By Bruce Sylvester
Pete Seeger, a father figure to progressive music the world over, died Jan. 27, 2014, at Presbyterian Hospital in New York City. Seeger, 94, had been chopping wood just 10 days earlier, according to published statements by his grandchildren. His wife, Toshi, died July 9, 2013, at age 91, just a few weeks before the couple would’ve celebrated its 70th anniversary.
With good genes and a healthy lifestyle, the controversial Seeger lived long enough to see some dreams — the Obama election and cleanup of the Hudson River — become reality. As for others, he may have thought (to quote his co-write “Where Have All the Flowers Gone”), “When will they ever learn?”
The next-to-last time I saw him was at the 2009 Newport Folk Festival, which he had co-founded 50 years before and for which he was the honoree. By coincidence, he sat next to me in wet grass watching his grandson, Tao Rodriguez-Seeger, perform. People nearby tried to give him their folding chairs, but he was too unassuming to accept — never mind that he was so advanced in years and the event’s honoree.
Here is the text of my Pete Seeger cover story in the April 11, 1997, issue of Goldmine, based in part on a two-hour phone interview from the home he built himself in Beacon, NY.
“This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender” is printed around the head of Pete Seeger’s long-necked banjo. At age 77, he’s the grand old man of folk music. Unlike the late Bill Monroe, he surely wouldn’t accept the term patriarch since it implies domination he would eschew. Seeger has crusaded to democratize music by eliminating the gulf between performer and listener so that everyone is a player. “Some things in this world you enjoy a lot more if you do it yourself,” he tells the crowd on Pete Seeger Live At Newport (Vanguard). He’d probably prefer that we pick some ourselves than listen to his records. “I know I won’t live that long, but if this world survives, I believe that modern industrialized people will learn to sing again,” says the man who’s been described as part Johnny Appleseed, part New England Calvinist preacher. His music must be viewed within the context of its time since it’s totally interwoven with the social and political struggles of this century.
To understand Pete Seeger, it’s also necessary to know of his father Charles Louis Seeger II (who pioneered the concept of musicology, the study of music within its social and historical framework) and his father’s family heritage—a mixture of 1/8 German and 7/8 Massachusetts Yankee such as Elder William Brewster of the godly-kingdom-seeking Mayflower and subsequent Revolutionary War heroes and 19th-century abolitionists. The German side traces back to Gebhard von Seeg, a Medieval crusader. Says Pete, “About 200 years ago there was a Seeger from Stuttgart, son of a saddle maker, I’m told. The duke wanted a veterinarian for his horses so he gave free schooling to this kid, and then, the son of a gun, the kid wrote a letter to the duke saying, ‘I want to be a doctor of people, not of horses,’ and he skipped out, having received the free education, and came to the U.S.A., completely enthusiastic about the words of the Declaration of Independence. His son, a horse and buggy doctor in Springfield, Massachusetts, died when my grandfather was only about five years old. Years later, people in the town came to my grandfather’s mother and said, ‘We’d like to raise money to help your son go to college.’ She drew herself up proud and said, ‘Seegers do not accept charity.’ Hah! My grandfather worked as a teller in a bank, but he realized he’d never get to be bank president until he was in his 60s so he and a friend studied Spanish and saved their money and went to Mexico City in the days when Porfiro Diaz was advertising for American businessmen to come down and help develop Mexico.”
Pete’s father Charles (1886-1979) was born in Mexico City as the family fortune was being made in sugar refining. “After my father had gotten through Harvard, he studied in Germany and was guest conductor of the Cologne Opera. Then he found he was going deaf at a young age so he entered academia. He was head of the music department at the University of California at Berkeley.” In 1911, he married Constance de Clyver Edson, a high-society violinist who’d grown up in Paris and Tunisia. They set up a rigidly proper household. But in 1914 their lives changed radically after a friend took conservative Charles to see first-hand the plight of the migrant workers in California’s San Joaquin valley. “He came back to Berkeley and said, ‘This is disgraceful that such things should go on in America.’ And a voice from the back of the room said, ‘Sit down, you lily-livered bastard. You’re just discovering these things. We’ve known them all our lives.’ He went back and said, ‘You’re absolutely right. I’m just learning.’ My father ended up making speeches against imperialist war in 1917 and ’18 and got fired.”
Charles’s brother Alan Seeger (1888-1916) rushed to join the French Foreign Legion before the U.S. entered World War I. He became its second American casualty, fulfilling the prophecy of his noted poem “I Have A Rendezvous With Death.” Charles on the other hand horrified his family by applying for conscientious objector status.
With no more job, two little boys and a marriage on the rocks, Charles and Constance trekked back to his parents’ Staten Island estate in 19l8. Though some reports have him born there, Pete says he was delivered in French Hospital, Manhattan, on May 19, 1919. Charles’s plans for his young family did not include the luxury and servants of his parents’ world. “At the time of my birth, my father was in the middle of building a house trailer. He got a grand idea. He said to my mother, ‘Why should we play our good music just for rich people in the cities? Why don’t we show the small towns and the countryside the beauties of Bach, Beethoven and Brahms?’ She was doubtful but loyally went along with it. I was still in a cradle when the trailer was launched in the summer of 1920. My two older brothers were six and seven. The trailer looked like a covered wagon. In those days house trailers were hardly ever used with automobiles. It was a Model T Ford with a special low gear so he could pull up hills at 10 or 15 miles an hour. Well, they started out, but it was a total disaster. My poor mother was trying to wash my diapers in an iron pot over an open fire. The roads got so muddy that, though they headed for Florida, they didn’t get beyond North Carolina. In the spring my mother put her foot down and said, ‘Charlie, this won’t work. I’m going back to New York and I’ll get a job teaching.’ So my father’s grand dreams came to nothing except it was a beautiful trailer. I remember sleeping in it when it was parked in my grandparents’ barn.”
