“No one can prove how important music is, but people in power believe it is, and they try to control it,” Pete Seeger (b. May 3, 1919) wrote in 2010 as the Foreword to the children’s book We Shall Overcome: A Song That Changed the World. “The power of singing together shows us that change is possible.
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In Beacon, New York, where I live, adults and children gather every year for a big block party called ‘The Spirit of Beacon Day.’ There are people from different religions and different cultures, speaking many different languages. There is singing, dancing, and eating. It is a hopeful event for
everyone and music helps to bring us together.”
This approach gives a good sense of one of the central threads in Seeger’s long, complex public life—his optimism and promotion of folk singing throughout the world—which we have tried to capture through the discussions and documents in The Pete Seeger Reader. It has been a life
filled with triumphs and pitfalls, but throughout he has struggled to be primarily a teacher as well as a performer and political organizer.
In 1991 Pete journeyed to Havana, Cuba, to receive that country’s highest award, the Felix Varela Medal. Three years later, President Bill Clinton bestowed on him the National Medal of the Arts as well as a Kennedy Center Award during a nationally televised ceremony in the nation’s capital. In 1996 Pete was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, the same year that his CD Pete garnered a Grammy Award for Best Traditional Folk Album.
Three years earlier, he captured a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. The Grammy Awards kept coming, in 2009 with At 89, also for Best Traditional Folk Album, then two years later when Tomorrow’s Children captured honors for the Best Musical Album for Children. As Pete had come from a long line of New England aristocrats—his father, Charles, was a gifted musicologist who had pioneered the field of ethnomusicology, and his mother, Constance de Clyver Edson, was a talented violinist—and had attended Harvard College, such awards might have seemed natural and fitting. But this was not always the case. Pete had dropped out of Harvard during his second year, 1938, and never looked back.
For the next seven plus decades he would follow his muse—the banjo, folk music, and activist politics—in the process becoming the country’s (even the world’s) most famous folk performer as well as political activist. The road, however, was a rough one.
The basic outlines of Pete’s story have been told, particularly by his biographer David King Dunaway, in How Can I Keep from Singing? The Ballad of Pete Seeger (first published in 1981, then expanded and updated in 2008). Two shorter biographies have also appeared: Allan M. Winkler, “To Everything There Is a Season”: Pete Seeger and the Power of Song (2009) and Alec Wilkinson, The Protest Singer: An Intimate Portrait of Pete Seeger (2009). Jim Brown’s wonderful documentary film, Pete Seeger:
The Power of Song (Genius Products, 2008), captures much of the story. David King Dunaway’s three-hour radio series Pete Seeger: How Can I Keep from Singing? is also helpful. Dunaway has cataloged, as much as possible, Seeger’s amazing list of recordings in A Pete Seeger Discography: Seventy Years of Recordings (2010). Pete has not only recorded hundreds of folk songs, old and new, foreign and domestic, but also the Folkways albums The Nativity, Traditional Christmas Carols, and Jewish Children’s
Songs and Games, as well as the Phillips release The Birth: Story of the Nativity by Scholem Asch.
As for Seeger’s own writings, he has published various editions of Where Have All the Flowers Gone: A Singalong Memoir, starting in 1993, the latest in 2009, which includes much autobiographical information as well as the lyrics to hundreds of his songs. We have, therefore, included no song lyrics. Many of his pre-1970 writings were collected and published by Jo Metcalf Schwartz, ed., in The Incomplete Folksinger by Pete Seeger (1972), including his columns for Sing Out!, titled “Johnny Appleseed, Jr.,” which began in the fall 1954 issue:
“This column is dedicated to Johnny Appleseed, Jr.,—the thousands of boys and girls who today are using their guitars and their songs to plant the seeds of a better tomorrow in the homes across our land …. For if the radio, the press, and all the large channels of mass communication are closed to their songs of freedom, friendship and peace, they must go from house to house, from school and camp to church and clambake.” Most recently, Rob Rosenthal and Sam Rosenthal have edited Pete Seeger in His Own Words (2012), a broad collection of his writings, many previously unpublished and drawn from Pete’s private collection.
In November 2002 Pete wrote me (Ron Cohen) a letter, commenting on my book Rainbow Quest: The Folk Music Revival and American Society. 1940–1970 (2002).
After some initial comments, mostly positive—“I learned a lot of things I never knew. And of the things I knew, I believe you got a B+, sometimes an A+”)—he helpfully concluded: “I’m sorry you didn’t give more space to women: Malvina [Reynolds], Holly Near, & my stepmother Ruth. And Faith Petric! … The steady (if slow) proliferation of clubs, publications, venues (including festivals), songwriters, & home music is THE important thing, and not the fame or fortune of us professionals!
Not that the latter are unimportant. Arlo Guthrie and ‘City of New Orleans’ have inspired millions, I believe.” For someone who has been in the public eye since 1939, he had a telling point, but it is consistent with Seeger’s lifelong pursuit of being an educator, as well as his success as an entertainer, songwriter, and political activist.
His organizing skills began with the formation of the Almanac Singers in 1941, continued after the war with People’s Songs and People’s Artists, the Weavers in 1949, then Sing Out! in 1950, the Newport Folk Festivals beginning in 1959, Broadside magazine in 1962, and the launching of the Clearwater sailing ship and environmental movement in 1969.
