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Pete Seeger (May 3, 1919 – January 27, 2014)

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Photo by Robert Corwin, AFC Robert Corwin Collection

On behalf of the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, I’m sad to pass along the news of the death of Pete Seeger, a longtime friend of the AFC Archive and a giant in the folk music world, one of the most significant American folk musicians ever. Many AFC staff members have personal reminiscences of Pete, which we’ll be gathering in the days to come.  Meanwhile, we wanted to place online an appreciation of all he has done for folk music and for AFC.  We have extensive collections relating to Pete and his family, but that’s only one part of his meaning for us.

Pete Seeger was part of an important musical family, the son of ethnomusicologist Charles Seeger and concert violinist Constance de Clyver Edson Seeger. He was exposed to folk music as a young child, when his parents took him on a musical expedition in a homemade trailer, designed to bring classical music to rural areas. John Seeger, Pete’s older brother, remembered the family’s experience at AFC’s 2007 symposium:

[Charles] said, ‘I’m going to take good music to the countryside, because they cannot afford orchestras, they cannot afford quartets…. So he spent a year and a half building that damn trailer!  What happened was, in western North Carolina, spending a winter there…at every farm he would say, ‘can my wife and I play you some music on Saturday?’  And after their music was over, the local farmers would say, ‘now, would you listen to our music?’  Every farm we went to, everyone could either play an instrument, or could sing, or could harmonize…and they all knew the songs!  What was he bringing music to the countryside for?  In March, as soon as the snow was gone, we all piled in the trailer, and we tore home, and he went to New York to teach!

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The Seegers get ready to leave Washington, D.C. for their “trailer trip” in 1921. Pete, at 18 months old, holds his mother’s hand.

Pete’s love of folk music stemmed from such childhood experiences.  When he was seven years old, his parents divorced, and his father later remarried, to the composer Ruth Crawford Seeger, who was also an important transcriber and arranger of folk music.  With both father and stepmother involved, his love for the music blossomed in his teenage years, and he began singing songs and learning to play the ukulele.  In 1936, he returned to western North Carolina with Charles and Ruth, and attended the Mountain Dance and Folk Festival, organized by local folklorist and performer Bascom Lamar Lunsford. There he heard the five-string banjo for the first time, and decided to learn to play it.

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Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie, circa 1940. This image was likely taken in Oklahoma City during a trip Pete and Woody made from Washington, D.C., to Pampa, Oklahoma. Courtesy of Guy Logsdon

In the 1930s, Pete was invited by his friend Alan Lomax to work at the Library of Congress Archive of American Folk Song, which is now the AFC Archive. There’s no record of his being paid, so we consider him the Archive’s first intern!  Several AFC collections from the 1930s and 1940s contain materials collected by Lomax and Seeger, as well as music and square-dance calls performed by Seeger alone and with groups.

In the early 1940s, Seeger began performing with The Almanac Singers, a group that also featured  Woody Guthrie. According to Pete, who told the story onstage at the Library’s Coolidge Auditorium during the Seeger Symposium concert in 2007:

Woody must have thought I was a queer duck. He was seven years older than I was. He said, ‘That Seeger is the youngest man I ever knew. He don’t drink, he don’t smoke, and he don’t chase girls.’ But I had a good ear and I could accompany Woody on every single song. So I tagged along with him for a while.

Although they got their start as both pro-labor and anti-war activists, the Almanac singers realized the importance of defeating Hitler, and Seeger wrote a song about that, entitled “Dear Mr. President,” which was also the title track of an Almanac Singers album.  He performed the song for the Library of Congress in January or February 1942 under the pseudonym of Pete Bowers; hear that recording here.

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Pete Seeger entertaining at the opening of the Washington, D.C. labor canteen, 1944. Note First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt in the crowd.