As his marriage crumbled, Charles and his boys spent summers in the barn with neither plumbing nor electricity. Pete didn’t find it a hardship. “It was great. It was wonderful. It had big, old-fashioned hand-hewn timbers from the early 19th century. Out in the barn we could take what we called pail-offs since we didn’t have running water. We’d get a pail of cold water from an outside tap and close the doors to the courtyard and strip and pour pails of cold water over us. That was our way of taking a bath.
“One summer we all made model boats to put in the local brook. Another year we made model airplanes. I learned to use hand tools that way. At night my father would tell me stories which I later tried to recall for my own children. I asked my father, ‘How do you make up stories?’ He said, ‘You start with almost anything and let your mind wander.’ Around 11 in the morning my father would say, ‘Let’s see what there is in the garden.’ And we’d wander through it and he’d say, ‘I wonder how that would taste if we mixed it with this.’ Each day it was a new mixture of vegetable lunch. I couldn’t imagine a better way to spend the years between 3 and 15.”
Young Pete devoured the nature books of Ernest Thompson Seton and learned that rules aren’t always inviolable when he saw composer Henry Cowell, a family friend, play piano with his fists. Despite Constance’s urging, he refused music lessons but liked to bang on things. Charles was opposed to his taking singing lessons anyway. His parents gave him, at age seven, a violin (which he ignored) and a ukulele (which he enjoyed). Charles and Constance divorced in 1927.
Sent away to boarding school (at the tender age of four by some accounts, at eight by others), he saw his family only at Christmas, Easter and summer. It has been speculated that this took its toll on his ability to ever form relationships with anyone. “Family members tell of his immense reserve, insisting they’ve never been close. Despite his warmth on stage, there seems to be little left to meet humanity,” David King Dunaway writes in his thorough Seeger bio How Can I Keep From Singing (McGraw-Hill, 1981; revised edition, Da Capo, 1990), whose research included successful court case Dunaway v. Kelley to get Pete’s heavily blacked-out FBI file. (“Dunaway’s biography had a lot of information, but he made the mistake of trying to psychoanalyze me, and he kept talking about my career as though I was worried about a career,” Pete remarks.)
In Fall 1932, Pete started high school at rigidly formal Avon Old Farms in Connecticut. After months of his pleading, Constance gave him $10 to buy a teacher’s four-string banjo which he used for hot jazz and Dixieland numbers. (“I remember deciding I would not play a piano. I felt that all those temptations to play all sorts of fancy notes with 88 keys would lead me astray. I purposely restricted myself to the strings of the banjo to see what I could do with them.”) As editor of the Avon Weekly he ran into conflict with the administration when it censored a story about a loose snake in a dorm and when it demanded to know who wrote an anonymous piece on anti-Semitism at the school. Both times Pete buckled under to their pressure—which he would not do decades later with the U.S. House Un-American Activities Committee and the U.S. courts. Faced with demands to compromise his principles, teenaged Pete concluded that the only way to be honest was to be a hermit.
` Pete’s father—an enormous influence on him—saw little hope that a capitalist economy could meet society’s needs as the Great Depression hit. Unlike many people, he also believed in music’s ability to further political change. “In 1929 my father came to the conclusion that surely this was the end of the free enterprise system and he started a thing called the Composers’ Collective. Aaron Copeland and Elie Siegmeister were members. My father was very proud that Marc Blitzstein’s The Cradle Will Rock was first critiqued by the Collective. Marc also did the American version of Threepenny Opera using Brecht’s original German and Kurt Weill’s original melodies. After about three years my father decided their modern music wasn’t appealing much to the working class of America. They thought they were going to create new music for a new world; a lot of their songs sounded like German stomping songs: ‘Arise, fields and workshops [stomp stomp].’ He ended up advising his fellow musicians to learn from the vernacular, whether it was jazz in the cities or country music in the country, so they would be better equipped to write new music. Of course, you should know where the people are. Then you get there and then you start moving them.”
Pete’s emphasis on getting his concert audiences to become active participants in their own entertainment traces back to Charles’s beliefs. “My father said, ‘Judge the musicality of a nation, not by the presence of virtuosos, but by the general level of the people who can make music themselves.’ By this standard most primitive societies are more musical than most industrial societies.”
Charles was writing for the Communist party’s Daily Worker under the name Carl Sands. “Around 1938 or ’40 my father read a transcript of the Moscow purge trials and dropped out of the party. He felt that was no way to run a world revolution, but he decided to let me find my own way and I didn’t drift out [of the party] until the early ‘50s.”
Meanwhile Charles married Ruth Crawford (1901-1953), who produced Pete’s half-siblings including old-time stringband revivalist Mike Seeger of New Lost City Ramblers fame and folksinger Peggy Seeger, whose husband, leftist British folksinger Ewan MacColl (1915-1989), penned Roberta Flack’s hit “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” to Peggy.
Says Pete, “My father was foot-loose and fancy free when a young woman writes him from Chicago wanting to study dissonant counterpoint, Schoenberg-type stuff. He wrote back saying, ‘Women have never been good composers. You should put your talents to some other form of music.’ She was furious. She said, ‘I’m going to New York and tell that man what I think of him.’ And they no sooner met than they got along famously. She helped him write a book on music composition and dissonant counterpoint and then pretty soon they got married. She got cancer when she was only 52. It was really tragic because she was just getting into composing again after raising four children. She taught at a little private school in Chevy Chase, Maryland—a suburb of Washington, D.C.—where she found herself sitting at a piano, which was her own instrument, trying to find ways to use those wonderful songs she heard at the Library of Congress to work for middle-class white kids. She found she could make simple arrangements and change the words so if there was a gospel song ‘gospel train a-comin’, oh yeah/Jesus is the conductor,’ she just shamelessly made it a children’s song: ‘Mike is the conductor/Mary is the engineer’ so she used the folk process right there in the classroom, which incidentally was done long before her by kids themselves. I learned a lot from my stepmother. She put out some real nice books of American folk songs for children and for Christmas as well as animal folk songs.”
