Pete Seeger was a legendary figure in the American folk movement. He was a civil rights activist, an environmentalist and a constant advocate for the disadvantaged in American society. He sang in defense of the poor, the oppressed, and the exploited; and always to enliven and encourage, to delight, and to tell tales.
From September 22-26, 2015, celebrate the life of Pete Seeger with Mark Hellman and The Other Guys Theatre Company as they bring Pete’s life, songs and stories to the stage in The Incompleat Folksinger.
There are many Pete Seeger fans across the country and around the world, but we thought it would be good even for fans to have a little refresher on Pete’s life and influence through the 20th Century. For those of you who know him well, hopefully there will be a tidbit of information you didn’t know; for those who don’t know him at all, this is a quick introduction to Pete’s life and work.
- Pete went to Harvard with John F. Kennedy and the poet Robert Lowell, but dropped out after two years in 1938.
At just about nineteen years old, Seeger attended Harvard University but was bored by the stuffy lectures and the conservative politics of the blue-bloods who made up the majority of the student population. Instead, he and his friends were members of the Young Communist League, the radical, self-appointed champions of the underdog, which in the pre-war period didn’t have the same Cold War connotations it does today. So he stood with his friends in the middle of the Yard and passed out leaflets against Francisco Franco and on behalf of the left-leaning Republicans, fighting for democracy, in the Spanish Civil War. His biggest problems seemed to be with his professors:
“I was disgusted by what I felt was the cynicism of my sociology professor… who told us students…, ‘You can’t change the world. There are certain inevitable things going to happen. The most you can do is analyze the world and hope you can analyze it correctly.'”1
At a time when Asia and Europe were going up in flames, this was an infuriating comment for a young idealist like Seeger. Frustrated by his experiences, Seeger left Harvard just before taking his exams and headed for New York City, planning to write about politics and become a journalist.
- Pete’s father, Charles Seeger, was a radical musicologist and his uncle, Alan, was a poet referred to as the “American Rupert Brooke.”
Charles Seeger, born in Mexico to American parents, attended Harvard like his son and conducted with the Cologne Opera in Germany in the early twentieth century. He taught at the University of California at Berkeley from 1912 to 1916, until he was dismissed for his public opposition to American entry into the First World War. He then moved his entire family out to New York and taught at Julliard before taking positions in the administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal programs, including serving as an administrator in the WPA’s Federal Music Project which employed musicians, conductors and composers during the Great Depression.
With the WPA, Charles was one of the pioneers of research into American folk music during the 1930s and was a major influence on his son’s interest. During one summer, he drove with his son Pete through the Blue Ridge and Smoky Mountains to the 9th Annual Mountain Folk Song & Dance Festival in North Carolina: it was here that Pete fell in love with folk music and, on returning home, immediately asked his parents to buy him a 4-string banjo.
Pete was not the only poet in his family. Charles’ brother Alan also attended Harvard and was friends with T.S. Eliot and Walter Lippmann, before moving to New York and attending soirées presided over by John Butler Yeats (father of William) and later moving to Paris right before the First World War. He joined the French Foreign Legion on August 24, 1914 but was killed in action at the Somme on July 4, 1916: his collected poetry was published in December of that year. One of his poems, I Have a Rendezvous with Death, was a favourite of John F. Kennedy:
“I have a rendezvous with Death
At some disputed barricade,
When Spring comes back with rustling shade
And apple-blossoms fill the air—
I have a rendezvous with Death
When Spring brings back blue days and fair.”2
Alan was also the model for the statue erected at the Place des États-Unis (just south of the Arc de Triomphe) in Paris – his poem Ode in Memory of the American Volunteers Fallen for France is inscribed at the base of the statue.
- Pete crossed the United States by car with Woody Guthrie many times in the early 1940s.
After leaving Harvard, Pete was unsure of what direction to take. He spent the summer bicycling around New England, painting farmers’ houses in exchange for food and lodging, before deciding to live with his friend Alan Lomax, who he had first met while travelling with his father in 1936. Alan worked at the Archive of Folk Song at the Library of Congress and host of two nationally broadcast radio series. Not only did he get Pete a job working in the archive (where Pete was immersed in folk music daily), but at a concert in that period, Alan introduced Pete to the prolific singer-songwriter Woody Guthrie. The relationship was to mark both of their lives.
