Editor: We just heard that 94-year-old Pete Seeger has just passed away. When Pete hit 90, we shared the following review of his project by Richard Flacks, a retired UC Santa Barbara professor who has long written about US culture.
BY Dick Flacks
[When] Pete Seeger turned 90 on May 3, 2009, it provided the occasion for a huge Madison Square Garden celebratory concert, featuring a wide array of popular musicians singing his songs and honoring his influence. In the years prior to this event, Pete has gotten more mainstream attention than he’d received in the previous 70 years of performing. Springsteen’s recorded several CD’s called ‘The Seeger Sessions’ and simultaneously went on an international tour featuring material drawn from Seeger’s folksong repertory. There was a documentary film bio, released on public tv and theatrically, called Pete Seeger :The power of song. There’s an ongoing campaign to get him nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.
A long adulatory essay on Seeger appeared in The New Yorker, and an extended version is now out as one of three recently published biographies. In addition to the essay by Alec Wilkinson, there is a biographical narrative by historian Allan Winkler, and a major revised updating of David Dunaway’s ‘official’ biography originally published in 1981. In what follows, I want to reflect on Pete Seeger’s life project, using these books (as well as my personal experience as a life-long fan) as source material.
The attention Pete is now getting is certainly deserved, given his influence on American music and the nature of his life story. Yet, one feature of that story is that he is one of the least well known famous persons in America. I use protest music a lot in my teaching about social movements; over the years, I’ve found that fewer than 5% of my students can identify Seeger ( and this is probably a higher proportion than one would find in a sample of the wider public.) Of course, the attention he’s gotten in recent years has undoubtedly enabled many more to identify him, but he remains paradoxically shadowy, given his importance.
Yet this paradox goes to the heart of what his life has been about.
One obvious reason for Seeger’s marginalization has been his lifelong commitment to the Left. His father, the noted composer and musicologist Charles Seeger was an important leader of the cultural front fostered by the Communist Party during the Thirties. Charles helped form a composers’ collective (whose membership included Marc Blitztein, Aaron Copland and other young radical musicians) seeking to create a new music for revolutionary workers, and eventually working to preserve and reinvigorate folk and vernacular musics as an alternative to commodified mass culture. So Pete grew up immersed in the Left, joined the Young Ccommunist League during his brief time at Harvard, and was a Communist Party member (according to his biographers) during most of the 1940s. Although he stopped formal membership in the party in the late 40s, he was one of the star cultural figures of the communist oriented left for many years after that. Teenagers like me and my wife (both red diaper babies) were proud that Pete was ‘ours’; there he was at benefits, and hootenannies, summer camps and rallies that defined much of our particular cultural lives during the Fifties when kids of our background felt pretty isolated from the political and cultural mainstream. Pete Seeger’s allegiances made him the prototype of the blacklisted entertainer, and it was the blacklist which excluded him from TV and blanked him out of the awareness of mainstream America.
But that exclusion was not a tragedy for Pete’s life project. On the contrary, it compelled him to fulfill that project rather than succumb to temptations to modify it that might have come from more conventional commercial success. I want here to spell out what that project was, and how it affected history.
Alec Wilkinson’s portrait of Seeger defines him as the epitome of the rugged individualist. We see him in very old age, living in a house he has built on the banks of the Hudson River. He, his wife Toshi and their small children moved there in the Forties, and their lives for a time were indeed rugged-without electricity and running water for a while, chopping wood, growing food in a clearing in the forest. Of course, they added modern amenities, but remained close to the land. Near the end of the book, we see Seeger and members of his clan collecting sap and making maple syrup. Wilkinson appreciates the paradox that this man, long reviled as a communist, has tried to live the American ideal of the self-made, self-sufficient man.
But Seeger was, in fact, a Communist, and continues to describe himself as a ‘communist with a small c’. His biographers suggest that when he was a party member, he was someties at odds with party discipline. In the thirties, many CPers from comfortable backgrounds felt the need to demonstrate their revolutionary bona fides by slavish conformity to party lines and party demands. Seeger is described, by Dunaway, as restless with such demands, avoiding boring meetings, alienated by abstract theorizing. Indeed, his dedication to the promotion of folk music was not particularly appreciated by party cultural commissars. But alongside these deviations, he has had to live down the fact that the Almanac Singers he helped to found began in the aftermath of the Hitler-Stalin Pact, by recording a group of anti-war songs condemning the start of conscription and FDR’s military build-up. As soon as the Soviet Union was attacked by Hitler, the American Party became a leading advocate of war against the Nazis; the Almanacs put out an album supporting the war effort and their ‘pacifist’ album was pulled from the market. It’s a tale often used to demonstrate that the CPUSA was Stalin’s tool, and how its members were unable to think and act in principled ways. There are some who still can’t forgive Pete Seeger for this episode.