Pete spent the summer after his 1936 Avon graduation in Silver Spring, Maryland, outside Washington, where his father was in charge of music programs for the U.S. government’s Resettlement Administration (later renamed the Farm Security Administration). Ruth was transcribing John Lomax and his son Alan’s landmark Library of Congress field recordings of American roots music. Thus Pete met the Lomaxes and could dig into the songs they had collected with taxpayers’ money and copyrighted in their own names, sometimes after major revisions (leading to accusations that they’ve copyrighted our nation’s musical heritage).
Pete joined his father—the person he long felt closest to—in visiting the Ninth Annual Folk Song and Dance Festival in Asheville, North Carolina, where he discovered a love of his life—the five-string banjo—from the playing of lawyer/folklorist/performer Bascom Lamar Lunsford.
That fall Pete followed in Charles Seeger’s footsteps by enrolling at proper Yankee Harvard in the same class as JFK. He thought of a journalism career, but the university had no such program so he decided to major in sociology. He founded a leftist campus paper, The Harvard Progressive, but was such a disinterested student that he was placed on academic probation and dropped out in Spring 1938.
Summer of ’38 was spent bicycling around New England and New York, camping out and earning meals by offering to paint watercolors of people’s barns. He then moved in with an older brother on New York’s Lower East Side, but found no work as a journalist. Attempts to support himself through visual arts also led nowhere. A third occupational possibility—music—wasn’t yet on his mind. His sister-in-law persuaded him to busk in the streets, which netted all of 75 cents in three hours.
Aunt Eloise Seeger (principal of the Dalton School) helped him get a $5 job playing at a dance, leading to gigs at other dances and with Margot Mayo’s folk dance troupe. At a 1939 work party to wash Mayo’s skylights, only one other person appeared—Toshi-Aline Ohta. Toshi means beginning of a new era, though Pete and Toshi’s era together didn’t begin for a while.
Toshi’s family background was even more unusual than Pete’s. Her mother’s old Virginia slave-holding family included Bowie knife inventor Jim Bowie. Her mother had run away to Europe to marry Takashi Ohta, whose father had translated Karl Marx into Japanese. To circumvent the Oriental Exclusion Act for people of at least 50% oriental ancestry, Mrs. Ohta had lied about infant Toshi’s ethnicity when she returned to the States. Takashi came from Japan’s feudal elite. A world traveler who had fought for Sun Yat-sen in China, he was in exile from his native land.
Pete spent the summer of 1939 on the road with the leftist Vagabond Puppeteers, playing a cow, picking banjo and democratically demanding that all the troupe members share the limelight when his picking was especially popular. Pete also got a job at the Library of Congress transcribing ballads and cataloging its Archive of American Folk Song. Alan Lomax expanded his musical horizons by introducing him to Kentucky miners union organizer/singer Aunt Molly Jackson (who hadn’t appreciated Charles Seeger’s Composers’ Collective’s condescending attitude to her rustic music) and, more importantly, the Lomaxes’ protégé Hudson Ledbetter, aka Leadbelly. Resolutely well dressed regardless of his finances, Leadbelly disapproved of Pete’s overalls while Pete couldn’t always comprehend Leadbelly’s thick Louisiana accent.
On March 3, 1940, Pete (age 20) gave his first formal folk concert—a fundraiser for California’s migrant workers with Leadbelly, Aunt Molly, Burl Ives and others. Dunaway reports that nervous Pete forgot his lines and hit wrong notes, but he did meet Woody Guthrie at the show. Alan enlisted Pete and Woody’s aid in compiling Hard Hitting Songs For Hard-Hit People, which took 26 years to find a publisher.
In contrast to Pete’s aristocratic origins, Woody (a lawyer’s son) had grown up surrounded by proletarian music of the dusty Southwest. The two traveled to Texas together, singing for burgers, though wild-oats-sowing Woody remarked, “That guy Seeger, I can’t make him out. He doesn’t look at girls, he doesn’t drink, he doesn’t smoke. The fellow’s weird.” In a 1941 journal entry, Woody refers to Pete as Pete Bowers. Pete recollects, “My father was working in Washington for the government so I was Pete Bowers for a couple of years. At this time I think it’s a bad thing, but the Communist party had a long history of working with European communist parties. Their standard practice was to take an assumed name. Lenin was really Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov. It was almost standard in the Communist party to have a party name so I was Pete Bowers for a few years. That’s one of the reasons I drifted out of the party around 1953. I just didn’t like the idea of being in a secret organization. Still don’t. Secret organizations are silly.” The alleged Communist party membership Pete would never admit to in the 50s he’s now totally up-front about.
By 1940 Pete was playing informally with Arkansas-born Lee Hays (1914-81), a big-voiced baritone who brought the influence of his preacher father’s Methodist hymns to political music. That December they had their first formal gig together at New York’s Jade Mountain Restaurant. Fat Lee and skinny, six-foot Pete looked like a leftist Laurel and Hardy.
Several months later they were amid a loose-knit assemblage called the Almanac Singers, a name derived from Lee’s Arkansas roots, where, said he, the almanac was the guide to life on the Earth and the Bible the guide to the hereafter. A total democracy, the Almanacs were open to anyone no matter how untalented they might be. They variously included Millard Lampell, bluesman Josh White, Peter Hawes and his wife Bess (sister of Alan Lomax). Pro-union and initially anti-World War II, they shared vocal leads, copyrighted their work as a group and—to the FBI’s chagrin—didn’t put their individual names on their records.
