P e t e ...S e e g e r
“Participation! It’s what all my work has been about.”
– Pete Seeger
While his frequently unpopular stances have perhaps cost him a greater and more superficial popularity through media and performance blacklisting for during the ’50s and ’60s, 90-year-old Pete’s fearless contributions have nonetheless earned him a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, three album Grammys, a Harvard Arts Medal, the Kennedy Center Award, the Presidential Medal of the Arts, a Lifetime Legends medal from the Library of Congress, a WhyHunger (World Hunger Year) - Chapin Award, and even enshrinement in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Bruce Springsteen’s 2006 We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions CD, subsequent tours and live album (all originally sparked by a 1998 request from Appleseed founder Jim Musselman for a Bruce rendition of a Seeger-related song for the first of the label’s three multi-artist Seeger tributes) have introduced new generations to Pete’s musical and moral legacy.
Born in 1919 to musicologist Dr. Charles Seeger and concert violinist Constance Edson Seeger, Pete developed interests in music and journalism during his teens, crafts he would intertwine throughout his career. In 1935, Dr. Seeger married Ruth Crawford, a composer, arranger, pianist, teacher and the first woman awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship for Music, and their union produced two more future folk music standard- bearers: Mike Seeger, a founding member of the New Lost City Ramblers, solo artist, and “old-time” music expert, and Peggy Seeger, one of the foremost interpreters of traditional US and UK traditional folk songs and a pioneering feminist songwriter, who has five CDs available in the Appleseed catalogue. The entire family’s achievements were celebrated in March 2007 at a two-day symposium presented by the U.S. Library of Congress, “How Can I Keep from Singing: A Seeger Family Tribute.”
A Harvard University dropout (he was in the same class as John F. Kennedy), Pete met, traveled and performed with the great topical folksong writer Woody Guthrie in 1940, inspiring Pete to start writing his own songs. Dedicating himself to “the music of the people,” Seeger, Guthrie and other musicians formed the politically oriented Almanac Singers later that year, before Pete was drafted into the Army in 1942 and sent to the Pacific. Pete’s experiences in traveling and performing with Woody, and Guthrie’s musical and cultural impact on America, are vividly recounted on 2012’s 2-CD Pete Remembers Woody, which intersperses Pete’s vivid, poignant, and often hilarious spoken word anecdotes about Guthrie with recordings of classic Guthrie songs by Pete, Woody’s son Arlo, and other “links in the chain” of topical folk music.
After the war, Seeger resumed his career as a performer and song collector, helping to found the still-existent Sing Out! magazine. In 1948, he formed The Weavers with Lee Hays, Ronnie Gilbert and Fred Hellerman, and within three years the group had sold four million records. It turned Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land” into an American standard, and its version of Leadbelly’s “Goodnight, Irene” topped the charts for six months. Blacklisted during the McCarthy era for alleged Communist sympathies and for Seeger’s refusal to testify before the House UnAmerican Activities Committee, the quartet disbanded in 1953, (although they reunited from 1955 to 1963). Pete left the group in 1958 but continued to record and to perform on the campus and international circuit, despite being informally banned from most TV and radio shows and many concert stages for the next 17 years. When the “folk boom” of the early 1960s exploded, performers such as the Kingston Trio, Peter, Paul and Mary and the Limelighters actually had hits with Seeger compositions “If I Had a Hammer” and “Where Have All the Flowers Gone.” As folk turned to rock in the mid-’60s, The Byrds brought Pete’s songs to a young, electrified audience with their versions of his “Turn! Turn! Turn!” and “Bells of Rhymney.”
During the ’60s, Pete participated in the Freedom Marches in Selma, Alabama, and Washington, DC, with Dr. Martin Luther King and helped bring an adapted version of the gospel song “We Shall Overcome” to the civil rights movement, where it became an anthem of hope and determination. Later in the decade, Pete could be found at rallies protesting the Vietnam War, and his anti-war song “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy” was initially banned from the popular “Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour” on TV, although he was eventually permitted to perform it on a later episode. A 1966 “pro-peace” Seeger song, “If You Love Your Uncle Sam (Bring Them Home),” was updated a few years ago with new lyrics (some by Appleseed’s Musselman) in response to the current Iraq War and appears on Seeds: The Songs of Pete Seeger, Vol. 3 and Sowing the Seeds – The 10th Anniversary, with Pete sharing vocals with younger musical/political firebrands Steve Earle, Ani DiFranco and Billy Bragg. Bruce Springsteen added still more new lyrics and performed the song as an encore on many of his “Seeger Sessions” tour dates in 2006 and 2007.
