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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.