In early 1941 the Almanacs raised $300 at a houseparty to pay to record Songs For John Doe, an album of three 78-rpm records intended for Eric Bernays’ label Keynote. When Bernays got cold feet due to the material, the album came out on Almanac Records. With the righteous anger that’s characteristic of youth, Pete and Millard revised Jimmie Rodgers’ “T For Texas” to an antidraft “C For Conscription” inspired by Pete’s registering for the draft in Scottsboro, Alabama, amid a hitchhiking trip. The tune to outlaw ballad “Jesse James” was used for sarcastic “Ballad Of October 16.” A predecessor of Tom Paxton’s “Lyndon Johnson told the nation have no fear of escalation,” it spoofed FDR’s statement “I hate war” in lines like “Franklin Roosevelt told the people how he felt. We damn near believed what he said. He said, ‘I hate war and so does Eleanor, but we won’t be safe till everybody’s dead.’” Archibald MacLeish, Librarian of Congress, played the disc for FDR, who reportedly replied, “Can’t we forbid this?” “Not unless you want to ignore the First Amendment,” MacLeish answered. Later on an Almanac flyer says Eleanor wrote the group saying she and the president enjoyed their records—subsequent records surely.
Hopelessly unorganized, the Almanacs twice tried to sustain communal houses in New York, holding Sunday hootenannies to raise rent money and rarely having heat. Icicles hung in the bathroom. Cash would go into a kitty using an honor system. Pete would be furious when Woody and Lee would raid the kitty to buy booze.
If Hitler’s 1941 invasion of that Communist mecca, the Soviet Union, caused a revision of many leftists’ antiwar stance, the bombing of Pearl Harbor led to a total about-face. “The Ballad Of October 16” was swiftly dropped from the repertoire. Even America’s Communist party supported the war effort and opposed labor strikes for the time being.
A second recording session (probably in May 1941) led to three-78-rpm album Talking Union, which Bernays had the nerve to release on Keynote. The group wanted to reach the working class, but their own origins and political music were out of sync with the proletariat, who could tell that the Almanacs’ lives were nothing like Aunt Molly Jackson’s. Toshi told Pete that he was trying too hard to pass himself off as working class and that everyone could see through his disguise. A 1941 national tour singing to radicals and Congress of Industrial Equality groups was further hindered by some Almanacs’ relentlessly political view that audiences’ sitting on their butts listening to them was distracting them from worthwhile efforts. According to Dunaway, an FBI informant at a San Francisco show called the Almanacs “extremely untidy, ragged and dirty,” adding that the audience sang along due to “mass psychology.” As of 1941, the FBI was keeping tabs on Pete.
The Almanacs made the tour in a car they had bought for $250 from the family of one of Millard’s brother-in-law’s clients, a Mafioso who had died suddenly. They earned the $250 by making an album of traditional folk songs such as “Golden Vanity” and “House Of The Rising Sun” for General Records. Showing developing poise and confidence as a vocalist, Pete performed using his pseudonym Pete Bowers. Last year MCA reissued the album on cleanly remastered The Almanac Singers: Their Complete General Recordings, while Bear Family’s deluxe 10-CD box Songs For Political Action: Folk Music, Topical Songs And The American Left 1926-1953 devotes one disc to the Almanac’s entire 29-track output and another 30-track CD to Pete’s 1946-48 sessions (plus Charles and Ruth Crawford Seeger’s only known recordings, which were discovered on an unmarked aluminum disc in Pete’s barn). Topical Almanac material also appears on Smithsonian Folkways’ intriguing That’s Why We’re Marching: World War II And The American Folk Song Movement.
Ever a difficulty, Lee was expelled from the Almanacs for his hypochondria and other issues. Two recording sessions (probably in January and June 1942) combined war songs and social commentary, such as an adaptation of hillbilly breakdown “Old Joe Clark” to become “Round And Round Hitler’s Grave.” When other Almanacs wanted to change the group’s name to avoid being identified with their earlier antiwar material, Pete balked—a decision that would have severe consequences as the group grew popular.
The William Morris Agency proposed managing them, but a gig at New York’s prestigious Rainbow Room fell through when they refused to wear stagy hillbilly duds. Woody sabotaged other booking efforts by publicly urinating and stealing hotel silverware (behavior perhaps triggered by the Huntington’s chorea that eventually killed him). Nevertheless on November 11, 1942, they broadcast to 30,000,000 people on radio’s This Is War series, but thanks to not changing their name, the New York press soon revealed their previous music’s politics. The William Morris Agency abandoned plans for a national tour and Decca canceled its offer of a recording contract. On the other hand, the FBI still hadn’t identified the artists on Songs For John Doe for its “Gramophone Records of a Suspicious Nature” file.
Actually, by then Pete was no longer an Almanac. In June 1942 he was drafted. Instead of the Army promptly putting him into action, he waited six months at Keesler Field, Mississippi, while they investigated him. Using his father’s government connections, he wound up in the Special Services Division and went to Saipan to do hospital entertainment as part of what he called the Chairborne Infantry. Though he was out of place among the division’s polished show biz pros, he did learn the power of nonprofessional community singing—a major theme in his future efforts. He now recalls, “When I was in the Army I was appalled at the waste I saw all around me. Years later when I was working occasionally in TV, I’d say, ‘The only place I’ve seen more waste was the Army.’”