After service in World War II, Seeger continued his work as a musician, and rose to fame initially with the Weavers, a group founded on the model of the Almanac singers, but with fewer songs of protest and a more polished, nightclub-ready sound. The Weavers had several hits, especially a version of “Goodnight Irene,” which was a number-one hit in 1950. That song had been adapted by Huddie “Lead Belly” Ledbetter, from a version he learned from his uncle Bob; the AFC archive has recordings of Lead Belly and his Uncle singing the song. The Weavers’ career ended in 1953 due to the blacklist, although they did play reunion concerts on occasion after that.  The Weavers also served as primary inspiration for the Kingston Trio, the group that sparked the folk boom of the late 1950s and early 1960s, as well as countless other similar groups, from the Limelighters to the Clancy Brothers, making Pete Seeger one of the founding fathers of the whole American folk scene.

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Pete Seeger arrives at Federal Court with his guitar over his shoulder, April 1961. World Telegram photo by Walter Albertin.

In 1955, Pete answered a subpoena to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC).  He refused to plead the Fifth Amendment (which admitted the possibility that his testimony might incriminate him) and instead asserted a First Amendment right not to speak:

I am not going to answer any questions as to my association, my philosophical or religious beliefs or my political beliefs, or how I voted in any election, or any of these private affairs. I think these are very improper questions for any American to be asked, especially under such compulsion as this.

For this he was convicted of contempt of Congress in 1961, a conviction that was overturned a year later.  At his sentencing, he said:

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, color, 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.

AFC and the Library of Congress have produced online content in recent years on Pete Seeger and the Red Scare, including a lecture by David Dunaway and an essay by Stephanie Hall.

Despite these troubles, Seeger continued his career as an important songwriter and folksong specialist. He wrote “Where Have All the Flowers Gone” with AFC archivist Joe Hickerson, and “If I Had a Hammer” with Lee Hays. He changed the lyric of “We Will Overcome,” to “We Shall Overcome,” creating a beloved spiritual of the Civil Rights movement, and wrote the song “Turn! Turn! Turn!” based on Bible verses. He popularized many traditional folksongs, such as “Kumbaya,” giving them new, political connotations.  All these songs were hits for various popular folksingers. He also helped popularize the five-string banjo through his own music and by writing an important instruction book and recording, which were made into an instructional film; AFC has original film elements and other original footage from this and other Seeger films.

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Pete and Toshi Seeger, 1985. Photo by Robert Corwin, AFC Robert Corwin Collection.

Pete’s legacy can’t be understood without taking into account his wife Toshi, whom he married in 1943 and whom he always credited as making his career possible. In addition to other forms of support, Toshi was a gifted filmmaker, and during the 1960s the Seegers made wonderful films together, documenting traditional music and culture around the world, which they donated to the AFC archive in 2003. In 2006, AFC director Peggy Bulger and reference librarian Todd Harvey  interviewed both Pete and Toshi, and you can read an article based on the interview in Folklife Center News. Toshi passed away last year, a few days shy of their 70th wedding anniversary.

In addition to his work as a singer and songwriter, Pete Seeger was an activist for civil rights and environmental causes, especially in the Hudson Valley area of New York. He was founder of the Hudson River Sloop Clearwater organization and other charities and foundations.  AFC’s Civil Rights History Project interviewed him in 2013 about his work in that field, and we plan a blog post highlighting this interview soon.

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Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Librarian of Congress James H. Billington, and Pete Seeger at AFC’s Seeger Family Symposium, March 16, 2007. Photo by Robert Corwin, AFC Robert Corwin Collection.

Although Seeger had trouble with his voice in his 80s and 90s, he continued to perform, leading singalongs on many songs. His grandson Tao, a top folk musician, often toured with his grandfather, as well as singing and playing guitar, banjo, and harmonica with the Mammals.

In 2007, the American Folklife Center honored Seeger and other members of his family with a symposium entitled “How Can I Keep from Singing: A Seeger Family Tribute.” The two-day event was also the occasion for the last concert to feature Pete Seeger and his two half-siblings, Mike and Peggy Seeger, before Mike passed away in 2009. Please visit the symposium site, which contains links to webcasts of the symposium and concert, and to detailed lists of Seeger-related materials in the Archive.  You can also read about the Symposium in Folklife Center News.

The concert video, with a time log, is located here.

