Influential American folk musician, singer/songwriter, activist. 1919 - 2014
"...the living embodiment of America's traditions in folk music..." The Kennedy Centre
Music must have been in his blood from conception. Born 3rd May 1919 in New York, his father (Charles Seeger) was a musicologist, his mother (Constance Seeger) a concert violinist. Their maid (the folk singer Libba Cotten) was musical. With this background, his interest in music was almost a foregone conclusion, even if the genre was undecided.
He learned many instruments, among them the banjo, guitar and ukelele, but playing in the school's jazz band was not his forte, and his parents' classical influence did not appeal. With those out of the way, he turned to folk music following a square dance festival he attended. "I liked the melodies, time tested by generations of singers. Above all, I liked the words…they seemed frank, straightforward, honest", he says. He collected all manner of American music and learned from Leadbelly, Woody Guthrie and Earl Robinson. He also became an assistant in the Archive of Folk Song at the Library of Congress, and carried out much research during his tenure there.
Going later to Harvard to study journalism and sociology, he quit in 1939, disinterested in his studies and began touring New England, painting watercolors. Later on, he went back to New York and became involved in political action for the first time, helping to organise concerts for the New York Milk Strike, a campaign conducted by the Dairy Farmers Union. This was another turning point - one which made him realise that the world could be changed through positive action. The next was his meeting Woody Guthrie, who proceeded to take him on a tour across America.
Pete and Woody went on to form the Almanac Singers, dedicated to highlighting social injustices using traditional folk motifs, but dealing with issues surrounding union ideals. Along with Alan Lomax and Cis Cunningham they also started the Almanac People's Music Library, a library of songs dealing with contemporary issues. (After being drafted in 1942, he still sent songs back for inclusion.) After a name change in 1946, to People's Songs, Inc, they began publicising more and more events, festivals, songs and information about benefits. Their magazine Sing Out! The Folk Magazine, first printed in 1950, is still in publication.
McCarthyism rears its head
In 1948, he and Lee Hays formed The Weavers, whose agenda, unsurprisingly, paralleled Seeger's own. Their music was an unusual mixture of styles, but their lyrics were dangerously radical given the changing political climate in the States in the 1950s. The Weavers soon found themselves effectively gagged, banned from appearing on radio, television, and, increasingly, concert halls. Despite this, Seeger insisted that they continue to records, and by 1954 had been involved in or played on over 30 albums.
All of this caught the attention of the House Un-American Activities Committee, and he was called before them in 1955. He cited the First Amendment and declined to speak. He was sentenced to jail for a year, and though he only served four days, he was still blacklisted and was unable to appear on radio or TV for seventeen years. McCarthyism had yet another victim.
In the meantime, he continued to travel, playing at universities and festivals, and performing benefits for the civil rights, union and peace movements. Vietnam offered another opportunity for his involvement in the social and politcal life of America. With such names as Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, he became a highly vocal opponent to the United States' involvement in the war, which did much to boost his popularity with the rising hippie youth movement in the 60s.
He is still best known for both writing and performing many protest songs. His best-known songs include If I had a Hammer, We Shall Overcome, Little Boxes and Where Have all the Flowers Gone. Although he did not write all these songs himself ('Little Boxes', for example was written by Malvina Reynolds), he is neverthless remembered for them. His songs and performances alone would be enough to have made him a legend, but the influence he has had on the folk and protest music of America goes much further - many, including Bob Dylan, have credited him as a source of inspiration.
In later life he also became involved with environmental issues, campaigning against toxic dumping and waste, and the pollution of rivers, sea and land. He helped found the Clearwater Organisation, which successfully raised the public awareness for the environment and campaigned for cleaner rivers. Many successes followed, including legislation to protect the Hudson River.
Pete has received many awards and much recognitions, including the Presidential Medal of the Arts, in 1994 and a Grammy Award for Best Traditional Folk Album in 1997, as well as being admitted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
To create a full discography would be well-nigh impossible, with over 100 recordings, and a partial discography would be an insult to him. I shall treat that as a separate project.
various sleeve notes and personal memory
Thanks to riverrun for an important correction
Pete Seeger died in New York City on January 27, 2014, of natural causes. He was 94 years old.