Before shipping out, Pete got a furlough to return to New York to marry Toshi on July 20, 1943. Despite his patrician roots, Toshi had to lend him $3 for the license and borrow her grandmother’s wedding ring. Marrying a half-Japanese woman could have been controversial during World War II—even the Communist party was so behind the war effort that it didn’t protest the Japanese internments on the West Coast. But the Ohtas were on the East Coast where Orientals were too few to suffer as much furor. To be sure, the FBI visited Toshi’s father, confiscating his binoculars, camera and bread knife. Still, Mr. Ohta “did important and dangerous work for the U.S. Army” Pete writes in his collection of songs and reminiscences Where Have All The Flowers Gone (Sing Out, 1993).
On Saipan, Pete and fellow GI Mario Cassetta got the idea for People’s Songs (PSI), an organization to help people print and share their songs. The FBI was so paranoid about PSI that it amassed a 500-page file on the group by infiltrating board meetings, stealing documents, and conducting illegal wiretaps even though FBI reports state the dreaded PSI was only getting through to intellectual pinkos, not the proles it sought. Across the border, the provincial government of Quebec seized PSI’s People’s Songbook because Earl Robinson’s song to an executed union organizer “Joe Hill” (later sung by Joan Baez in Woodstock) was subversive.
“Most union leaders could not see any connection between music and pork chops. ‘Which Side Are You On’ was known in Greenwich Village but not in a single miner’s union local,” Pete admits in another collection of his essays and songs, The Incompleat Folksinger (Simon and Schuster, 1972; University of Nebraska Press, 1992).
Despite Seeger’s organizational efforts, PSI dissolved in bankruptcy in 1949, leaving him convinced he never wanted office responsibilities again. Also fed up with New York City, he and Toshi decided to return to the nature he loved so they bought a few acres of land overlooking the Hudson River in Beacon, New York. Using library research as a guide, he set out to build a log cabin while they lived in a trailer, a bit like he did in his youth. As his solo career picked up, a 1946 New Yorker piece called him “an enormous young G.I. who looks like a telescope. He sings Smoky Mountain ballads in a matter-of-fact monotone that best sets off their violent and bloody lyrics.” Billboard called him “a trim, slim Sinatra of the folk song clan.”
Seeger and operatic Paul Robeson toured with former vice president Henry Wallace’s 1948 presidential campaign on the Progressive ticket. In Mississippi a furious onlooker stormed, “Bet you can’t sing ‘Dixie.’” Relying on music to diffuse tension, Pete answered, “Sure I can if you’ll sing it with me.”
That year Pete self-published, by mimeograph, the first edition of his practical How To Play The 5-String Banjo covering playing techniques, tunings, transcriptions, banjo maintenance and more. “It’s my best-selling book. I’ve never given it out to a publisher. I just send copies to a well-known distributor and every year it sells a few more thousand copies. Over some 35 or 40 years it’s sold over 100,000 copies just through a vanity press. It’s put my kids through school.” Though the first edition said “copyright 1948,” Pete never sent the Library of Congress the necessary $4 to do so. He has never copyrighted any edition, freely giving the public permission to reproduce it at will.
By the late 40s, Pete realized that refusing to go commercial was hamstringing his effectiveness. The American Labor Party didn’t want him performing at a benefit since they didn’t think he could bring in a crowd. Ever preferring to perform with others, he wanted an interracial group that would replace the Almanacs’ chaos with solid professionalism and even rehearsals. The Weavers—Pete, Lee, Fred Hellerman and full-throated alto Ronnie Gilbert—became that group though efforts to include two black women came to naught. Reports vary as to their name’s origin: either Scottish folk song “Wark Of The Weavers” or an 1892 play by Gerhard Hauptmann.
Their repertoire included Lee and Pete’s composition “The Hammer Song,” which was later popularized as “If I Had A Hammer” by Peter, Paul & Mary (who were created to be a sort of baby Weavers) and Trini Lopez. The authors didn’t expect that much of anyone would ever sing it. One music publisher turned it down for being controversial. “I attribute its popularity to Peter, Paul & Mary’s improving my melody,” Pete modestly says. His book Where Have All The Flowers Gone methodically presents a songleader’s version, PP&M’s version and Pete and Lee’s original with the line “I’d hammer out love between all of my brothers.” Early feminists objecting to the line’s sexism didn’t appreciate Lee’s offer to instead sing “all of my siblings.” “The Hammer Song” was among six early Weavers tracks Charter recorded at a late 1949 session, but no one bothered to release it and three of the other songs until Bear Family’s 1996 Songs For Political Action, which also includes a December 1949 “Hammer Song” put out on tiny Rita and Hootenanny Records..
As postwar anticommunist fervor rose, perhaps the most horrifying event in the entire history of American music occurred on September 4, 1949, with Pete close to its center. It did not occur in the redneck South but rather in Peekskill, New York, a town with a strong Ku Klux Klan a mere 10 miles from the home Pete was building in Beacon. Pete, pianists Raylev and Leonid Hambro and Paul Robeson were scheduled to do an August 27 outdoor show. Law school grad Robeson—who had overcome immense racist hurdles—was especially controversial for praising the Soviet Union, which had an antiracist stance. An angry mob prevented the show from starting as it attacked attendees and shouted, “We’ll finish Hitler’s work!” and “Give us Robeson. We’ll lynch the nigger up!” Driving up with his mother, Pete was turned away by police and never reached the grounds.
Despite warnings, the show was rescheduled for September 4 (Labor Day). Pete drove up in a jeep with Toshi, their two infants and Mario Cassetta. Thanks to 2,500 guards from assorted local labor unions, the outside crowd was kept at bay throughout the performance. Leaving the concert grounds was a whole other matter. Westchester County police blocked the main road and would only let people exit by a single narrow passage lined by rioters with piles of rocks to stone them. State troopers even ordered passengers from their cars and then attacked them. Stonings continued all the way into New York City for cars with tell-tale broken windshields. Here was America’s equivalent of Nazi Germany’s Kristallnacht. “I saw the face of fascism alive in my own country, and I was afraid,” Ronnie Gilbert later said. Years hence a Peekskill-bred musician whose father had been on the town police force confided to Pete that the Ku Klux Klan had organized the riot in cahoots with the cops, surrounding the area with walkie-talkies just like a battlefield.