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Pete Seeger performs onstage at the Coolidge Auditorium as part of AFC’s Seeger Symposium, How Can I Keep from Singing? Photo by Robert Corwin, AFC Robert Corwin Collection.

AFC will continue to keep our friends informed about Pete’s legacy. In the meantime, we extend our sympathies to his many friends, especially his family, including children Daniel, Mika, and Tinya, and grandchildren Tao, Cassie, Kitama Cahill-Jackson, Moraya, Penny, and Isabelle.

Pete Seeger always believed in the power of folksongs to change the world.  In the era of increasing military technology, he became less convinced that the banjo would remain mightier than the sword.  Still, he refused to lose all hope.  In 2005, he was featured on NPR, where he drily quipped, “There’s no hope, but I may be wrong.”

On the day after his passing, none of Pete’s lyrics seem more appropriate than these, which he adapted from the Bible’s book of Ecclesiastes:

To Everything (Turn, Turn, Turn)
There is a season (Turn, Turn, Turn)
And a time to every purpose under Heaven
A time to be born, a time to die
A time to plant, a time to reap
A time to kill, a time to heal
A time to laugh, a time to weep

At the American Folklife Center, throughout the Library of Congress, and across America, it’s our time to weep.

17 Comments

  1. Ronald Hawkins
    January 28, 2014 at 8:21 pm

    He was one of my last heroes. What a truly great man and great legacy he leaves behind. It’s heart-breaking to hear of his loss.

  2. Michelle Owings-Christian
    January 28, 2014 at 8:52 pm

    I have known about his passing for about 12 hours. I have cried, listened to his music, cried some more, listened to his music, and started writing my reflections of what he and his music meant in my life. I am finding even more connections than I expected to both family of blood and family of choice. His music defined my childhood. He will be sorely missed. I will sing his songs as long as I have breath.

  3. lentigogirl
    January 28, 2014 at 9:43 pm

    “Inch by inch, row by row, please bless these seeds I sow. Please keep them safe below, til the rains come tumbling down.” Thanks, Pete, from one of the many seeds you sowed.

  4. Eoghan Ballard
    January 28, 2014 at 10:19 pm

    A great man has left us. He has however left this world far richer than he found it. For that we will be eternally grateful.

  5. Charlie Ipcar
    January 28, 2014 at 10:32 pm

    Very well done! Thanks from all of us!

  6. Jose Luis Chao Rey
    January 29, 2014 at 7:18 am

    Un gran músico. Una gran perdida para el mundo.Lo recordaré siempre,

  7. Andrew Cohen
    January 29, 2014 at 1:34 pm

    I wrote this for Facebook, because I felt many upset friends were in need of comforting, as I myself was. I offer it here for the same reason.

    Pete himself is gone. So are a lot of other people, but he bridged a lot of us together. So, let us go on in that way. As he valued every person, let us do that also. As he gave himself to service and to positive change, let us do that as well. In that way, a little piece of him lives on in each one of us. He practiced what Bertold Brecht preached, that art was not a quaint mirror with which to view ourselves and our culture, but a hammer with which to shape it.

  8. David A. Brose
    January 29, 2014 at 2:10 pm

    In 1978 I applied to (then titled) folk arts program at the national endowment for the arts. I had been documenting a fiddler and banjoist named Ward Jarvis. Carl F. And alan jabbour had talked and felt I was the person to document Ward as I did extended interviews while others that went,not to documennt his life, but to learn his tunes to play at festivals. Carl encouraged me to apply for the grant. Pete Seeger was on the review panel. A friend also on the panel confided to me that Pete spoke at length how I seemed a throwback to an earlier generation of persons passionate about documenting and collecting so future generations would know about Ward. in a large sense that grant and the record album I released of ward started my career. It also is a fact that fiddlers, banjoists and old time guitarists coast to cooast have disseminated my field recordngs of ward. Besides Pete giving my career a shot in the arm in 1978, it was because of Pete that I got a long neck banjo and Seeger’s red book in 1963 which led to my becoming a banjo player. so I owe my career as a folklorist as well as my many decades of banjo playing to Pete. I still sing a version of “john henry” that I got from Pete on an early 60’s Columbia records release called “hootennany” that among other performes included Pete.. As is the case with thousands upon thousands of others. I owe a lot to Pete. (Sorry about the type-s. I’m snowed in at the Appalachian mountains and wrote this on a tablet “reader” with a very tiny keyboard.” ). Peace/shalom.

