My Year with the Seeger Family: Musicology, Dissonant Counterpoint, and Folk Music—The Seeger Family’s Lasting Legacy

The following is a guest post from Archivist Anita M. Weber.

The beauty part of being an archivist is immersing oneself in a collection and meeting the creators as themselves—no filters, just the raw materials of the person’s life—with no agenda other than preparing the materials for use by researchers. Over a twelve-month period, I got to know three members of the Seeger Family—Charles Seeger, Ruth Crawford Seeger, and their daughter Peggy Seeger—along with associated siblings, children, cousins, and spouses through their music, writings, and correspondence.

Now this collection, donated over many long years by many Seegers (and a Crawford), and its descriptive finding aid are available to all—open to anyone interested in this signal American family.

So just who are the Seegers?

“Andrew Mellon” holograph score by Charles Seeger composing as Carl Sands, 1934

Charlie (as he was known), patrician in bearing/New Dealer in sentiment, raised an extended family of performers, artists, and activists. He sought a career as a conductor but quit because he was going deaf; taught and mentored the likes of Henry Cowell; and established the first collegiate-level music curriculum for a four-year course of study of theory, harmony, counterpoint, and music history including musicology. He guided and encouraged the careers of several generations of musicologists, studied prescriptive and descriptive music writing, wrote about the importance of music education, and maintained correspondence in fluent Spanish with Latin American composers about their work.

Ruth Crawford was a mother of four, a minister’s daughter of the Midwest, and a classically trained musician. She composed modern music employing irregular rhythms, polytonality, tone clusters, and dissonant counterpoint; transcribed American folk songs with such clarity that they could be “heard” through the notes she set down; and went on to use those folk songs as a basis for elementary school music pedagogy. She supported her family by teaching piano to local children and wrote about music education.

Mike and Peggy Seeger performing at Queen Elizabeth Hall May 5, 2005 on the occasion of Peggy’s 70th birthday.

Peggy Seeger was a singer from childhood, possessed of a crystalline singing voice. She spent an unstructured youth filled with music and music makers, left home at 19 to travel as a folk singer in Europe (and China and the Soviet Union) singing with Paul Robeson, and was refused reentry to the United States as a result. With British folksinger/songwriter Ewan MacColl, she lived a life of political songwriting, folk singing, and radio programming and raised three children with two joining her as musicians. Returning to her homeland, she resumed her career as a traveling, politically influenced singer-songwriter-activist. Among hundreds of other songs she wrote “I’m Gonna Be an Engineer” and “Battle of Springhill,” both of which are now in the folk tradition.

As one might expect, connections and interconnections within and across generations abound in the Seeger Family Collection: an open home, music heard and composed, opposition to war, support for causes and friends in need, mentorship and education, and articles and essays.

One can get to know the Seegers in many ways and on many levels. One can read Ruth’s and Charlie’s letters, both the extensive correspondence while Ruth was in Europe and the notes they left for each other while at home.

One might find Charlie in his romantic musical compositions or his essays on musicology, arguing what comprises the discipline, or meet Charlie the leftist composer and reviewer of music from the class warfare trenches of the 1930s and members of the Composers’ Collective—his colleagues in those trenches.

Ruth Crawford’s undated drawings of sewing patterns from her handmade “Chirps of the Wren” notebook

One may find their interest piqued by Ruth’s stories and poems and her scrapbooks of teenage ephemera or by her classical music compositions and ideas for the children’s song books Thunder and Mary Wore Her Red Dress—each with drawings and text that show her whimsical side and facility with words. One might “hear” the tunes “Erie Canal” and “Sweet Betsy from Pike” through Ruth’s transcriptions.

One might encounter the composers and music makers—of Latin America and Soviet Union, the folk music of the American South, ultramodern/avant garde music, newly created political music—that all swirl around the Seegers and connect them through generations.

And the family, always, is in the collection through children’s drawings, a grandfather’s advice, and conscientious objector Charlie’s son Mike Seeger writing home from north of Baltimore where he is performing his conscientious objector service and making his start as a folk musician. There are siblings planning to sing together and sharing tidbits of music and ideas the way some families share recipes in letters that begin with “sorry it has been so long since I’ve written. . .” All this and more await anyone who chooses to spend time with the Seeger Family through their collection.

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