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Happy Birthday, Pete Seeger

Pete Seeger would have turned 100 today. Few figures in American history have lived as influential and deeply radical lives as he did. Let's celebrate him today.

Pete Seeger performs in the Clearwater Benefit Concert Celebrating his ninetieth birthday at Madison Square Garden on May 3, 2009 in New York City. Bryan Bedder / Getty

Pete Seeger, one of the most influential artists in American history, would be 100 on May 3, were he still alive.

Pete provided much of the soundtrack for the political awakening of several generations of activists. The songs he wrote, including the antiwar tunes, “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” “If I Had a Hammer” and “Turn, Turn, Turn,” and those he has popularized, including “This Land Is Your Land” and “We Shall Overcome,” have been recorded by hundreds of artists in many languages and have become global anthems for people fighting for freedom. He introduced Americans to songs from other cultures, like “Wimoweh” (“The Lion Sleeps Tonight”) from South Africa, “Tzena, Tzena” from Israel (which reached number two on the pop charts), and “Guantanamera” from Cuba, inspiring what is now called “world music.”

Thanks to Seeger’s influence, protest songs — via folk, rock, blues, and soul genres — became popular and even commercially successful. He recorded over eighty albums — of children’s songs, labor, civil rights, and antiwar songs, traditional American folk songs, international songs, and Christmas songs. Among performers around the globe, Seeger became a symbol of a principled artist deeply engaged in the world.

Yet even during the height of the 1950s and 1960s folk revival and the popularity of protest music, Seeger was blocked from network TV and the media spotlight because of his left-wing politics. Millions sang his songs without knowing his name.

Seeger’s life and legacy offers some clues for working through perennial riddles faced by American socialists and radicals. How to make use of a relatively privileged background to promote social justice — rather than be paralyzed by guilt? How to create a popular art that doesn’t succumb to banality, cynicism, or spectacle, but that helps inspire activism?

Early Days

Seeger came of age during the 1930s, when many artists, playwrights, novelists, filmmakers, and musicians aligned themselves with the upsurge of worker militancy and protest. His father, Charles Seeger, and his stepmother, Ruth Crawford Seeger, were leaders in these efforts. Charles, a well-known composer and musicologist, helped create a collective of radically minded composers during the Depression, hoping (and largely failing) to invent a revolutionary proletarian music.

Many participants, including Aaron Copland, Marc Blitzstein, and Earl Robinson, became major figures in classical music and musical theater. Charles eventually was drawn to the notion of creating a democratic popular song movement by reviving the work songs, spirituals, ballads, and dance tunes of American racial, ethnic, and regional subcultures.

It was that vision that inspired the young Pete. During a visit to a folk music festival in North Carolina while still in high school, he heard bluegrass music played on a five-string banjo for the first time. When he returned home, he listened to records and learned to imitate what he heard. In 1938, he dropped out of Harvard in his sophomore year to try his own hand at changing society by becoming a banjo-picking itinerant folk musician.

A major influence was folklorist Alan Lomax, who produced recordings of politically conscious folk musicians like ex-convict Huddie Ledbetter (known as “Leadbelly”), Appalachian mineworker organizer Aunt Molly Jackson, and Woody Guthrie. Lomax hired Pete to work for him at the Library of Congress’s Archive of American Folk Song, where he learned many of the songs he would sing throughout his career.

Pete’s life mission was crystallized when he met Guthrie in March 1940 at a benefit to raise money for migrant farm workers. Pete was impressed by Guthrie’s ability to fuse folk melodies and lyrics about contemporary events. Guthrie had become a radio voice for the swelling Okie population of Southern California, singing about their plight, and developed close ties to union and Communist activists. Pete traveled with Guthrie, singing at migrant labor camps and union halls, and developing his performance skills.

In 1941, at age twenty-two, Seeger formed the Almanac Singers with Lee Hays and Millard Lampell, later joined by Guthrie, Bess Lomax, and others who rotated in and out of the group.

