attack Soviet Russia, a line of argument that Seeger has said he believed to be true at the time and which was adhered to by many members of the Young Communist League, of which he was a member. Though nominally members of the Popular Front, which was allied with Roosevelt and more moderate liberals, the League's members were still smarting over the memory of Roosevelt and Churchill's arms embargo to Loyalist Spain (which Roosevelt later called a mistake) and the alliance was fraying in the confusing welter of events. A June 16, 1941, review in Time magazine, which, under its owner Henry Luce had become very interventionist, denounced the Almanacs' John Doe, accusing it of scrupulously echoing what it called "the mendacious Moscow tune" that "Franklin Roosevelt is leading an unwilling people into a J. P. Morgan war". Eleanor Roosevelt, a fan of folk music, reportedly found the album "in bad taste," though President Roosevelt, when the album was shown to him, merely observed, correctly as it turned out, that few people would ever hear it. More alarmist was the reaction of eminent German-born Harvard Professor of Government, Carl Joachim Friedrich an adviser to the US military. In a review in the June 1941 Atlantic Monthly, entitled "The Poison in Our System", acting as a one man judge and jury, he pronounced Songs for John Doe "strictly subversive and illegal", "whether Communist or Nazi financed" and "a matter for the attorney general", observing further that that "mere" legal "suppression" would not be sufficient to counteract this type of populist poison, the poison being folk music, and the ease with which it could be spread.
At that point, the U.S. had not yet entered the war but was energetically re-arming. African Americans were barred from working in defense plants, a situation that greatly angered African Americans and white progressives. Black union leaders A. Philip Randolph, Bayard Rustin, and A. J. Muste began planning a huge march on Washington to protest racial discrimination in war industries and to urge desegregation of the armed forces. The march, which many regard as the first manifestation of the Civil Rights Movement, was canceled after President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 8802 (The Fair Employment Act) of June 25, 1941, barring discrimination in hiring by companies holding federal contracts for defense work. This Presidential act diffused black anger considerably, although the US army still refused to desegregate, declining to participate in what it called "social engineering".
Roosevelt's order came three days after Hitler broke the non-aggression pact and invaded the Soviet Union. The Communist Party now immediately directed its members to get behind the draft, and it also forbade participation in strikes for the duration of the war (angering some leftists). Copies of Songs for John Doe were removed from sale, and the remaining inventory destroyed, though a few copies may exist in the hands of private collectors. The Almanac Singers' Talking Union album, on the other hand, was reissued as an LP by Folkways (FH 5285A) in 1955 and is still available. The following year the Almanacs issued Dear Mr. President, an album in support of Roosevelt and the war effort. The title song, "Dear Mr. President", was a solo by Pete Seeger, and its lines expressed his life-long credo:
Now, Mr. President, / We haven't always agreed in the past, I know, / But that ain't at all important now. / What is important is what we got to do, / We got to lick Mr. Hitler, and until we do, / Other things can wait.//
Now, as I think of our great land . . . / I know it ain't perfect, but it will be someday, / Just give us a little time. // This is the reason that I want to fight, / Not 'cause everything's perfect, or everything's right. / No, it's just the opposite: I'm fightin' because / I want a better America, and better laws, / And better homes, and jobs, and schools, / And no more Jim Crow, and no more rules like / "You can't ride on this train 'cause you're a Negro," / "You can't live here 'cause you're a Jew,"/ "You can't work here 'cause you're a union man."//
So, Mr. President, / We got this one big job to do / That's lick Mr. Hitler and when we're through, / Let no one else ever take his place / To trample down the human race. / So what I want is you to give me a gun / So we can hurry up and get the job done.
Seeger's critics, however, have continued to bring up the Almanacs' repudiated Songs for John Doe. In 1942, a year after the John Doe album's brief appearance (and disappearance), the FBI decided that the now-pro-war Almanacs were still endangering the war effort by subverting recruitment. According to the N.Y. World Telegram (Feb. 14, 1942), Carl Friedrich's 1941 article "The Poison in Our System" was printed up as a pamphlet and distributed by the Council for Democracy (an organization that Friedrich founded and headed) and was shown to the Almanac's employers in order to keep them off the air.Coincidentally, defamatory reviews and gossip items appeared in New York newspapers whenever they performed in public, and ultimately the Almanacs had to disband.
Seeger served in the US Army in the Pacific. He was trained as an airplane mechanic, but was reassigned to entertain the American troops with music. Later, when people asked him what he did in the war, he always answered "I strummed my banjo". After returning from service, Seeger and others established People's Songs, conceived as a nationwide organization with branches on both coasts that was designed to "Create, promote and distribute songs of labor and the American People With Pete Seeger as its director, People's Songs worked for the 1948 presidential campaign of Roosevelt's former Secretary of Agriculture and Vice President, Henry A. Wallace, who ran as a third party candidate on the Progressive Party ticket. Despite having attracted enormous crowds nationwide, however, Wallace only won in New York City, and, in the red-baiting frenzy that followed, he was excoriated (as Roosevelt had not been) for accepting the help in his campaign of Communists and fellow travelers such as Seeger and singer Paul Robeson.