Despite a lot of broken glass in their clothes, the Seegers weren’t seriously injured, though Pete did save several rocks that landed in their jeep and cemented them into his fireplace wall as a grim permanent reminder of the mob terrorism that can erupt in his own homeland.
Attendee Francis Dellorco taped the mob’s cries of “White nigger! Go back to Russia!” on a rustic wire recorder. Charter Records put it out on “The Peekskill Story” with an excerpt of Robeson singing “Old Man River” plus narrations by injured journalist Howard Fast and new Weavers Seeger and Hellerman plus a studio overlay of the Weavers doing “Hold The Line,” apparently their very first recording. Songs For Political Action preserves the track in all its terror.
Despite the horror of Peekskill, Pete’s star was on the ascendant. Though the Weavers had considered disbanding in despair, Christmas week 1949 they opened at New York’s Village Vanguard for the princely weekly fee of $200 (split four ways) and all the burgers they could eat. Pete made such big burgers that the rate was changed to $250 and no free food. Arranger Gordon Jenkins (who had worked with Louie Armstrong and Sinatra) heard their show and offered to take them to Decca Records. Pete wasn’t keen on making pop music, while no one at Decca except Jenkins had any idea of what to do with an act that fit no facile categorization. But when Mitch Miller at Columbia wanted the quartet too, Jenkins persuaded Decca to make an offer. Regard for Jenkins led the Weavers to accept Decca though it had once backed out of a deal with the Almanacs.
At their first Decca session on May 26, 1950, they tracked Israeli “Tzena Tzena Tzena” and recently deceased Leadbelly’s “Goodnight Irene” without his mention of morphine. His line “I’ll get you in my dreams” discreetly became “I’ll see you in my dreams” just like Bill Haley at Decca would later bowdlerize Big Joe Turner’s “Shake, Rattle and Roll” for the middle-class white market. The day after their Village Vanguard gig finally ended the next month, Ronnie took off on a cross-country honeymoon/camping trip that ended abruptly when a telegram urged her to come back for the engagements their two-sided hit was yielding—meaning five shows per night in vaudeville houses.
As the Weavers’ usual arranger, Missouri-bred Jenkins knew how to use lush strings and dreamy backup choruses to soften the harshness in, say, cowboy song “Old Paint.” Top-20 “Wimoweh” was based on Natal-born Solomon Linda and his Evening Birds’ 1939 “Mbube” (released stateside in 1987 on Rounder’s Mbube Roots: Zulu Choral Music From South Africa, 1930s-1960s). Jenkins gave the song a lengthy big-band intro before a final vocal interlude spotlighting Pete’s birdlike warbling. Not understanding non-American names, MCA’s 16-track 1996 reissue The Weavers: The Best Of The Decca Years credits authorship to Linda Solomon and the four Weavers. Later Weavers recordings on Vanguard get Linda’s name correct though 1981 The Weavers Together Again on Loom credits authorship to Ray Ilene and Paul Campbell (Campbell being a pen name for the entire quartet). Similarly, the Loom LP credits “Kisses Sweeter Than Wine” to Campbell and Joel Newman, though the 1951 Decca hit lists the Weavers and Leadbelly as authors.
For a while the Weavers were America’s number one singing group. Late in 1950 they hit number 11 with “The Roving Kind.” Based on a British folk song, it was tidied up still more for a hit by Guy Mitchell the next year. For “On Top Of Old Smoky” (a 1951 number 2 hit listed as by “The Weavers and Terry Gilkyson”) Lee lines out the lyrics in traditional church style. “We got the idea from hearing Josh White do the song,” Pete recalls.
“We didn’t really change very much when the hits happened. We were rather pleasantly bemused about the whole thing. We knew that it was a very transient period at best,” Fred recalls in the notes to four-CD Weavers retrospective Wasn’t That A Time (Vanguard). Ronnie says there, “Pete appeared to be extremely uncomfortable with that kind of success. Pete has never enjoyed the idea that he was a consummate, well-rehearsed, careful performer. He wants to appear—to himself as anyone else—that it all comes naturally.” The quartet has tweaked itself as being three stuffed dummies and a Barbie doll. When a concert tour reached Reno, Nevada, puritanical Pete (unlike the other Weavers) refused to gamble.
“The Weavers are out of the grass roots of America. I salute them . . . When I hear America singing, the Weavers are there,” Carl Sandburg extolled. But storms were brewing. In June 1950, Red Channels: Communist Influence On Radio And Television accused 151 people—including Pete—of communist affiliations. Van Camp’s Pork and Beans promptly backed out of sponsoring a Weavers TV show. Lee consumed 24 cans of pork and beans that the quartet came away with from the negotiations. In August 1951, prior to an Ohio State Fair gig, state governor Frank Lausche asked the FBI for info on them. J. Edgar Hoover illegally gave confidential information to Lausche. The engagement was canceled so abruptly the Weavers had reached Ohio before they even knew about it. The next week the New York World-Telegram exposed them.
On February 6 and 7, 1952, former PSI mole Harvey Matusow told the witch-hunting House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) that three Weavers were commies (Lee having left the party), though in his autobiography False Witness he later recanted some of his testimony, admitting that he had plotted with U.S. attorneys to lie. After the Associated Press queried Akron, Ohio’s Yankee Inn, where the Weavers were scheduled to play that evening, the club promptly canceled the gig. As the fire spread, dates grew scarce. Decca dropped the Weavers in 1953 and they soon disbanded. “If it wasn’t for the honor, I’d as soon not have been blacklisted,” Lee would quip.