The Almanacs lived and worked collectively, playing at union rallies and left-wing benefits, composing songs they hoped would serve the organizing efforts of the time, including Guthrie’s “Union Maid” and Pete’s “Talking Union,” his first composition. Even Eleanor Roosevelt was a fan. But the Almanacs Communist affiliations made them a target of right-wing press red-baiting and FBI scrutiny. The group disbanded when Pete and Woody joined the armed forces in 1943.

Pete, Woody, and other left-wing musicians wrote a flood of patriotic songs. They hoped that the war against fascism would set the stage for a struggle to end racism in America. In the immediate aftermath of the war, a massive strike wave seemed to portend a progressive political movement to advance beyond the New Deal.

Targeted by the Red Scare

Filled with optimism, in 1946 Seeger led the effort to create People’s Songs, an organization of progressive songwriters and performers, dominated by but not confined to folk musicians, and People’s Artists, a booking agency to help members get concert gigs and recording contracts.

When former vice president Henry Wallace ran for president on the Progressive Party ticket in 1948, Seeger traveled with him, distributing song sheets at every meeting or rally so that sing-alongs, led by Seeger, would alternate with Wallace’s speeches.

That year, Seeger and Hays (both former Almanacs), along with Ronnie Gilbert and Fred Hellerman, formed the Weavers, hoping to continue what the Almanacs had started but aiming for more mainstream audiences. Their repertoire featured dynamic arrangements of American and global folk songs, with an occasional political song, that proved popular as a nightclub act.

Gordon Jenkins, a leading record impresario, saw them at the Village Vanguard and signed the group with Decca Records. They had several huge hits. In 1950 their recording of an Israeli song, “Tzena Tzena,” reached number two on the pop charts, and their version of Leadbelly’s “Goodnight, Irene,” reached number one and stayed on the charts for half a year. Other recordings — “On Top of Old Smokey,” “Kisses Sweeter Than Wine,” “Wimoweh,” and “Midnight Special” — also made the charts; their 1951 recording of Guthrie’s “So Long It’s Been Good to Know You” reached number four.

But the Weavers’ commercial success was short-lived. As soon as they began to be widely noticed, they were targeted by anticommunist witch-hunters.

Several former FBI agents founded the newsletter Counterattack in 1947 to expose Communism in American society. In 1950, the newsletter issued a special report, “Red Channels: The Report of Communist Influence in Radio and Television.” It listed 151 actors, writers, musicians, broadcast journalists, and others whom it claimed were part of the Communist influence in the entertainment industry — including Seeger and the Weavers. Hollywood studios, TV shows, and other venues blacklisted people who were named.

The Weavers survived for another year, but the escalating Red Scare caught up with them. Their contract for a summer television show was canceled. They could no longer get bookings in top nightclubs. Radio stations stopped playing their songs, their records stopped selling. They never had another hit record.

Seeger left the Weavers to pursue a solo career, but he was blacklisted from the early 1950s through the mid-1960s. In 1955 he was convicted of contempt of Congress for refusing to discuss his political affiliations at a hearing called by the House Committee on Un-American Activities, basing his refusal on the First Amendment. It took seven years for the courts finally to overturn that conviction and validate Pete’s stance.

Even as the McCarthyist fever was lifting, Seeger was kept off network television. In 1963 ABC refused to allow him to appear on Hootenanny, a weekly show that owed its existence to the folk music revival Seeger had helped inspire. Joan Baez and other young folk singers boycotted the show, but Seeger advised them instead to use the opportunity. Ironically, “hootenanny” was a word that Seeger and Guthrie had popularized, using it to label the free-form folk music concert/parties that were spreading around the country.

During the blacklist years, Seeger made a living by giving guitar and banjo lessons and singing at the summer camps, churches, high schools and colleges, and union halls that were courageous enough to invite the controversial balladeer.

In 1966, he hosted a folk music program on a New York City’s nonprofit UHF TV channel, Rainbow Quest. His guests comprised a racially and musically diverse group of veteran and newly emerging country, bluegrass and folk singers, including Johnny Cash, Doc Watson, Roscoe Holcomb, Judy Collins, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, the Clancy brothers, Elizabeth Cotton, Rev. Gary Davis, Len Chandler, Tom Paxton, Bernice Reagon, Jean Ritchie, and Patrick Sky. The station had a limited viewership at the time, but the programs were taped; some can be viewed on YouTube and bought on DVD.