“He taught me how to hitchhike and how to ride freight trains. You don’t get on a freight when it’s in the station—the railroad bulls will kick you off. You go about 100 yards or maybe 200 yards outside to where the train is just picking up speed and you can trot alongside it. You throw your banjo in an empty car, and then you throw yourself in. And you then might go 200 or 300 miles before you stop.”
Pete accompanied Woody back to his home in Texas and the two became good friends. Together, they were part of the Almanac Singers with Millard Lampell and Lee Hays, crossing the country singing protest and pro-union songs, including “Talking Union”, “Solidarity Forever”, “Which Side Are You On?” and “Dear Mr. President” about FDR.
The group continued to sing protest songs until they were forced to disband in 1942 after Army intelligence and the FBI determined their anti-draft message were a seditious threat to the ware effort. Seeger and Guthrie were both drafted into the army, with Pete serving in the South Pacific as an entertainer for the troops.
For more about this section of Pete’s life, check out this 2006 interview on Youtube where he discusses how the Almanac Singers came together.
- Pete testified before McCarthy’s House Un-American Activities Committee
Most Pete Seeger fans will know this one, but we’ve included it for the people who don’t! After attaining some popular success after the war, Seeger was building a barn on his property in Beacon, NY when a black car wound up his driveway and a stranger in a black suit got out and asked, “Are you Pete Seeger?” He handed Seeger an envelope from the U.S. government containing a subpoena to appear in a hearing before the infamous House Un-American Activities Committee.
Pete had to decide what to do: would he name names of people with whom he had worked on radical causes and describe the activities he had pursued; would he try to invoke the Fifth Amendment against self-incrimination which would convey the impression that he had something to hide; or would he, like others, argue that under the First Amendment, they had the right to say whatever they wished without being challenged by anyone. However, these were not strategies to be taken lightly. Ten Hollywood writers and directors had challenged the committee and gone to jail for contempt of Congress.
As he entered the courtroom, he told his lawyer, Paul Ross, that he wanted “to get up there and attack these guys for what they are: the worst of America.” But Ross counselled him to stay cool and not try to be too clever. As the questioning began, Seeger told the committee:
“I am not going to answer any questions as to my associations, 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… I feel that in my whole life I have never done anything of any conspiratorial nature and I resent very much and very deeply the implication of being called before this committee that in some way because my opinions may be different from yours… that I am any less of an American than anybody else. I love my country very deeply, sir.”3
On July 25, 1956, the committee cited Seeger and several others for contempt and a federal jury indicted him on ten counts of contempt of Congress. He pleaded not guilty to all charges and was released on bail. It took a long time for the trial to begin: finally in March 1961, five hundred spectators packed the courtroom as Seeger’s trial began. Seeger was sentenced to a year in prison, but supporters raised the $2,000 ($15,800 in today’s dollars) to secure his release. Finally, in 1962, a Court of Appeals judge overturned the sentence on a technicality.
- Pete was furious when Dylan went electric, but not for the reason you think
Most Pete Seeger fans will know of the infamous incident when Bob Dylan came onstage at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965 with an electric guitar and Seeger famously was so angry that he tried to cut the cables with an axe. But that isn’t the real story.
Throughout the early 60s, Bob Dylan and Pete Seeger had been good friends and Seeger was often cited as Dylan’s mentor and idol. They had performed together many times and Seeger was very fond of the raspy-voiced singer who had made a huge splash in the previous years with hits like “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “Masters of War,” and “The Time They Are A-Changin”. However, Dylan’s new album Bringing It All Back Home included an electric backup instead of a simple acoustic guitar. At Newport that year, Dylan came onstage with an electric Fender guitar and an electrically amplified backup blues band. The sound was so loud that the audience could not make out the words.
Seeger was furious and ran over to the sound man. “Fix the sound so you can hear the words!” he yelled. The man refused and Seeger said “Damn it, if I had an axe, I’d cut the cable right now.” Rumours immediately circulated that Seeger actually had an axe and had tried to chop through the cables, but of course, that wasn’t true: he had simply wanted the audience to be able to hear the words that Dylan was singing.
