Folk revivalist Pete Seeger’s abundant life makes good literary fodder. David Dunaway wrote an exhaustive biography of the banjo picker, How Can I Keep From Singing, in 1981. Seeger himself put together an account in his 1993 autobiography Where Have All the Flowers Gone, supported by the transcripts of over 200 songs. But Alec Wilkinson’s small book is not meant to be definitive or even comprehensive. “Too much has been written about me, and at too great length,” the folksinger told Wilkinson over the telephone. “What’s needed is a book that can be read in one sitting.”
This extended profile — the hardcover is actually based on a piece Wilkinson wrote for the New Yorker — takes as its focus Seeger the man. It is just what its subtitle foretells: an intimate portrait. The Protest Singer passes over much, but goes on just long enough to paint a simple picture of a combatant for social justice, an anti-materialist, a woodsman, a patriot, an environmentalist, a near-90-year-old with a fierce regard for even-handedness.
Wilkinson is not so much a biographer as he is a conduit. As a narrator he treads exceptionally lightly — so lightly that Seeger actually plays the part of storyteller. The bard’s voice is far louder than the author’s; it dominates their conversation. Here is the narrative as it’s been told to Wilkinson by Pete. So often does the latter speak for himself in long blocks of quotation, it as though we are party to the interview.
Even the book’s language is governed by its subject. The prose is as unfussy and unapologetically direct as Seeger himself. Commercial success—of the type Seeger encountered when his folk quartet, the Weavers, sold a million copies of “Goodnight Irene”, say—has always made the protest singer uncomfortable. His ambitions are such that he prefers that listeners sing the folk songs themselves than buy his records. Toshi, Seeger’s wife of over 60 years, told Wilkinson of the “Goodnight Irene” period: “We gave up eating out in the city. Pete’s too modest to tell you.”
As a result of its humility, the writing sometimes feels barebones and without panache. But Wilkinson’s work does benefit from a deliberate style. Precisely because of its starkness, the text is powerful; there simply aren’t any extra words around to force themselves between reader and message. The author has discreet gifts: a penchant for clarity and a refreshing lack of pretension. Unassuming paragraphs often end off with brusque verbal bangs:
When the Weavers went on their first tour, Toshi went with them as manager, reluctantly. Seeger had thought he couldn’t do without her. They left their children in Beacon, in the care of Toshi’s mother and father and were gone for six months. When they returned, their son, Danny, who was four, said he didn’t recognize them. Toshi never left the children again.
The snapshots that Wilkinson has chosen to include are enough to attest to Seeger’s standing as a folk legend. At 30, he built with his bare hands a home for his family on a cliff in upstate New York, after looking up “log cabin” at the public library. He was called to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee for engaging in Communist goings-on and spent the many years he was blacklisted desperate to sing. (His brave and famously earnest testimony is included at the back of the book.) He has marched for the movements against the Vietnam War and for Civil Rights. And he spearheaded a society that teaches people about the pollution of the Hudson River using a replica of a 19th-century sloop as a platform. The river is now clean enough to swim in for about 150 miles.
But Wilkinson punctuates the legend with real moments from his talks with Seeger. With the tales of protest and daring, he affords us glimpses of an imperfect, vulnerable man. Toshi leaves a pear tart for Pete in the oven before leaving the house so that he can practice at taking care of himself in case anything should happen to her. Seeger wears “a knitted wool hat with a pom-pom on it”. Before a performance at a local elementary school, he sits cross-legged on the floor next to one of the little boys. “What’s your name?” he asks. “I’m Pete.” Seeger, who has changed the world through song, is still part child.
The pages are scattered with the simplest of observations. “Seeger chops wood every day and complains when he can’t” and “His conversation passes quickly from one subject to another, giving the impression that many things are occurring to him at once” and “Seeger has always preferred to hear his voice among other voices, rather than alone”. Wilkinson’s restraint is coupled with a rare perceptiveness; those who speak little oftentimes observe much. His sense of detail rounds off, and even fleshes out, a larger-than-life portrait.
Before undertaking this effort, the author had only seen Pete Seeger perform once. The musician and activist did not play a seminal role in Wilkinson’s adolescence; this is not a nostalgic or even sentimental account. It is a no-frills book by a writer who knew little about Seeger for readers who know even less. It is an introduction, propped up by old photographs of, among other things, just the singer and his banjo. But perhaps what was needed was a plain-spoken story to demythologize a man whose greatest concern has always been humanity.