But Pete Seeger was raised by his father to live a principled life. You can get a flavor of Charles Seeger’s moral perspective by looking at his list of the ‘purposes of music’ printed as an appendix to Wilkinson’s book. “Music, like any arts, is not an end in itself, but a means to larger ends.” Charles’ principles emphasize that music as group activity is more important than individual accomplishment, that ‘musical culture’ of a nation depends on the people’s participation in it rather than on the virtuosity of a few, that
‘vernacular’ music is the foundation from which all other musics derive, that music should ‘aid in the welding of the people into more independent, capable, and democratic action.’ We can read in these lines the principled foundation for Pete Seeger’s seventy years as an artist and political being. They are a primary source for the life project he began to formulate and implement when he was in his early twenties.
I use the word ‘project’ instead of ‘career’ because Seeger himself resisted talking about his ‘career’. The word suggests that one is orienting one’s life toward personal success, climbing a ladder of accomplishment and fame. Seeger from the outset instead set out to channel his ambition toward social and cultural change and, more than most politically minded performers, to exorcise his strivings for personal recognition. The Almanacs in the early forties performed anonymously (and Pete often used an assumed name in those years), emulating various European artistic collectives of that time. A number of politically committed young musicians were part of the Almanacs collective, but Pete, in his early 20s, was the most disciplined–focused on enabling the group to stay together and achieve its shared purpose-which was to create new songs, rooted in vernacular music with lyrics that might mobilize political action.
The Almanacs’ most lasting songs were those, like Woody Guthrie’s ‘Union Maid’ that became anthems of the CIO organizing campaigns, or that spurred anti-Nazi sentiment to support the war effort (‘The Sinking of the Reuben James’).Their performances were deliberately unpolished (Guthrie said that they ‘rehearsed on stage’). In the entertainment world, there was something new and attractively fresh about such public spontaneity, and about the fusion of folk music and contemporary urban topics. The middle class Almanacs, especially Seeger, undoubtedly thought that their unprofessional style (they wore blue jeans or overalls) would help them forge connections to the working class audiences they hoped to reach. That assumption has often been mocked; workers were much more likely to want the polished performances of Tommy Dorsey, Bing Crosby or the Andrew Sisters. But this criticism misses the deeper aims of Seeger’s project. It was not popularity or smooth acceptance that he was trying to gain, but the making of space for a popular music that would be created not for the commercial market, but for sustaining the ‘democratic action’ envisioned by his father.
The Almanacs’ collective didn’t last long, in part because several members, including Seeger and Guthrie, entered military service. While in uniform, Seeger continued his project–recording songs of the Spanish civil war and a number of other topical songs (accompanied by other emerging folksingers like Burl Ives, Josh White, and Sonny Terry). He served in the Philippines as an entertainer for wounded GIs, learning quite a bit about how music can work to build collective morale. By war’s end, he was certain that making politically relevant music was his life’s work.
After the war, Seeger’s energies turned in a surprising direction-toward organizational entrepreneurship rather than merely performing. He sparked the formation of a national network of leftwing music-makers (artists, songwriters, presenters, etc). “People’s Artists” (later called “People’s Songs”) to serve as a booking agency, a publisher of song filled newsletters and books, and a support framework for advancing a popular music relevant to political action. In the immediate postwar period, leftists hoped that the dynamism of the Thirties labor movement would continue, and that the social democratic logic of the New Deal would be followed by the post-FDR government. Seeger imagined that his people’s music network would be wedded to the unions and other social movements, providing fertile ground for growing a leftward popular culture. But a profound split in the union movement and the left on the ‘communist’ issue, in the context of the new Cold War, dashed such optimism. The People’s Song project provided a soundtrack for the 3rd Party Henry Wallace campaign in 1948, but the total failure of that candidacy and the increasing tempo of the red scare, thoroughly marginalized the network Seeger had worked so hard to build.