- Pete’s Anti-Vietnam War song “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy” was cut from a CBS special
Following the escalation of the Vietnam War by President Lyndon B Johnson after his election win in 1964, Seeger wrote the song “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy” about his experiences in the Second World War. However, the song’s lyrics were very clearly about the war in Southeast Asia and the “Big Fool” in the song is blatantly a reference to Johnson’s refusal to shift course in the face of growing criticism.
Well, I’m not going to point any moral;
I’ll leave that for yourself
Maybe you’re still walking, you’re still talking
You’d like to keep your health.
But every time I read the papers
That old feeling comes on;
We’re — waist deep in the Big Muddy
And the big fool says to push on.
Seeger sang the song as much as he could and it got a explosive reaction at college campuses where more and more men were pressed into military service through conscription. He recorded the song, believing that if it received ample air time, it could help turn the nation against the war. However, radio stations and television networks were reluctant to play such a politically charged song, especially by a controversial figure like Pete Seeger. He had been kept off television because of his radical past and still recent conviction of contempt of Congress since the 1950s. After much wrangling behind the scenes, Pete traveled to Hollywood to tape the program, believing that he could get a large audience to demand an end to the war.
But when the program aired, he was appalled. The network had cut ‘Big Muddy’ from the show in a blunt jump cut: one moment Seeger had a guitar in his hand, the next he had a banjo. Seeger and the Smother Brothers (the hosts of the program he had appeared on) complained to the executives and the press. The Brothers even said that they would have Seeger back and maybe this time they would “sing [Big Muddy] with him.”
Finally, after backlash, the network aired a new recording of Pete singing ‘Big Muddy’ which reached an audience of 7 million. However, CBS still had the last word: without explanation and despite high ratings, they canceled the Smother Brothers show a few months later.
- Pete gained recognition for his many contributions later in life
After decades of being branded a radical for his musical, political, environmental and social efforts, Seeger was recognized later in life with a large number of honours including a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, a National Medal of Arts, a Kennedy Center Honor, two Grammy Awards for Best Traditional Folk Album (1996 and 2008), a Grammy Award for Best Musical Album for Children in 2010 and a Grammy Award for Best Spoken Word Album in 2013.
President Bill Clinton, on presenting the National Medal of Arts, singled out Seeger as someone “who had a personal impact on my life, and I would daresay, the lives of every American citizen… 50 years of age or younger.” A month later, presenting the Kennedy Center Honor, Clinton said that Seeger was “an inconvenient artist who dared to sing things as he saw them. He was attacked for his beliefs, he was banned from television… Some artists make musical history, Pete Seeger made history with his music.”
- Pete continued to play up until his death in 2014
At 88 years old in 2008, Seeger was one of the artists chosen to play at the inauguration of President Barack Obama. With Bruce Springsteen and his grandson Tao, he sang a rendition of Woody Guthrie’s song ‘This Land is Your Land’. In it, you can see how Seeger continued to see how song could bring people together, span the gaps between races, between classes, between insiders and outsiders in American society.
In the final years of his life, he remained as active as ever, playing and singing at local gatherings, moving from one cause to another: resisting U.S. involvement in Iraq, leading marches in the Occupy Wall Street movement, and agitating against capital punishment. He said, “Nobody really knows what the world’s going to bring and, though there’s only a fifty-fifty chance we’ll survive, as long as I’ve got breath, I’ll keep doing what I can.”
We’ll leave you with this moving performance of If I Had a Hammer at Farm Aid in 2013 at age 94, just months before his death.
To learn more about Pete Seeger’s life, join us for the documentary Pete Seeger: The Power of Song on September 20 at 2pm.
1. Allan M. Winkler interview with Pete Seeger, Beacon, New York, August 3, 2006, quoted in Allan M. Winkler, “To Everything There Is a Season”: Pete Seeger and the Power of Song, (Oxford University Press, 2009)
2. First World War.com. “Alan Seeger.” Accessed August 21, 2015. http://www.firstworldwar.com/poetsandprose/seeger.htm.