On August 18, 1955, Seeger was subpoenaed to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). Alone among the many witnesses after the 1950 conviction and imprisonment of the Hollywood Ten for contempt of court, Seeger refused to plead the Fifth Amendment (which asserted that his testimony might be self incriminating) and instead (as the Hollywood Ten had done) refused to name personal and political associations on the grounds that this would violate his First Amendment rights: "I am not going to answer any questions as to my association, my philosophical or religious beliefs or my political beliefs, or how I voted in any election, or any of these private affairs. I think these are very improper questions for any American to be asked, especially under such compulsion as this. Seeger's refusal to testify led to a March 26, 1957 indictment for contempt of Congress; for some years, he had to keep the federal government apprised of where he was going any time he left the Southern District of New York. He was convicted in a jury trial of contempt of court in March 1961, and sentenced to 10 years in jail (to be served simultaneously), but in May 1962 an appeals court ruled the indictment to be flawed and overturned his conviction.
Seeger attracted wider attention starting in 1967 with his song "Waist Deep in the Big Muddy", about a captain — referred to in the lyrics as "the big fool" — who drowned while leading a platoon on maneuvers in Louisiana during World War II. In the face of arguments with the management of CBS about whether the song's political weight was in keeping with the usually light-hearted entertainment of the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, the final lines were "Every time I read the paper/those old feelings come on/We are waist deep in the Big Muddy and the big fool says to push on." It was not seriously contested that much of the audience would grasp Seeger's allegorical casting of Johnson as the "big fool" and the Vietnam War the foreseeable danger. Although the performance was cut from the September 1967 show, after wide publicity, it was broadcast when Seeger appeared again on the Smothers' Brothers show in the following January.
Inspired by Woody Guthrie, whose guitar was labeled "This machine kills fascists,"Woody Guthrie.jpg Seeger's banjo was emblazoned with the motto "This Machine Surrounds Hate and Forces It to Surrender." photo
Seeger wrote and performed "That Lonesome Valley" about the then-polluted Hudson River in 1969, and his band members also wrote and performed songs commemorating the Clearwater.
By this time Seeger was a senior figure in the 1960s folk revival centered in Greenwich Village, as a longtime columnist in Sing Out!, the successor to the People's Songs Bulletin and as a founder of the topical Broadside magazine. To describe the new crop of politically committed folk singers, he coined the phrase "Woody's children", alluding to his associate and traveling companion, Woody Guthrie, who by this time had become a legendary figure. This urban folk revival movement, a continuation of the activist tradition of the thirties and forties, and of People's Songs, used adaptations of traditional tunes and lyrics to effect social change, a practice that goes back to the Industrial Workers of the World or Wobblies' Little Red Song Book, compiled by Swedish-born union organizer Joe Hill (1879-1915). (The Little Red Song Book had been a favorite of Woody Guthrie's, who was known to carry it around.)
Pete Seeger made two tours of Australia, the first in 1963. At the time of this tour, his single Little Boxes (written by Malvina Reynolds) was number one in the nation's Top 40's. In 1993, the Australian singer/plawright Maurie Mulherin, assembled an anthology of Seeger's work in a stage production One Word We. It enjoyed a long and sold-out season at the New Theatre in the inner Sydney suburb of Newtown.
The long television blacklist of Seeger began to end in the mid-60s when he hosted a regionally broadcast, educational, folk-music television show, Rainbow Quest. Among his guests were Johnny Cash, June Carter, Mississippi John Hurt, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Roscoe Holcomb, The Stanley Brothers, Doc Watson, Tom Paxton, Judy Collins, Richard and Mimi Fariña, The Beers Family, Rev. Gary Davis, Donovan, and Shawn Phillips. Thirty-nine hour-long programs were recorded at WNJU's Newark studios in 1965 and 1966, produced by Seeger and his wife Toshi, with Sholom Rubinstein.
An early booster of Bob Dylan, Seeger, who was on the Board of Directors of the Newport Folk Festival, became upset over the extremely loud and distorted electric sound that Dylan, instigated by his manager Albert Grossman, also a Folk Festival Board member, brought into the 1965 Festival during his performance of "Maggie's Farm". Tensions between Grossman and the other board members were running very high (at one point reportedly there was a scuffle and blows were briefly exchanged between Grossman and Board member Alan Lomax). There are several versions of what happened during Dylan's performance and some claimed that Pete Seeger tried to disconnect the equipment. Seeger has been portrayed by Dylan's publicists as a folk "purist" who was one of the main opponents to Dylan's "going electric", but when asked in 2001 about how he recalled his "objections" to the electric style, he said:
I couldn't understand the words. I wanted to hear the words. It was a great song, "Maggie's Farm," and the sound was distorted. I ran over to the guy at the controls and shouted, "Fix the sound so you can hear the words." He hollered back, "This is the way they want it." I said "Damn it, if I had an axe, I'd cut the cable right now." But I was at fault. I was the MC, and I could have said to the part of the crowd that booed Bob, "you didn't boo Howlin' Wolf yesterday. He was electric!" Though I still prefer to hear Dylan acoustic, some of his electric songs are absolutely great. Electric music is the vernacular of the second half of the twentieth century, to use my father's old term.
In April 2006 Bruce Springsteen released a collection of folk songs associated with Seeger's repertoire, titled, We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions (which some reviewers noted that, oddly, contained no songs actually composed by Seeger). Springsteen and his band also toured to sellout crowds in a series of concerts based on those sessions. He had previously performed the Seeger staple, "We Shall Overcome," on Where Have All the Flowers Gone.
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