A Short Guide To The Extraordinary Life Of Pete Seeger

CREDIT: Josef Schwarz

In a 2006 New Yorker profile of Pete Seeger, Bruce Springsteen, who earlier that year had released an album rooted in Seeger’s repertoire, told Alec Wilkinson what he’d discovered when he began exploring Seeger’s career in depth.

“I heard a hundred voices in those old folk songs, and stories from across the span of American history—parlor music, church music, tavern music, street and gutter music,” Springsteen said of Seeger, who died yesterday at 94. “I felt the connection almost intuitively, and that certain things needed to be carried on; I wanted to continue doing things that Pete had passed down and put his hand on. He had a real sense of the musician as historical entity—of being a link in the thread of people who sing in others’ voices and carry the tradition forward— and of the songwriter, in the daily history of the place he lived, that songs were tools, and, without sounding too pretentious, righteous implements when connected to historical consciousness.”

That’s a daunting mission statement, but it’s a fitting description of Seeger’s enormous, and enormously American life, as well as a perfect diagnosis of some of the challenges of assessing his work.

Seeger was born into a lineage that stretched back to the American Revolution, when Karl Ludwig Seeger, a doctor from the Kingdom of Württemberg, moved to the United States, and to a family whose contributions to American culture and public life would have been impressive even if Seeger hadn’t grown up to add to them. His father helped establish both musicology and ethnomusicology in American universities. Seeger’s stepmother worked with Carl Sandberg on The American Soundbag. His uncle Alan joined the French Foreign Legion and was killed at the Battle of the Somme in World War I. And Seeger would marry a woman who came from an equally illuminating intellectual background. Toshi Aline Ohta’s father, Takashi Ohta, had been exiled from Japan in place of his father, who had received a sentence of banishment for translating Marxist writing into Japanese. Ohta met Toshi’s mother, Virginia Harper Berry, while she was traveling abroad, and Toshi was born in Munich in 1922.

The catalogue of the work they did together is almost impossible to fathom, and trying to summarize it is ridiculous. After Seeger dropped out of Harvard, he met the folklorist Alan Lomax, who helped Seeger get work at the Archive of American Folk Song at the Library of Congress, a job which furthered his education in American folk music, while also putting him in a position, at a very young age, where he was helping to determine what would constitute that genre’s canon. He traveled with Woody Guthrie, with whom Seeger helped to found the Almanac Singers in 1940. Their anti-conscription album Songs For John Doe, which suggested that World War II was being fought at least in part in service of corporate interests, would be denounced as subversive, and many copies of it destroyed. Despite the skepticism of the album, Seeger later served in World War II, where the talents that had brought him criticism were repurposed to entertain troops in the Pacific Theater. The Almanac Singers’ Talking Union would fare better both in the moment–it was reissued in 1955–and in historical memory.

And I still adore their recordings of Spanish Civil War songs, including “Viva La Quince Brigada.”

In 1943, Seeger and Ohta married. She became his producer, and her death last year became an opportunity to acknowledge her contributions to Seeger’s work and legacy: she managed his finances, directed his television program, Rainbow Quest, helped found his environmental charity and organized the music festival that supported it, and executive-produced the Emmy-winning PBS special on Seeger’s life. In 1948, Seeger helped found the Weavers. The band would achieve commercial success, but the Weavers were criticized for taking their manager’s advice and deemphasizing the sharpest edges of their politics so they could continue performing. Those efforts to moderate their public image only worked for so long: in 1953, artist blacklisting effectively put the Weavers’ careers on hold for two years as their records were taken off sale and their performances cancelled. When Seeger was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1955, he essentially filibustered his questioners, offering to talk about his life and career at length, but declining to name other Communists on the grounds that “I think these are very improper questions for any American to be asked, especially under such compulsion as this.”

