[12 July 2009]
In January 2009, Pete Seeger appeared at the Inauguration concert for Barack Obama. With Bruce Springsteen on one side, and his grandson Tao Rodriguez-Seeger on the other, he led the crowd in Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land”, written in 1940 and first recorded in 1944. Seeger insisted that the trio perform all the verses. With the President-Elect sitting stage left (appropriately enough), Seeger sang:
As I went walking I saw a sign there
And on the sign it said “No Trespassing.”
But on the other side it didn’t say nothing,
That side was made for you and me.
What a moment that must have been for the 89-year-old folk singer who has devoted his life to writing, popularizing, and singing folk songs. Of course the best of those songs have always had a politics attached to them, and Seeger’s long, iconic career has been shaped by his commitment to social equality and equal rights. Two recent books survey Seeger’s journey and grapple with the musician’s political and musical ideology.
Allan Winkler, a distinguished historian at Miami University in Ohio, has written the best brief biography of Seeger in print. Based on extensive research in primary sources, and hours of conversation with Seeger and his wife Toshi, Winkler narrates and contextualizes the songwriter’s career.
Alec Wilkinson, a staff writer for the New Yorker, offers a more personal portrait that covers much the same ground but probes more deeply into Seeger’s temperament.
Born in May 1919, Seeger hails from a line of well-off New York professionals and intellectuals. He attended boarding school and then, in 1936, before matriculation at Harvard, he journeyed with his father, Charles Seeger, a distinguished musicologist, to the Ninth Annual Folk Song and Dance Festival in Asheville, North Carolina. He became hooked. “The songs had all the meat of life in them,” he later said.
Within a couple of years he had joined the communist party and dropped out of Harvard. He devoted himself first to the union movement, singing labor songs. He met Woody Guthrie and traveled cross country with him. Soon enough they joined up with Lee Hays and Millard Lampell to form the Almanac Singers, named because every house had a bible and an almanac. They had a hit in “Talking Union”, but with World War II they scattered.
Seeger was drafted and on leaving the military he started People’s Songs, conceived, according to Winkler, “to encourage the creation and spread of radical protest songs.” Seeger had a vision of thousands joining together in song and of the power of song to effect change.
After People’s Songs disbanded, Seeger bought land in Beacon, New York and went about clearing it and building his own home, a log cabin. He always had these dual sides: the activist engaged with the public in an attempt to bring about mass participation and meaningful change, and the loner, near hermit, who withdrew from various causes when they took unexpected turns. Seeger disdained celebrity and commercialism, and yet, in 1949, he found himself part of a quartet named The Weavers who had astonishing commercial success—over a two year period they sold four million records.
The Weavers became victims of the bourgeoning anti-communist crusade. Some viewed Seeger’s “If I Had a Hammer” as propaganda. Seeger was subpoenaed and testified before The House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) in August 1955. He refused to answer questions about communism, saying that they were improper, and he offered instead to sing songs and tell about his entire life.
In the aftermath, Seeger returned to a solo career, but he was blacklisted, banned from television, and had many of his concerts cancelled at the last moment. He became active in the peace movement and wrote “Where Have all The Flowers Gone”. He became active in the early civil rights movement and played a key role in rewriting and popularizing “We Shall Overcome”. He opposed the Vietnam War and wrote “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy”. He then embraced environmental causes and devoted himself to helping clean up the Hudson.
Both Winkler and Wilkinson are at times too deferential to Seeger’s vision. His unflagging optimism that songs can change the world can seem simplistic, and it would have been welcome had either author probed more deeply into how it is that music is transformative. Seeger himself has said, “I am really not so certain.”
Winkler accepts Seeger’s self-description as a radical, and there is no reason why he shouldn’t. But Wilkinson invites us to see what is root conservative about the singer: “he believes ardently in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. His interpretation of them is literal.”
It is only when demagogues from either side of the political spectrum ignore the truth that all humans are created equal and possess equal rights that the nation has gone off kilter. When it happens, as Pete Seeger told HUAC in 1955, “I continued singing, and I expect I always will.” When it happens, all you can do, as Bruce Springsteen told Seeger at his 90th birthday celebration, is to outlast the bastards.