Out From Under the Blacklist

Despite his exclusion from mainstream media, Seeger’s cultural significance grew enormously in the sixties.

In the 1960s he sang with civil rights workers at rallies and churches in the South and at the march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. Along with the Highlander Center’s Guy Carawan, he popularized the song “We Shall Overcome” among civil rights activists and at concerts in the United States and around the world.

He invited the Freedom Singers — a group of SNCC activists — on stages and supported their efforts. He got a Carnegie Hall audience to sing songs of the Southern freedom movement, just when these songs were on the lips of teenagers being hosed down in Birmingham. In a letter to Seeger, Martin Luther King Jr thanked him for his “moral support and Christian generosity.”

As the anti-Vietnam War movement emerged, Pete and banjo were frequently seen on protest front lines. In the process, Pete’s youthful hope of helping foster a movement that sings was coming true.

Pete began to break through the mainstream media blacklist. He signed a contract with Columbia Records, which promoted his growing number of albums, filled with labor, civil rights, and peace songs as well as special songs for children, including the popular “Abiyoyo.” In 1966, Seeger recorded an antiwar anthem, “Bring ‘Em Home.” “If I Had a Hammer,” “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” and “Turn, Turn, Turn” became major hits for other artists like Peter, Paul, and Mary, the Byrds, Trini Lopez, and even Marlene Dietrich.

One of the most popular network TV shows in the late 1960s was a variety program hosted by the wise-cracking, folk-singing Smothers Brothers. In September 1967 Tom and Dick Smothers defiantly invited Seeger onto their CBS show, the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, to challenge the blacklist. True to his principles, Seeger insisted on singing a newly composed antiwar song, “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy.”

CBS censors refused to air the song, but public outrage forced the network to relent and allow him to perform the song on the show a few months later, on February 17, 1968. The audience for that show — 13.5 million households — was even larger than Seeger’s appearance five months earlier.

Two days after Seeger sang “Big Muddy,” CBS news anchor Walter Cronkite — perhaps the nation’s most trusted person — called on President Lyndon Johnson to withdraw American troops from Vietnam. On March 31, Johnson — facing strong opposition from antiwar candidates Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy — announced he would not seek reelection that year. Quite possibly Pete’s lyrics about the “big muddy” and the “big fool” had something to do with LBJ’s political demise.

Vindicated, Finally

Perhaps to Pete’s surprise, mainstream America eventually acknowledged his cultural role and moral stature during the final two decades of his life. In 1993, he received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. A year later, he was honored by the Kennedy Center and President Bill Clinton presented him with the National Medal of Arts. In 1996, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In 2009, he and Bruce Springsteen sang at Barack Obama‘s inaugural celebration at the Lincoln Memorial — leading more than half a million people on the mall and millions of people watching on TV in a rendition of “This Land is Your Land.”

Pete told his own story in a kind of narrative songbook, Where Have all the Flowers Gone? in 1993. He also became the subject of several biographies, including David King Dunaway’s How Can I Keep from Singing? The Ballad of Pete Seeger, Alec Wilkinson’s The Protest Singer: An Intimate Portrait of Pete Seeger, and Alan Winkler’s To Everything There Is a Season: Pete Seeger and the Power of Song, and several books for children. Folk historians Ronald D. Cohen and James Capaldi edited a book of articles about him called The Pete Seeger Reader, and in 2007 PBS broadcast Jim Brown’s documentary, “Pete Seeger: The Power of Song” as part of its American Masters series.

Late in life, he welcomed Rob Rosenthal, a Wesleyan University sociologist, and Sam Rosenthal, a musician and writer, to dig through his extensive writings — letters stored for decades in his family barn, notes to himself, published articles, rough drafts, stories, books, poems, and songs— to produce Pete Seeger: In His Own Words, published in 2012

Some of the nation’s most prominent singers recorded songs honoring Seeger, including Springsteen’s Seeger Sessions. On his ninetieth birthday in May 2009, more than 15,000 admirers filled New York City’s Madison Square Garden for a concert honoring Seeger. The performers included Springsteen, Baez, Tom Morello, Dave Matthews, Emmylou Harris, Billy Bragg, Rufus Wainwright, Bela Fleck, Taj Mahal, Roger McGuinn, Steve Earle, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Dar Williams, Ani DiFranco, and John Mellencamp.