Two years later Seeger was indicted for contempt of Congress, but in spite of the restrictions placed on his movements, and his blacklist from national television, Seeger and Toshi kept working. In 1959, he and Toshi helped found the Newport Folk Festival, with Toshi establishing the base rates for the performers and helping to figure out the lineup. In 1966, Toshi released a documentary, Afro-American Work Songs in a Texas Prison, which has been preserved by the Library of Congress, and the couple helped launch the group Hudson River Sloop Clearwater, which advocates for the conservation of the Hudson River Valley. Seeger was active in the nuclear disarmament movement, opposition to the Vietnam War and the death penalty, and the folk revival, using his regional television show Rainbow Quest to highlight the work of many other folk artists, including Johnny Cash and June Carter, Reverend Gary Davis, and Mississippi John Hurt. In his later life, Seeger would renounce Stalin and the Communist Party, but not his communism. He’d protest against the Iraq War and join Springsteen in singing “This Land Is Your Land” to celebrate the inauguration of Barack Obama.

It’s a testament to how deeply Seeger is associated with the American folk music tradition that Springsteen’s We Shall Overcome could be subtitled “The Seeger Sessions,” despite the fact that not a single song Seeger wrote appears on it. It’s entirely inspired by the songs that Seeger lifted up by including them in the rotation of music he performed regularly. And Seeger didn’t just help compile the folk canon: he contributed to it, with songs like “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” “If I Had a Hammer (The Hammer Song),” both composed with other musicians, and “Turn, Turn, Turn!”, all of which have been covered repeatedly, and in some cases are now associated even more closely with other artists than with Seeger himself.

Being, as Springsteen put it “a link in the thread of people who sing in others’ voices,” can be a complicated position to occupy, particularly in an American musical tradition that reflects the country’s racial dynamics. And Seeger’s career included a number of moments that might be cultural flashpoints today. His first major group, the Weavers, had a hit with their recording of “Goodnight, Irene,” the folk standard that Huddie Ledbetter, better known as Lead Belly, first recorded. (They also recorded “Wimoweh,” a mishearing of ““Mbube,” first recorded by the South African musician Solomon Popoli Linda.) Some contemporary reviews noted that the Weavers had made a song about suicide and romantic disappointment more palatable for a mass audience by eliminating some of Lead Belly’s lyrics, but the song went to number one and stayed there for thirteen weeks. In the version of the song I’ve linked to here, the groups works an acknowledgement of their debt to Ledbetter into their performance, and notes that he died before the song he originated became a national sensation. It’s a poignant illustration that the difficult conversations about race, credit, and art that occur today have been a feature of the American cultural landscape for sixty-five years.

A similar discomfort runs through the idea that Seeger popularized “We Shall Overcome,” as a Civil Rights protest song. Seeger learned the original spiritual from Zilphia Horton, the music director of the Highland Folk Center, and began performing himself, and often is cited, sometimes by his own account, as the person who changed the song’s lyrics from “We will overcome” to “We shall overcome.” “I remember teaching it to a gang in Carnegie Hall that year, and the following year I put it in a little music magazine called People’s Songs,” Seeger told NPR last August for a piece about the song’s history. “Over the years, I remember singing it two different ways. I’m usually credited with changing [‘Will’] to ‘Shall,’ but there was a black woman who taught at Highlander Center, a wonderful person named Septima Clark. And she always liked shall, too, I’m told.”

This aspect of Seeger’s career raises tremendously difficult questions that remain unresolved in American music today. Who has the right to perform what songs? What are the costs, consequences, and benefits when white artists bring minority music to wider audiences? How does that music change when it moves from one artist’s hands and lips to another’s? How can we encourage listeners to seek out the original versions of cover songs they’ve come to love? How can white artists most effectively use the platforms that have been given to them to help artists of color find the recognition they deserve? It’s entirely keeping with Seeger’s voracious curiosity, his work to promote other artists, and his political engagement that his passing be an opportunity to continue our conversations on these subjects.

Seeger told Alec Wilkinson that his father had developed principles to be used to judge music. “He also wrote,” Wilkinson explained, “that the necessary question to ask was not ‘”Is it good music?” but ‘”What is the music good for?”‘; and if it bids fair to aid in the welding of the people into more independent, capable and democratic action, it must be approved.'” Seeger’s legacy was to help collapse the division that his father had set up, and to remind us that songs can be both good and good for something. “Through all the tumult and the strife,” he sang, “I hear the music ringing; It sounds an echo in my soul / How can I keep from singing?”