All the while, music was interwoven with his strenuous promotional and educational activities. We have chosen the selections in this book to focus on materials written about
Seeger and we drew upon a number of rather obscure publications.
The number and rich variety of magazines in the United States (and throughout the world) where interviews and articles have appeared is certainly amazing and perhaps matched only by a few other popular musicians (such as the Beatles, Elvis, and Bob Dylan)—Rolling Stone, Goldmine, Life, Songwriter, Pickin’, FRETS, Saturday Review, Acoustic Guitar, not to mention Sing Out! and other folk publications, even the men’s magazine Penthouse, as well as dozens of newspapers and other publications. We have included a smattering of interviews coming up to 2010, but they are rather redundant, often repeating the same background stories and political views, with, of course, variations.
Seeger has been a prolific writer, and some of his more interesting and insightful essays have been included, particularly demonstrating the development of his ideas and
interests over the many decades. For example, by the 1960s he became increasingly concerned about the cultural role of television, during and after his blacklisting from the
At the same time he created Rainbow Quest, thirty nine folksy TV programs, 1965–1966, for WNJU, Newark, New Jersey’s, educational channel, which began by featuring Tom Paxton along with the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem.
There followed an amazing array of performers, old and new friends, such as Elizabeth Cotten, Malvina Reynolds, Doc Watson, Mimi and Richard Fariña, Johnny Cash, Roscoe Holcomb and Jean Redpath, Donovan and the Rev. Gary Davis, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, and Buffy Sainte-Marie. The series appeared after ABC-TV blacklisted him from appearing on the popular Hootenanny show, a flap that garnered much publicity. Clearwater Publishing later issued thirty-eight shows on tape, and most recently Shanachie included twelve episodes on six DVDs.
Along with his multitude of recordings and books, Seeger has also produced numerous films to inform and instruct. For example, he starred in a short film in 1946, To Hear Your Banjo Play, which also included Woody Guthrie, Baldwin “Butch” Hawes, Sonny Terry, Brownee McGhee, and Texas Gladden. During the family’s world trip in 1963 the camera was continually rolling. In 2006 Vestapol released the
fascinating DVD A Musical Journey: The Films of Pete, Toshi, & Dan Seeger, 1957– 1964.
Pete Seeger is perhaps most proud of his children’s songbooks, beginning with Foolish Frog (1973), followed by (with Paul Dubois Jacobs) Abiyoyo (1985), Pete
Seeger’s Storytelling Book (2000) Pete Seeger’s Abioyo Returns (2001), Some Friends to Feed: Stone Soup (2005), and The Deaf Musicians (2006). There are also the political
songbooks, including Hard Hitting Songs for Hard Hit People (1967), Songs for Peace (1966), and ending with Everybody Says Freedom (1989) and Carry It On! The Story of
America’s Working People in Story and Song (1985), both with his collaborator Bob Rieser.
In addition to Where Have All the Flowers Gone, he has produced numerous other songbooks and instruction manuals, including the influential How to Play the 5-
string Banjo (1948 and subsequent editions), How to Make a Chalil (1955), Choral Folksongs of the Bantu for Mixed Voices (1960), American Favorite Ballads (1961), The Goofing Off Suite (1961), The Steel Drums of Kim Loy Wong (1961), Woody Guthrie Folk Songs (1963), The Bells of Rhymney (1964), Bits and Pieces (1965), Oh Had I a Golden Thread (1968), Pete Seeger on Record (1971), and Henscratches and
Flyspecks: How to Read Melodies from Songbooks in Twelve Confusing Lessons (1973).
Seeger’s life has been a roller-coaster ride, with his left-wing politics often generating much heat. Many of our selections, which follow roughly a chronological progression, highlight his more than seven-decade struggle between popularity and
vilification. Yet, all the while, Seeger continued his amazing productivity and influence.
Most of the selections have been previously published, but not all. There are also excerpts from foreign publications, all in English, since he has been a world figure, with his recordings issued in dozens of countries. We have not included the profusion of articles from the New York Times since they are readily available. “Pete Seeger is possessed of that rarest of human qualities—the inquiring mind,” his old friend Alan Lomax has written. “This gentle and at the same time fiery and unbeatable spirit pervades his music, his friendships, his beanpole body and his thought.
Hisperformances are true to our folk music traditions. He has listened with a keen ear and uses the singing and instrumental styles of our folk musicians faithfully and sensitively” (Notes for Pete Seeger concert program, Her Majesty’s Theatre, Montreal, Canada, May 13, 1962).
Seeger has been a tireless champion of folk and popular music—he has never referred to himself as a “folk singer,” but rather “a singer of folk songs”—which we have tried to capture in the selections that follow.
He has also been a political activist, first a crusader for socialism, labor unions, civil rights, and world peace (except during World War II), then during and following the 1960s of restoring the environment, not as a substitute for his earlier passions but rather as a compliment and addition.
He has given thousands of concerts around the world, always as a tireless champion of music as well as various political causes, but he has also done so much more as a teacher, author, filmmaker, and organizer. For the latest information, check out the website www.peteseeger.net. We have not corrected factual errors in the essays, except in rare
cases, but we are aware that they do exist. There are also spelling discrepancies, for example, Leadbelly instead of the correct Lead Belly.