  9. Kathy Westra
    January 29, 2014 at 4:41 pm

    Thanks for a heartfelt and informative post, Steve. Pete’s death has continued what Pete did so well in life: bringing people together. Andy Cohen’s comment (above) alludes to the outpouring of grief and reminiscence on Facebook yesterday as wide networks of friends who had been touched in some way by Pete and his music gathered in virtual community to share their appreciation for Pete’s extraordinary life and their grief at his death. Pete was the number one “Trending Topic” on Facebook all day on the 28th as people learned of Pete’s death and shared their reactions. I hope that some enterprising current-generation Folklife Center intern can follow the example of Pete, your first intern, and somehow assemble many of these ephemeral testimonials as possible–along with the many photos and videos posted with them–for the Center’s Seeger collection. As a whole, it will be an enduring testament to Pete’s life, work, and contributions to the worlds of folk music and social activism.

  10. Elisabeth Higgins Null
    January 30, 2014 at 11:22 am

    I was delighted to go to the Seeger symposium and concert at the Library of Congress for Mike, Peggy, and Pete. I’ve loved him aver since listening to the Almanac Singers on my mother’s knee before nursery school and later came to know the three of them as mentors, fellow performers, and sometimes as friends. The Library of Congress concert was so popular that the Folklore society of Greater Washington staged a second sell-out concert of the three Seegers and a relative or two at a Methodist Church on Georgia Avenue in Silver Spring a day or so later. It was an organizational fete on such short notice, but a joy to everyone who attended or worked to produce it.

  11. Stephen Winick
    January 30, 2014 at 12:33 pm

    Thanks, everyone, for your comments!

    Lisa, you’re quite right, on the evening after the concert in the Coolidge Auditorium, the Folklore society of Greater Washington and AFC co-sponsored a second, larger concert in Silver Spring, which marked the last time the Seeger siblings would perform together. We were faced with the challenge of the Seegers’ great popularity, which caused the Coolidge concert tickets (which were free) to sell out within a few minutes of becoming available. The second concert made the event much more accessible to folk fans in the region. We very much appreciated FSGW’s participation, since they did most of the work on the second concert.

  12. Jan Herd, employee of The Library of Congress
    January 30, 2014 at 5:13 pm

    A great folk musician and a great man whose music encouraged my generation to hope for peace and goodwill among all mankind.

  13. Carol Rosenblatt
    January 31, 2014 at 5:51 am

    Thank you so much for this wonderful commentary on the life of this truly incredible man who will always inspire. I look forward to taking advantage of the collections described and am grateful that they exist and for the work that you do.
    As someone who grew up appreciating folk music I will cherish Pete and his music and the principled life he lead.

  14. Judith Cohen
    January 31, 2014 at 8:20 pm

    Thanks for this fine tribute. I can only echo all that others here have written about Pete shaping my life – my signature performance style, interacting with audiences, is inspired by Pete. It was one of the great highlights of my life to share a stage with him – thanks to Anna Lomax Wood – at the Alan Lomax memorial afternoon concert in 2003; Pete was sitting to my left, and after I sang a song from Lomax’s Spain collection, he leaned over and whispered “how come your Spanish accent is so good!” When I interviewed him over the phone for a Catalan folk magazine a few years later, he sang a Catalan Christmas song over the phone….one could go on and on, the small things and the big ones, all part of the same Pete. Thank you, Pete.

  15. Milton Bloombaum
    February 2, 2014 at 4:34 pm

    In the late ’40s and early ’50’s we (mostly) students at UC Berkeley had a folksong group where we played and sang weekly, and occasionally asked eminent folksingers, who had been invited by the university to perform, if they would join us post performance in a party we gave to honor them. Pete Seeger did so and we were thrilled and honored to entertain him! Well, after a few songs he joined us–giving more than he received; as for myself I was inspired to do more with my mandolin, and have played during the ensuing years most recently international folk dance tunes.
    Thank you Pete for who you are, what you stand for, and what you have done!