Still, Seeger’s penchant for organizational entrepreneurship was an important dimension of his work that deserves more attention than any of these biographies provide. He continued to be an organizer since those postwar years. Major successes: the song magazines Sing Out! and Broadside which published and publicized the politically conscious new songwriting of the Sixties; the Newport Folk Festivals in the late 50s and 60s, which brought together a new generation of troubadours with a vast array of traditional performers; a book (first edition mimeographed), How to play the 5 string banjo, taught tens of thousands to play this largely forgotten instrument; the formation of the Freedom Singers by SNCC, which toured to raise awareness and money for the Southern struggle (with Toshi as their agent); the Clearwater Sloop, which involved the construction of a large sailing vessel that sparked the movement to clean up the Hudson River and became the center of an ongoing environmental education program. None of these efforts were single-handedly created by Seeger, of course. Indeed, his biographers suggest that he was not exactly a detail person. Toshi Seeger, Pete’s spouse of 67 years, early took on many of the managerial tasks his work required (while managing their household of 3 children in their log cabin). But he seems always to have had the ability to make the impossible seem plausible and thereby inspire and goad others to help fulfill various of his organizational visions. It’s a rare thing for an artist to be so preoccupied with the mundane tasks of concrete institution building. But he saw, from the start, that artistic efforts per se would not be enough to fulfill the overall project; cultural change is inextricably bound up with social organization.
Pete’s passion for building alternative institutions was rooted in the cultural Left’s longstanding ambivalence about the mainstream culture industry. Those, like Charles Seeger and Alan Lomax, who, in the thirties wanted to create a popular music rooted in American folk traditions thought that by so doing they would foster alternatives to mass culture dominated by commercial media. Woody Guthrie frequently expressed disdain for commercial music, and his legend, dramatized in the fictionalized bio film Bound for Glory, celebrated his deliberate refusal to accept radio network contracts and night club dates. The Almanacs and the postwar People’s Artists thought they could create a non-corporate, social movement based, apparatus to reach popular audiences, and those hopes were in some ways fulfilled (by a plethora of record labels, community radio stations, and the like). On the other hand, the Almanacs, from the beginning, were not averse to commercial opportunity; they and Woody Guthrie did land spots on network radio and in night clubs. Yet each time such breakthroughs happened, press uproars about their commie politics soon followed, and such bookings declined.
Seeger’s most promising mainstream venture was the effort by the Almanacs’ successor group, The Weavers, to work commercial venues. The quartet was born out of the People’s Artists/Henry Wallace cultural left, but was discovered and signed by Gordon Jenkins of Decca Records (one of the largest record labels of the 40s and 50s). Jenkins produced a series of Weavers’ hits (several of these among the biggest selling singles of the era) and they were booked into many of the leading club and concert venues. The Weavers themselves were uncomfortable with their handlers’ demands that they steer clear of the causes and organizations they had been used to working for, but it wasn’t long before right wing entrepreneurs of the emerging red hunt went after them, largely based on Seeger’s long association with ‘communist’ politics. Some two years after they had burst on the scene, the Weavers’ big time commercial recording and live performance career was over.
Seeger may have been disappointed that the Weavers’ successful popularization of folk music was so quickly aborted, but, with Toshi Seeger’s managerial efforts, he quickly embarked on a perpetual tour of America’s college campuses, summer camps, and auditoriums, where he honed a solo performance style and repertory that defined who he was as a musician, and in the process brought into being a rag tag army of young fans. He was reviving for urban audiences, not only the musical roots of the country, but the ancient role of the troubadour, bringing the news through song.
Seeger’s commitment to his project was embodied in a particular performance style. The key for him was not the display of his own talent and skill, nor to thrill or entice an audience. It was instead to bring songs to people so that they could make them their own. Every Seeger performance was centered on group singing. Simply getting a mass audience to join in requires skill, but he aimed further– to teach new songs, and to foster singing in harmony. He particularly relished teaching South African songs in their original language that involved two or three competing melodic lines (most famously “Wimoweh” but there were a number of others).
Seeger has not to my knowledge laid out a full fledged theory to explain his emphasis on mass singing. Such a theory is implicit in his performances: There is an empowering effect in the very sound of a singing assembly; there is a persuasive effect that can come when audience members sing lyrics expressing a political perspective or commitment; there is a sense of mutual validation when a crowd of people sing together in an attitude of resistance. And, once you sing a song, there is a good chance that you will be able to reproduce it by and for yourself, with no need for the professional performer to evoke it. By working as a song leader and teacher, Pete was achieving Charles Seeger’s wish for a mode of musical performance that had an ability to ‘aid in the welding of the people into more independent, capable, and democratic action.’
