Born 90 years ago this May 3, Pete Seeger has been a tireless performer of topical song and a champion of global folklore, focusing his strongest efforts on that which was created b y, for and about, the so-called common man. The product of a Left-wing composer father and a concert violinist mother, Pete almost singlehandedly resurrected, of all things, the 5-string banjo and introduced its application as a fiercely American instrument, one derived from African origins and developed by the sweat and blood of the oppressed.
In his wake, the banjo-or at least his banjo– became a symbol of the power of song and an icon of more than one “folk revival”. It still sings with pride in light of the passage of time…even Bob Dylan’s decision to go electric. No matter what, Pete and his music were always there and continue to ring out today.
During the depth of the Great Depression, Seeger took to folk song collecting with his father, Charles Lewis Seeger, a member of the Composers Collective of New York who saw the need for the dissolution of the Modernist, experimental music Collective once he became convinced of the revolutionary potential of traditional song. The mission was clear: American workers needed to hear accessible music with radical content; he never looked back and clearly neither did Pete. In the 1930s, Daily Worker arts columnist Mike Gold wrote of the need for, “a Communist Joe Hill”, to offer musical organizing on the front lines: a few years later Woody Guthrie came to prominence in the political Left. Guthrie, a firestorm of creative energy and radical philosophy was introduced, in 1940, to a young Pete Seeger by folk archivist Alan Lomax and the two became inseparable. Once Woody had taken up Pete’s offer to join him in the Almanac Singers, they wrote and performed music together and Seeger, through musical and political osmosis, rapidly morphed into a new kind of cultural force.
Early on Pete developed a strong kinship with the political Left and quickly became a first-call performing artist for May Day parades in New York City and radical Labor unions around the country. Seeger became a prominent part of Communist Party cultural organizations, anti-fascist collectives and American Labor Party rallies throughout the 1940s and into the `50s, even as the specter of HUAC haunted his musical groups, the Almanacs and then the Weavers, as well as his organization People’s Songs. By 1961, he too would be subpoenaed by the House Un-American Activities Committee which riddled him with questions that scandalized not only his patriotism but that of the many he’d been associated with. To his credit, Seeger refused to name names, but he did offer to sing for the HUAC inquisitors. They refused his offer and called it contempt of Congress.
A victim of the same tenacious Blacklist that had torn apart Hollywood and the CIO in the post-war period, Pete sang for college students and children, when no one else cared to listen…or, rather, when no one else could hear. And when he could not sing for them, he sang for the trees and forest life about him. Seeger was hell-bent on allowing music to touch deep, whether as a weapon or as a healing force. Uniquely, he almost always achieved both in tandem.
By the time folk music became an area of commercial success for the record business during the 1960s, Seeger was seen as a founder, an elder, but still a contemporary. If the forces of reaction shut him out of broadcast television or commercial radio, his voice resounded loudly as a songwriter. Pete’s songs “Turn, Turn, Turn”, “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?”, “If I Had A Hammer”, “The Bells of Rhymney”, among others, were smashing successes for other artists, all of whom paid tribute to the composer during their performances. As has been widely reported, it was left to the Smothers Brothers and their irreverent, cutting-edge television program, to break the Blacklist. When the networks refused to allow Seeger on to perform his “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy”, a stinging anti-war song driven by Pete’s grinding 12-string guitar, the Brothers fought back. It may have been a death-blow for their show, but they ultimately prevailed; Seeger was seen by millions on that historic night and the Blacklist, this terribly fascistic device used to silence so many, was effectively killed off.
With the wisdom of a sage, Seeger has made it a mission to keep the older songs of struggle alive, even through adversity. In performances all over the world, Pete presents the songs of Guthrie and Wobbly icon Joe Hill alongside the music of slaves, native peoples, workers, immigrants, farmers, men and women. He offers us the lost union songs and the disappeared music of repressed peoples. Pete taught us traditional songs of the Spanish Civil War–in Spanish. He sang the praises of Leadbelly, who never got to hear his song “Goodnight Irene” become a Weavers hit in 1951. Huddie “Leadbelly” Ledbetter had died the year prior, but Seeger made sure that his widow would continue to receive royalties, as he did for the family of Solomon Linda, the composer of “Wimoweh”, an African song which immortalizes the symbol of the sleeping lion as an avenger-in-waiting, contemplating the atrocities committed by white imperialists.
While it is true that Pete has become a beloved figure with the passage of time, one celebrated at Madison Square Garden this May, and was given Kennedy Center honors a decade ago, his radical heart remains integral to his spirit. Performing for President Obama’s inaugural celebration this January, Pete sang Woody’s anthem, “This Land is Your Land” along with Bruce Springsteen and Seeger happily led the crowd on some of Guthrie’s lesser-known, revolutionary verses including the one about that damned symbol of the high wall tagged “Private Property”. In his lifetime, Pete stood onstage with Paul Robeson during “The Peekskill Riot” and marched with Dr. King through the bloodiest of Civil Rights battles. He was a loud opponent of the Vietnam War and a prime voice of the environmental movement. In more recent years, Seeger could be found, during the entire sickening debacle of the Bush Administration as an active part of protest actions, and still stands each week at a peace vigil in New York’s Hudson Valley, through broiling heat and frozen winds.
Pete’s songs are truly the story of ‘the folk’, and so they tell the people’s story. Long before Howard Zinn wrote his ‘A People’s History of the United States’, Pete Seeger sang it. He stands then and now as the very model of the cultural worker. Taking the distant advice of Joe Hill, he recognized long ago that more can be said in one topical song than in a hundred pamphlets. But, even in silence, Pete’s philosophy can be understood by anyone who gets close enough to read what he long ago adorned on his banjo head: ‘This Machine Surrounds Hate and Forces It To Surrender’.
John Pietaro is a cultural worker and labor organizer from New York