May 3, 2019, would have been Pete Seeger’s 100th birthday. Summing up what Pete meant and still means to us is difficult, but I tried my best in the wake of Pete’s death with the tribute post at this link. Rather than summing up again for his hundredth birthday, I thought I’d highlight one of the many tribute events for Pete going on this year, which just happened to include me.
On April 30, a panel of Pete’s acquaintances were featured on Washington, D.C.’s community radio station WPFW to talk about several aspects of Pete’s work. Host David Rabin, a longtime activist in Washington, D.C., realized that to come to terms with Pete’s legacy we have to consider not only his contributions to American music, but also to the powerful social movements that changed America and the world in the 20th and 21st centuries. Pete was an activist in several areas, and the discussion focused particularly on labor organizing, the civil rights struggle, Pete’s interactions with the House Un-American Activities Committee in the blacklist era, the anti-war movement, and the push for ecological and environmental reform. There were four guests: Allan Winkler, emeritus professor at Miami University and author of To Everything There Is a Season: Pete Seeger and the Power of Song, Joseph B. Uehlein, Founding President of the Labor Network for Sustainability and leader of the roots-rock Americana band The U-Liners, who performed with Pete over the years; Manna Jo Greene, Environmental Action Director of the Hudson River Sloop Clearwater, an organization founded by Pete Seeger to help clean up his beloved Hudson River; and me, as the organizer of AFC’s 2007 Seeger Family Symposium, representing the Library of Congress and our long association with Pete. You can hear the discussion in the player below!
In the course of this wide-ranging discussion, several topics came up that I felt could be clarified, expanded, and enhanced in a blog post. First of all, in talking about Pete’s engagement with folk music, I brought up the fact that when Pete was a baby he had been brought along for one his parents’ trips to rural Appalachia. Pete’s father, musicologist Charles Seeger, had gotten the idea to bring music to rural America. He built a trailer in which he could pack a small pump organ, and he and Pete’s mother, Constance, a classical violinist, traveled to rural North Carolina and offered concerts for local communities. Their music was graciously accepted, and in each community the locals then reciprocated by playing their own music, which included fiddle and banjo tunes, ballads, and church hymns. In this way, the Seeger family discovered the vitality of American traditional music, which had a profound impact on them later. Charles was moved to help conceptualize what became ethnomusicology, while Pete developed a lifelong love for folk music.
In the radio appearance I mentioned that photos of the family “trailer trip” are available on the Library’s website, and indeed they are. The one I mentioned specifically on the air, in which Constance holds Pete’s hand in one hand and her violin in the other, is above. (Believe it or not, that is an 18-month-old Pete Seeger!) All the photos can be found at this link.
Also in the radio appearance, I mentioned that we have a video of John Seeger, Pete’s older brother (he’s the one Charles is holding onto in the picture above) telling the story of the trailer trip. It’s at an hour and four minutes (1:04) into the video embedded below.
At David’s invitation, I discussed the beginnings of Pete’s work with the Library of Congress. In fact, I should mention that in addition to the centennial of Pete’s birth, this year marks the 80th anniversary of his association with the Library of Congress’s folklife archive. In January, 1939, he traveled with Alan Lomax to Galax and Roanoke, Virginia and recorded the Bog Trotters, a well known old-time string band featuring Crockett Ward, Wade Ward, and other family members. Those recordings are still in the archive today–here’s their catalog record. As I mentioned on the air, since there’s no indication Pete was paid for the fieldwork, we consider him the archive’s first intern!
Several people on the show mention Pete’s association with Woody Guthrie, and at AFC we have a rare photo of the two of them together in about 1940. See that photo below!
In the segment on Pete’s interaction with HUAC, I mentioned the bravery involved in citing the First Amendment rather than the Fifth, and also mentioned that the experience of the blacklist helped Pete and his wife Toshi decide to leave the country for a while and make ethnographic films, which we now have in our collections. You can read more about that in an article Todd Harvey and I co-wrote back in 2006, in this issue of Folklife Center News.
In the Civil Rights segment of the broadcast, I contributed to a discussion largely led by Allan Winkler of the song “We Shall Overcome.” That history was traced here on the Folklife Today blog in this post by Kate Stewart. I also mentioned Pete’s interview for the Civil Rights History Project, discussing his involvement with the Civil Rights movement. See it in the embedded player below:
Another photo from the Library’s collections was mentioned by David Rabin and described by me in a little more depth. It’s a well known shot of Pete performing at the Washington, D.C. Labor Canteen in his U.S. Army uniform in 1944. Members of his audience included African-American service members in uniform, and the First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt. As David pointed out on the air, at a time when the U.S. Armed Forces were not yet integrated, to have white and black service members socializing together with other men and women, including the First Lady, sent a powerful message to the country. See that photo below:
Moving on to the Anti-War segment of the program, I mentioned Pete’s belief in defeating Hitler and discussed his 1942 “Dear Mr. President” recording for the Library of Congress. In it, Pete equates defeating Hitler to defending civil rights, labor, and equality, demonstrating that he wasn’t a pacifist in all situations, but rather recognized that some things made it necessary to take up arms. David didn’t have time to prepare the audio for his show, so I read some of the lyrics–but you can hear and download Pete’s performance in the player below.
Finally, the reason for my participation in the panel was my role in organizing AFC’s symposium How Can I Keep From Singing: A Seeger Family Tribute in 2007. The symposium site remains online at this link, and videos of almost all the sessions are available. I’m particularly proud that as part of the symposium we organized a concert featuring Pete, Mike, and Peggy Seeger, as well as other family members. When the Coolidge Auditorium sold out within minutes of tickets becoming available, we partnered with the Folklore Society of Greater Washington to produce a second, larger concert in a church in Silver Spring. The two nights turned out to be the last times the three siblings would perform together, as Mike passed away two years later and Pete five years after that. I’m happy to say the Coolidge Auditorium concert is available online with a log, at this link. You can also watch it in the embedded player below.
Pete’s multifaceted legacy will continue to defy our attempts to summarize it. All we can say is that Pete was one of the most important and influential people of the last century, and it is an honor to have been associated with him, however briefly. At the Library of Congress, and especially the American Folklife Center, we’re very conscious of our responsibility of keeping his legacy alive, both by preserving the Seeger family collections, and by supporting folklife and oral history research into the movements that meant so much to him. The entire staff of the Center shares in this work and therefore each of us has a small role in preserving a great legacy. Although we as individuals will continue to come and go, hope the Center and the Library of Congress can be engaged in this work for the next 100 years!