Pete Seeger’s blacklisting by network TV lasted at least 15 years. It meant that access to mass audiences in US was impossible for him to achieve. Still, Seeger’s cultural impact steadily increased in those years. The Weavers reunited in an historic Carnegie Hall Christmas season concert in 1955 and thereby defied the blacklist; the recording of this event on the upstart Vanguard label hit the charts, and the group continued to tour and record for several more years (although Seeger separated from it). Seeger drew ever larger concert crowds, including many of the young who heard him first at summer camp or college campus. He made, in that period, dozens of albums for Folkways.
Meanwhile, a pop-centered folk song revival became commercially huge. Weavers’ imitators, led by the Kingston Trio and later Peter, Paul and Mary, sold millions of records. Seeger and the Weavers had shown that folk music could sell, but the resulting commodification inevitably cheapened, denatured and contradicted Seeger’s project. His support of the Newport Folk Festivals helped provide alternative, more authentic access to rooted musics and performers. By the early sixties, a musical rebellion against pop folk was in the works, as a band of young troubadours, consciously following in Woody and Pete’s footsteps, started singing. Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Phil Ochs, Odetta and many others performed in newly started folk clubs, and recorded on upstart labels, appeared at civil rights and ban the bomb rallies, and dominated the college tours. Network TV shows featured many of these troubadours alongside the slick bands-but because Seeger was deliberately excluded from these shows, many of the young troubadours boycotted them (even though Pete personally encouraged some of them to seize the opportunity to get exposure).
The folk music revival was a political as well as cultural phenomenon. The festivals, concerts and clubs where folk fans congregated were among the prime social spaces for shaping awareness and engagement with the southern civil rights movement and the new left. The early sixties student activists saw Dylan, Ochs, Baez et al as ‘ours’ (much as red diaper babies in the early 50s claimed Pete Seeger).
Pete Seeger’s belief in the power of song derived in large part from history-the fact that a number of great social movements were fueled by music. There is a tradition of labor song in America, dating from the 19th century, and a number of songs from that tradition continue to this day to help define the identities of labor organizers, and raise the spirits on the picket line. The Almanacs and People’s Songs were experiments designed to make the US labor movement of the 30s and 40s a singing movement-but the results were mixed. Seeger’s dream of a singing mass movement was much more fully realized in the Sixties’ civil rights struggle.
Music of course has been a central feature of African American culture from its very origins. In the early Sixties, as marchers gathered in churches to prepare to challenge segregation with their very bodies, traditional songs and song styles used in these churches were turned into hymns of solidarity and shared risk-taking (with lyrics adapted for the occasion). Pete Seeger contributed to the development of this freedom singing; it was he who had first made ‘We Shall Overcome’ known to civil rights activists in the1950s, and his concerts in the early 60s taught the new freedom songs to mass audiences in the north. Pete encouraged Bernice Reagon to found the ‘Freedom Singers’ quartet modeled on the Almanacs, and he and Toshi managed the group’s touring across the country to raise support for SNCC. The music of the southern movement was an important factor in forging a moral identification with it among northern students-an identification that led to a flood of volunteers to southern organizing campaigns and manifold support efforts. In that period, Seeger’s project was finding its fulfillment in his work on stage and as an organizer. You can get a feel for that moment by listening to a recording of his concert in Carnegie Hall on June 8, 1963, available on the Columbia label under the title, ‘We Shall Overcome”. My wife and I were there, and remember it vividly as an experience in which those present were transformed from an audience into a community of active participants in history.
A few weeks after that concert, Pete and family embarked on a world tour; taking nearly a year of travel through Asia, Africa, Eastern and Western Europe. In some of those places, he was able to reach the mass audience denied him in the US: singing on India radio to an audience nearly the size of the American population according to Dunaway; teaching ‘We Shall Overcome’ to people across the planet (which helps account for the fact that it soon became the universal freedom anthem).
By his mid-40s, Pete Seeger could take satisfaction that his decision to organize his life around a principled project and disdain a ‘career’ had changed history. He, more than any other individual, had conceived and fostered a tradition of protest song, that drew from a number of cultural roots, that had significant political consequence, and that reshaped the forms and content of popular music. He revived the social role of the troubadour-a special kind of intellectual, who, as Bruce Springsteen said at Madison Square Garden, pointed a dagger at the heart of Americans’ illusions about their history while telling their stories in song. But he performed in ways that intended, and sometimes succeeded, in empowering audience members to sing their own songs, and find capacities for democratic action through that singing.