  16. Dan Wyman
    February 3, 2014 at 10:15 am

    I rediscovered Pete Seeger with Jenny, my first wife, in our college years in the late 1980s; we listened to his music as we planned our upcoming trips and our next demonstrations, always inspired by his integrity and generosity of spirit.

    I’ve been thinking about 2 related stories about Pete …one is that at the Peekskill attacks in 1949 an American Legionnaire threw a giant rock through Pete’s windshield; it came close to hitting Toshi and their baby …Then when Pete was building their house in Beacon, NY, he put that rock squarely and visibly in the chimney so you could see it as you approached.

    Then at the height of the blacklist, when things were so bad, he wrote the song “Tomorrow is a Highway.” It’s a less well known song that acknowledges that now is “the shadow of year when evil men…thunder war again,” but it’s still optimistic, about building a better day “where love is and no fear,” not in the distant future but in the coming year, in both an international way and in the immediate, within his own local world.

    Both stories to me illustrate Pete’s ability to simultaneously acknowledge terrible things happening to him and the people around him and still point to building a future, not in a saccharine or polyannish way but with realism…something I often think is one of the important balances in life. It’s not his best song ever, but I always imagine him writing it in the midst of everything crashing down around him, the people he cared about either facing arrest or turning against him and others to avoid loosing work or going to jail.

    I grew up with Pete Seeger. Among the first songs I remember listening to on our home record player (which of course was not a stereo) are his, the first out of town concert I went to was his, and in Jenny’s and my first apartment, and on my first real union organizer job, driving around Eastern Washington, it was his voice coming out of the cassette player.

    When our twins were born, Jenny and I gave Adrianna the middle name “Seeger.” When Jenny died 5 years later, my folk chorus led us all singing “Turn Turn Turn” and “The Garden Song” at her funeral. When Marcela and I got married 2 years ago, family and friends sent us off from the Chuppa by playing “Kisses Sweeter than Wine.” And at Yelena and Adrianna’s twin Bat Mitzvahs last year, we again celebrated their passage to teen-hood with “Turn Turn Turn.”

    I got to sing with Pete in a small group three times, and I saw him perform another 4 times. Every time, of course, he pulled the entire audience in to sing along with him as if we had all known him for years.

    From my interactions with him I learned the obvious lesson about a living celebrity hero: We listen to their songs, we watch their films, we read their books and we feel that we know them, that they are speaking directly to us, that they are our friends

    Then, when I actually met Pete, I suddenly realized that the friendship only went one way, that there was no real relationship, that he didn’t know me at all! I was sort of shocked…and then laughed at myself.

    But the truth is, he’s always been a kind of wise great-uncle to me. In my head I asked advice and drew inspiration from him. He reminded me that you could try out ideas that made some sense and keep your bearings even if you changed your mind later on, and that with a balanced ego and a little effort you could get yourself and others to do some amazing things.

    Pete Seeger never listened to my songs. And Pete Seeger never knew me. But I always felt like he was my friend anyway…

  17. Arthur Lieb, Boulder, Colorado
    February 9, 2014 at 12:02 pm

    I awoke this morning to the news that folksinger Pete Seeger died at the age of 93. I immediately recalled hearing and meeting him at the Library of Congress in 2001 where he participated in a symposium honoring folklorist Benjamin Botkin.
    One afternoon session had Pete Seeger and my former Library colleague Joe Hickerson performing in the intimate Coolidge Auditorium. The lights dimmed on the audience and Pete and Joe walked on the stage and took seats on the apron of the stage. For about twenty minutes the singers spoke and conversed on their writing and collaboration of Where Have All the Flowers Gone?.

    At the conclusion of their talk they picked up their instruments, banjo and guitar respectively, and sang its six verses.

    I was seated in about row eight, orchestra center. The music never sounded more beautiful and hearing it was like being in the womb of this American gem.

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