A song collector and collaborator as well as a songwriter, Seeger has always drawn inspiration not only from US current events and his own creative curiosity but from other cultures as well. He adapted that singalong hit, “Wimoweh,” from a South African folk song; he sings songs in Spanish (“Guantanamera”) and other languages; he performs the best work of international songwriters and brings “foreign” issues and characters into our lives.
Pete and his banjo have been at the forefront of many social justice causes here and abroad. He has written songs for and participated in the labor and environmental movements and helped to found the Clearwater organization to call attention to the pollution of New York’s Hudson River and other American waterways. Despite regular protestations in recent years that his concertizing days are behind him, Pete remains a committed citizen of the planet, materializing at events large and small to perform, speak, inspire and raise money and consciousness for a variety of social causes. His musical and political activism remain benchmarks for modern musicians; his repertoire of original or adapted songs, from exhortations to meditations to nonsense rhymes, remains a rich source of material for others, as Bruce Springsteen recently demonstrated. There’s even a song on Steve Earle’s recent CD, Washington Square Serenade, called “Steve’s Hammer (Pete’s Song),” dedicated to Seeger. When then-sapling Appleseed Recordings solicited musicians to contribute their versions of Seeger songs to a 1998 tribute to Pete, Where Have All the Flowers Gone: The Songs of Pete Seeger, the response from the pantheon of great folksingers young and old was so overwhelming that Flowers turned into an award-winning 2-CD set followed by two more volumes, If I Had a Song: The Songs of Pete Seeger, Vol. 2 and 2003 Grammy-finalist Seeds: The Songs of Pete Seeger, Vol. 3, a second 2-CD set that also incorporated Pete’s first solo album since 1999. The trio of celebrations of Pete’s music attracted newly recorded songs by politically outspoken musical performers and other public figures, from Springsteen, Earle, Jackson Browne and Ani DiFranco to actor/director Tim Robbins and journalist Studs Terkel.
On Pete’s latest CD of newly written songs, 2012’s A More Perfect Union, a collaboration with longtime friend and fellow singer-songwriter Lorre Wyatt, the duo’s recording sessions attracted vocal contributions from committed Seeger fans and politicized performers Springsteen, Earle, Tom Morello (Rage Against the Machine, The Nightwatchman), Emmylou Harris, and Dar Williams.
In addition to Seeger’s careers as musician and activist, he’s an author as well. Pete has written close to three dozen songbooks, instructional instrumental handbooks, children’s stories and other delightful works of fact and fiction. Pete has finally updated his musical autobiography, “Where Have All the Flowers Gone: A Singalong Memoir”; the new edition was published in 2009, coinciding with the release of Live in ’65, which followed his 2008 Grammy winning “Best Traditional Folk Album” At 89. David Dunaway’s authoritative Seeger biography, How Can I Keep from Singing (Villard), reappeared in updated form in 2009, and writer Alec Wilkinson’s lengthy New Yorker portrait of Pete was published in book form as The Protest Singer: An Intimate Portrait of Pete Seeger (Knopf) the same year. A new collection of Pete’s published writings, rough drafts, correspondence, stories, poems and notes to himself has been issued in 2012, Pete Seeger: In His Own Words (Paradigm).
And thankfully, we still have Pete and his wife of 60 years, Toshi, living on a wooded hillside overlooking their beloved Hudson River in Beacon, NY, where they long ago built a cabin using instructions from a library book. He’s chopping wood, he’s still recording some songs, and, like Steinbeck’s Tom Joad (in Woody Guthrie’s song), “Wherever little children go hungry and cry / Wherever people aren’t free / Where working people are fighting for their rights,” that’s where Pete will be – on the front line. Rare is the person whose life and art are seamless, who has the strength of his convictions and the courage to admit it when he’s wrong, who never stops trying to better the world. Pete Seeger is such a man.
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