If he’s often portrayed as a victim of blacklist and censorship, it is clear that his long marginalization from the mainstream was necessary for the fulfillment of his project. When he refused to discuss his political allegiances with the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1955, (basing his non-cooperation on his first amendment rights rather than on the ‘fifth amendment’ right not to incriminate) Seeger’s stance took courage since it led the committee to charge him with 10 counts of contempt of congress, each punishable by a year in jail. Trial and appeal of these charges took some seven more years, and Seeger’s blacklisting was reinforced by the legal cloud he was under. In the end, the Court of Appeals overturned his conviction. It was in many ways a costly time for the Seegers, yet as a result he came, says Wilkinson, to “typify the principles of all the brave people he sang about.”
In our time, in a number of countries, troubadours have become icons of resistance. Pete Seeger did quite a bit to popularize such heroes. Joe Hill, the wobbly bard whose funeral after his execution for murder was attended by thousands was one of the sources for the Almanacs. Woody Guthrie’s legendary stature in American culture derives in part from Pete’s efforts to make him known. And then, in the sixties and seventies, iconic troubadours were born all over the place: Bob Marley in Jamaica, Victor Jara in Chile, Vladimir Vysotsky in the Soviet Union, Wolf Biermann in East Germany, Cui Jian in China, Miriam Makeba in South Africa. Some of these, like Jara, explicitly used Seeger and Guthrie as models. All were able to achieve iconic stature and profound popular affection despite, and because of, persecution, censorship, martyrdom. Meanwhile, all over the world, many hundreds of other singers have taken on the troubadour role, not as heroes and martyrs, but, like Seeger, as cultural workers pursuing various versions of his project.
The Madison Square Garden birthday celebration on May3, featured many of the American musicians of this sort. Some like Bruce Springsteen, and Dave Mathews have had enormous commercial success and most of the others on stage are probably better known to a wider public than Seeger himself. Their participation was evidence of the cultural effect of his project. Each of the stars testified explicitly or implicitly to the pull of Seeger’s example: to devote something of their work to movements and causes, to question if not defy the political and expressive constraints of the culture industry.
That event culminated several years in which that industry not only stopped blacklisting Seeger, but bestowed all kinds of honor on him: Springsteen’s Seeger sessions, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, documentary film-as well as such state honors as the Medal of Freedom and the Kennedy Center Award. A cynic might say that in America, political troublemakers are marginalized and suppressed, but when they are safely old or dead they are canonized. That’s how we periodically persuade ourselves that we really are a free country. But Seeger’s actual story as told in these books is more complex and more instructive. Alec Wilkinson’s brief essay hones in on Seeger as the epitome of America’s highest values: beneath his one-time Communist affiliations, he was always more like Thoreau-a thoroughly principled individualist, determined to show that each of us could make our own lives. Winkler emphasizes Seeger’s historical importance in relation to all of the major social movements of his time, recognizing that mainstream acceptance is hardly the measure of one’s influence (and includes a handy CD compilation of Seeger performances). David Dunaway’s book is an updating of his authoritative Seeger biography (originally published in 1981). This effort is far more detailed than the others, based on extensive interviews with Seeger and associates and extensive use of his papers. Dunaway gives us close up understanding of Seeger’s life choices in their political context. The book details the number of occasions when he entertained serious doubts about his project or his own capacities, doubts familiar to any political activist-the rising frustration when periods of mass action ebb, the sense of obsolescence that comes from personal aging and historical rupture.
At 90, we imagine Pete feeling enormous personal fulfillment. How rewarding to get to sing Woody Guthrie’s radical verses to ‘This Land is Your Land” at the inauguration concert for our first black president, side by side with one of the biggest stars of popular music! But I can hear him saying: “Yes, but will the human race survive the 21st century? There’s a 50/50 chance. We’ve got a lot of work to do.”
Winkler, Allan. ‘To everything there is a season’: Pete Seeger and the Power of Song. New York:Oxford University Press. 2009. 223pp + cd $23.95
Wilkinson, Alec. The Protest Singer: An Intimate Portrait of Pete Seeger. New York: Knopf, 2009. 152 pp $22.95
Dunaway, David King. “How Can I Keep From Singing?: The Ballad of Pete Seeger.
New York: Villard. 2008 512 pp. $18 (paper)