Former president Harry S Truman called HUAC “more un-American than the activities it is investigating” as it destroyed career after career. Under congressional subpoena, Lee repeatedly cited his Fifth Amendment right to not incriminate himself. Burl Ives turned on his friends and named names, exactly as HUAC wished. Called to testify, crusader Pete chose the hard road, not even pleading the Fifth Amendment on August 8, 1955. Instead he argued American citizens’ First Amendment rights to free speech, press and religion as well as the rights to petition the government and assemble (meaning to form political associations): “I am not going to answer any questions as to my associations, my philosophical or my religious 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. . . . [I]n my whole life I have never done anything of a conspiratorial nature, and I resent very much and very deeply the implication of being called before this committee . . . because my opinions may be different from yours, . . . that I am less of an American than anybody else. I love my country very deeply, sir.”
When HUAC questioned the lyrics to patriotic “Wasn’t That A Time,” Pete offered to sing it. The offer was refused. Asked if he had provided entertainment to the Communist party, he maintained, “I have sung for Americans of every political persuasion, and I am proud that I never refuse to sing to an audience, no matter what religion or color of their skin or situation in life. I have sung in hobo jungles and I have sung for the Rockefellers, and I am proud that I have never refused to sing for anybody . . . because I disagreed with their political opinion, and I am proud of the fact that my songs seem to cut across and find perhaps a unifying theme, basic humanity.”
On July 26, 1956, Congress voted 373 to 9 to hand down contempt citations to Pete and several others, including Marilyn Monroe’s new husband, playwright Arthur Miller (whose play The Crucible using the 1692 Salem witch trials as a metaphor for McCarthyism was put on film last year). On March 26, 1957, a federal grand jury indicted Pete on 10 counts of contempt of Congress. Never mind the U.S. Constitution’s guarantee of the right to a speedy trial. Seeger’s began in U.S. District Court in New York on March 27, 1961.
The jury deliberated all of 80 minutes before convicting him on all counts. “Dangerous minstrel nabbed here,” the New York Post proclaimed. A week later he was sentenced to 10 concurrent one-year prison terms plus payment of the costs of prosecuting him. On May 18, 1962, a U.S. Court of Appeals overturned the convictions due to a flaw in the indictment, ignoring the broader First Amendment issues for all citizens that Pete had hoped to establish by taking the hard road. Regardless of the ultimate acquittal, blacklisting continued in some circles. As Lee put it, “Folk songs are dangerous.”
Free from the Weavers (which Ronnie and Fred have said he probably was never that comfortable in anyway since group decision making forced him to compromise), Pete worked on his house, which—like the beloved barn of his youth—still had no indoor plumbing. He performed as a solo at coffeehouses and college campuses across America—the sorts of venues that weren’t shut off to him. Fear of controversy kept some promoters from booking him even if they didn’t mind his reputed politics. When “ban the bum” signs appeared outside a San Diego show, Pete teased his attackers by going on stage in red socks and shirt. Of course, right-wing objections to him led more tolerant people to pay more attention to him, as Joan Baez too would discover when the Daughters of the American Revolution went after her in the coming decade.
Seeger biographer Dunaway describes him as “a man with his fingers on a banjo and his head a long way from the ground,” likening him to an earlier utterly unmaterialistic, nature-loving Harvard dropout, Jonathan Chapman (l774-1845), known as Johnny Appleseed for traveling the country, spreading seeds (literally) and preaching his own brand of the gospel. For years, Pete wrote the “Johnny Appleseed” column for folk bible Sing Out. Dunaway says Seeger’s only known syndicated TV appearance during the later 50s was on Hugh Hefner’s Playboy series, where he picked banjo amid the bunnies. Apparently Hefner was willing to go up against political and artistic taboos as well as sexual and journalistic ones.
Pete also went on a prolific burst of recording activity for Moe Asch’s Folkways label, putting out several LPs yearly amid its vast catalog of indigenous world music. For example, his 24-track 1956 American Industrial Ballads includes “The Farmer Is The Man” (redone in a variant by Ry Cooder in 1972), “The Death Of Harry Simms” (based on the murder of a Springfield, Massachusetts-born labor organizer in Kentucky’s bloody 1930s miners strikes) and an adaptation of Andrew Kovaly’s poem “He Lies In American Land” describing an idealistic Slovakian immigrant killed in an industrial accident. From 1955, playful Goofing Off Suite breaks down musical barriers as it brings together Bach, Irving Berlin and Appalachian songs. It may attempt to resolve the family conflict of Pete’s youth. (“My mother used to say, ‘Remember the three B’s: Bach, Beethoven and Brahms.’ I’d tease her and say, ‘Well, for me, it’s ballads, blues and breakdowns.’”) Along with numerous kids’ albums, there were topical LPs like Songs Of The Civil War, two-volume American History In Ballad and Song and Champlain Valley Songs.
In 1955 Weavers manager Harold Leventhal decided to regroup the quartet but didn’t tell them until he’d booked Carnegie Hall for a Christmas-day show by them. “None of us were enthusiastic, but he used the classic ruse, ‘Pete says he’ll do it if you’ll do it,’ etc., etc.,” Hellerman later noted. Leventhal’s white lies worked and they all cooperated though by then Ronnie’s energies were devoted to motherhood, Lee’s to writing mysteries and Fred’s to assorted musical projects. The show sold out months in advance, proving they still had fans. Foreshadowing its role as the vanguard 60s folk label, Vanguard Records (which also dared to put out Paul Robeson) departed from its usual classical bent and released the magical performance on The Weavers At Carnegie Hall and The Weavers On Tour as the quartet joyously promoted international harmony in an “Around The World” medley, redid Decca hits and, on delicate old English “Greensleeves,” spoofed folk scholarship (Pete: “I looked it up in Francis James Child’s collection of English ballads, all 40 verses, and each verse was dumber than the last.”).