Throughout his life, Seeger believed that his mission that was not just about injecting politically conscious songs into the musical mainstream. He sang plenty of songs supporting particular causes and campaigns, but that was not his essential purpose. His ultimate goal, one that he learned from his father, was to help inspire and sustain democratic action.

The best testament to this vision can be seen in his public performances and in the way he lived his life. He wanted people to make their own music, and realize their own power, rather than be passive consumers or docile citizens.

Pete was an outstanding musician, inventive and skillful with the five-string banjo (which he brought out of obscurity) and the twelve-string guitar (which he learned to play from Leadbelly). His voice was a serviceable if cracked tenor. But people didn’t go to a Seeger concert to watch him play and sing — nor did he want that. Instead, he wanted people went to participate.

His concerts and records taught audiences songs to take away and sing on their own. He carefully crafted a stage persona that inspired audiences to join him. Every Seeger concert involved a lot of group singing, including multipart harmonizing of South African chants, gospel hymns, rounds, and anthems — which Pete would elicit with patient insistence.

He introduced audiences to song-makers like Leadbelly and Guthrie from his earlier days, and in so doing revealed song treasures and life stories that have become integral to American culture. He sang new songs by writers that his audiences may never have heard of. He was one of the first to perform Dylan’s early songs. He taught audiences songs about workers, draft resisters, civil rights activists, and Wall Street Occupiers. He taught the world “We Shall Overcome,” and asked British folksinger Billy Bragg to write new words appropriate to Tiananmen Square and incidents of nonviolent resistance.

Seeger was an organizer as well as an artist. He organized the Almanac Singers and People’s Artists. In 1950, he helped found and sustain Sing Out! magazine, which has served as a primary folk music source ever since. In 1959, he helped launch the Newport Folk Festival, which brought together on a shared stage the practitioners of every kind of roots music, and is still going on.

In 1969, he started the nonprofit group Clearwater, near his home in Beacon, New York, that included a newly built sloop and an annual celebration dedicated to cleaning up the polluted Hudson River. The effort, at first written off as simplistic and naive, helped inspire the environmental movement. The Hudson, once filled with oil pollution, sewage, and toxic chemicals, is now swimmable.

An Authentic, Radical Life

Seeger owned much of his success to his wife Toshi Ohta Seeger. Although Harold Leventhal was Pete’s professional manager, Toshi was the one who organized his personal and political affairs. The couple, married in 1939, lived most of their life together in a log cabin close to the river, a place they built and developed with their own hands and where they raised their children. Toshi died in July 2013; Pete died six months later at age ninety-four.

To honor the hundredth anniversary of his birth, his fans will be sponsoring many concerts, tributes, publications, and, in May, a comprehensive six-CD set, Pete Seeger: The Smithsonian Folkways Collection, which includes twenty previously unreleased recordings, accompanied by a two hundred page book.

Pete Seeger’s life is one worth examining. Very few people in American history have lived more authentic and morally radical lives.

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About the Author

Dick Flacks is emeritus professor of sociology at the University of California, Santa Barbara. His most recent book (co-authored with Mickey Flacks) is Making History / Making Blintzes: How Two Red Diaper Babies Found Each Other and Discovered America. His weekly radio program, “Culture of Protest,” has been heard for thirty-five years at www.kcsb.org. He co-authored, with Rob Rosenthal, Playing for Change: Music and Musicians in the Service of Social Movements.

Peter Dreier is the E.P. Clapp distinguished professor of politics at Occidental College. His most recent book is The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century: A Social Justice Hall of Fame. His next book, We Own the Future: Democratic Socialism — American Style, a collection of essays co-edited with Kate Aronoff and Michael Kazin, will be published in 2020 by The New Press.

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