An understanding of the grand narrative of twentieth-century American folk music and its engagement with social protest can be best illustrated by adopting a table plan akin to that of Leonardo da Vinci’s ‘The Last Supper’. At the centre of the table is Woody Guthrie – part man, part mythological construct of hard times and the open road – with disciples seated near of varying importance, be they Huddie ‘Lead Belly’ Ledbetter, Cisco Huston, Josh White, Alan Lomax, Joan Baez, or Bob Dylan. Yet if we look to the figure of Saint Peter in this Christian iconography, we find a comparative figure for arguably the defining voice in the grand narrative of twentieth-century folk music; Pete Seeger. For it was Saint Peter, after all, who kept the story going, who progressed the narrative, spreading Christian thought – for better or worse – long after others at the table perished. The same could be said for Pete Seeger, Saint Pete, who kept the strand of social protest in American folk music alive, long after others had passed away or given up on the struggle. It was Saint Pete who survived and inspired, who kept fighting the good fight, who kept singing ‘We Shall Overcome’. ‘My job,’ he declared in 2009, ‘is to show folks there’s a lot of good music in this world, and if used right it may help to save the planet.’
Pete Seeger was born into a prosperous musical family in Manhattan, May 3rd, 1919. His mother was respected concert violinist Constance de Clyver Edson Seeger, while his father was ethnomusicologist Charles Seeger, an influential figure in American folk music, particularly given his involvement with The Composers Collective and his hand in compiling material for the Workers Songbook in 1934 and 1935. Young Pete was exposed to folk music from an early age, in 1921, when Pete was just 18 months, his parents’ sought to travel the US, bringing ‘good music to the countryside’ in the form of classical music played from the back of Charles Seeger’s specially constructed trailer. However, what they discovered was not countryside devoid of ‘good music’, but one rich in folk traditions and music. The experience transformed Charles Seeger, who developed a passion for folk music, which he passed onto his children, and notably Pete. Sadly, Pete’s parents divorced in 1927, but the passion for folk music in the Seeger household was furthered as a consequence, as Charles Seeger married folk collector Ruth Crawford Seeger, who passed on her knowledge of folk music to the teenage Pete who had begun singing. In fact, it was on a trip to a square-dance festival in North Carolina with Father Charles Seeger and his Stepmother Ruth Crawford Seeger in 1936, that Pete first discovered the five-string banjo; an instrument he became synonymous with.
Away from family life, Pete briefly studied journalism at Harvard University, only to drop out and pursue his true passion. Early on in his life, he also worked alongside his close friend Alan Lomax at the American Library of Congress, collecting and transcribing material for the Congress’ Archive of American Folk Song. However, it was when he met Woody Guthrie in 1940 that Pete submerged himself fully into the world of folk music, travelling the US with Woody Guthrie, both often hopping on freight trains, on their way to benefit concerts; or so the story goes. In 1940, along with Millard Lampell, Lee Hayes, and John Peter Dawes, Pete founded the legendary Almanac Singers, a group that would include, or sing alongside, at various times Woody Guthrie, Burl Ives, Sis Cunningham, Cisco Houston, Bess Lomax Hawes, and Josh White; all figures deserving a place at the grand table. It was around this time also, that Pete with Woody Guthrie and Alan Lomax began collecting folk material for the beautiful Hard Hitting Songs for Hard-Hit People, which would finally be completed in 1967, with 123 photographs and 195 songs transcribed by Pete.
During World War II, Pete served in a special ‘performers regiment’ of the US Army, often performing for troops patriotic Almanac songs such ‘Dear Mr. President’. After the war, Pete founded People’s Songs Inc., to advance the tradition of radical protest music. The organisation would also be heavy involved with the presidential campaign of liberal Henry Wallace. After the collapse of People’s Songs Inc. in 1949, due to financial reasons, Pete, alongside Lee Hayes, Ronnie Gilbert and Fred Hellerman, founded the hugely successful The Weavers, who between 1950 and 1952 sold over 4 million records. It is often with The Weavers that Pete is best associated, and in particular with the tracks ‘If I had a Hammer’, which he wrote with Lee Hayes, and ‘Goodnight Irene’, a track written by Lead Belly, but adapted by Seeger. As a songwriter, Pete is also known as having written in collaboration with others, hits such as ‘Turn! Turn! Turn!’, and ‘Where have all the Flowers Gone?’; yet it is a singer and protestor that Pete was happiest: ‘Hardly any of my songs have been written entirely by me,’ he once remarked ‘I swiped things here and there and wrote new verses’. This is certainly what he did with ‘We Shall Overcome’, a song re-worked by Pete, before becoming the defining song in post-war social protest.
Given his continual commitment to progress radical protest music with organisations like People’s Songs Inc., and later Peoples Artists, it is unsurprising that Pete was subpoenaed to testify before the House of Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in 1955, for apparent un-American association with communism. As a consequence of this, he was convicted for contempt of Congress, given he refused to plead the Fifth Amendment, but also refused to answer questions, or name-names. Upon his conviction Pete, eloquently declared:
I have been singing folksongs of America and other lands to people everywhere. I am proud that I never refused to sing to any group of people because I might disagree with some of the ideas of some of the people listening to me. I have sung for rich and poor, for Americans of every possible political and religious opinion and persuasion, of every race, colour, and creed. The House committee wished to pillory me because it didn’t like some few of the many thousands of places I have sung for.
Thus, Pete’s integrity and honour survived, and his place at the grand table of twentieth-century American folk music assured; canonised in his own life. But the narrative doesn’t end there, as Pete would go on protesting for the next forty plus years, through ‘Folk Revivals’, and declines. Along the way founding The Newport Folk Festival, a place where myth says he nearly took to using an axe to stop ‘Judas’ going electric (a reference to Bob Dylan’s famous 1965 performance). However, in all this time, through all the adversity, Pete kept singing and fighting for the causes he believed in, be they trade union, equality, or environmentally related. In 2009, at a 90th birthday celebration held at Manhattan’s Madison Square Garden, Bruce Springsteen said of Pete:
At some point, Pete Seeger decided he’d be a walking, singing reminder of all of America’s history. He’d be a living archive of America’s music and conscience, a testament of the power of song and culture to nudge history along, to push American events towards more humane and justified ends.
The Boss further added of all the injustice that Pete fought against, and all those who he fought, ‘Pete, you outlasted the bastards, man!’.
Pete Seeger died at New York Hospital after a short illness on Monday January 27, 2014, he was 94. His wife of 69 years the gifted filmmaker and fellow activist Toshi Seeger, passed away July 9, 2013; they married in 1943. Pete is survived by children Daniel, Mika, and Tinya, and grandchildren Tao, Cassie, Kitama Cahill-Jackson, Moraya, Penny, and Isabelle. During his life, Pete has received numerous accolades, including a Grammy Award for Lifetime Achievement, in 1994 he received from President Bill Clinton the National Medal of Arts, America’s highest arts honour, awarded by the National Endowment for the Arts; and in February 2014, he was set to receive the First ever Woody Guthrie Prize. Yet, despite all the richly deserved accolades, it is through his influence that Pete will best be remembered, as his continual commitment to progress radical protest through song can be found in obvious places like Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Bruce Springsteen, Steve Earle, Conor Oberst, and countless others, but also in less direct influence in groups like N.W.A. or performers such as Common.
When setting the places at the grand table of folk music, few will be as deserving a place as much as Pete Seeger. After all, it is Saint Pete who kept the story going, who fought the good fight, who reminded America and the world of the power of song and culture faced with injustice and adversity.