The regrouped Weavers’ biggest inroad into commercialism came in the late 50s when Lucky Strikes cigarettes asked them to sing a commercial. Ronnie, Fred and Lee outvoted Pete to take the job. Pete sang on the session (which was never used) but quit the act the next day. At his recommendation they replaced him with his former student, Erik Darling (whose Rooftop Singers took old bluesman Gus Cannon’s “Walk Right In” to number 1 in 1963). Erik was replaced by Frank Hamilton and, in the quartet’s final days, by Bernie Krause. All seven Weavers reassembled at Carnegie Hall for May 2 and 3, 1963, shows preserved on Reunion At Carnegie Hall, Part 2 (Vanguard) reprising old hits and presenting fresh Cold War commentary like young comic Shel Silverstein’s “I’m Standing On The Outside Of Your Shelter.”
On a plane trip around 1956, Pete got inspired by a Ukrainian folk song and a passage from Mikhail Sholokhov’s And Quiet Flows The Don, dashed off a few verses, recorded them on The Rainbow Quest (Folkways) and thought little more about it. “Around 1962 my manager said to me, ‘Pete, didn’t you write a song called “Where Have All The Flowers Gone”?’ I said, ‘Yeah, about three or four years ago.’ He said, ‘Did you ever copyright it?’ I said, ‘No, I guess I didn’t.’ It was one of a number of very short songs I used to call short shorts because I sang all these short songs one after another without any applause. My manager said, ‘You better copyright it. The Kingston Trio have just recorded it.’ Like I’m on the phone to Dave Guard. I knew him well; I’d sold him a copy of my mimeographed banjo manual. He says, ‘Oh, Pete, we didn’t know it was your song. We’ll take our name off it.’ It was really very nice of him because technically, legally, as they say, I’d abandoned copyright and I didn’t have a leg to stand on. But it was Marlene Dietrich who took the song around the world. She got Max Colpet to make an excellent German translation for her. It sings better in German—sagt mir wo die blumen sind. Wo sind sie geblieben?—than in English.”
In 1961 Pete joined the board of directors choosing acts at the annual Newport Folk Festival in Newport, Rhode Island. The aim was to combine big names with up and coming talent and scarcely known roots people like the Georgia Sea Island Singers and Mississippi Fred McDowell doing true indigenous folk music. Regardless of their popularity or obscurity, all were paid union minimum fees. Proceeds were to help further indigenous music throughout the country. The event became a summer folk mecca. The Incompleat Folksinger quotes a 1965 letter from an unnamed Cajun in Mamou, Louisiana: “The Newport Folk Foundation has accomplished for Acadian music in one year what more than 20 years of conscious effort by folklorists and lay enthusiasts had not only failed to accomplish, but had ‘proven’ could not be accomplished. … Acadian music had lost all semblance of status. It lay captive, isolated and dying, hedged in by a ‘sub-tradition’ of mediocre imitation of country or western or popular music. … Through the sponsorship and encouragement of Newport, the Louisiana Folk Foundation held Acadian music competitions … during the last year. … More important, the Cajun musician is overcoming his feeling of inferiority and has attracted the attention of his young audience.”
In the early 60s a major label came calling thanks to Columbia’s legendary talent scout John Hammond, who’s also credited with discovering Billie Holiday, Aretha Franklin and Dylan. “John Hammond was a longtime friend. He was a lefty of sorts himself even though his grandfather, Cornelius Vanderbilt, was I guess America’s richest man. John called up several Columbia executives. Columbia Radio said, ‘Seeger’s persona non grata with us. Do you think his records will sell?’ Hammond said, ‘I wouldn’t want to sign him if didn’t think they would sell.’ They said, ‘If you think he’ll sell, it’s up to you. You decide.’ John Hammond had stuck his neck out before so he stuck it out again.”
Though Folkways continued to release Seeger LPs, Pete debuted on Columbia in 1961 with Story Songs, singing of legendary characters like John Henry and free-living religious revivalist Aimee Semple McPherson. Two years later the label glutted the market with his The Bitter And The Sweet (including Ecclesiastes-based “Turn! Turn! Turn!”), Children’s Concert At Town Hall (recorded that April 21) and 15-track We Shall Overcome recorded live at Carnegie Hall that June 8. Exploding with commitment to the growing Civil Rights movement, it included rallying songs like “If You Miss Me At The Back Of The Bus” and gospel-based “Keep Your Eyes On The Prize” and “Oh Freedom” as well as topical songwriting newcomer Tom Paxton’s jingoism-bashing “What Did You Learn In School Today” and consecutive songs to two recently deceased media figures: Dylan’s “Who Killed Davey Moore” to a prize fighter killed in the ring and, for Marilyn Monroe, “Who Killed Norma Jean” adapted from her friend Norman Rosten’s poem. Penned by the grande dame of topical songwriting Malvina Reynolds, “Little Boxes” choicely aimed its barbs at middle-class conformity. (More than 25 years later Columbia put out 40-track, two-CD We Shall Overcome: The Complete Carnegie Hall Concert.) Pete reminisces, “Except for We Shall Overcome, which sold about 500,000 copies, most of my records sold 20 or 30,000, which meant Columbia actually lost money on them.”
Why should We Shall Overcome have been the one strong seller? “I figure my main function in life is being sort of a catalyst, bringing some good people together with some good songs. A good solo singer is wonderful to hear, but I don’t have a great solo voice. I’ve sung solo from time to time, needless to say, but I really love the sound of voices singing together, whether it’s in unison or harmony or what my father called homophony, which is almost unison but not an exact unison.”
Other 60s Columbia LPs included Strangers And Cousins, whose repertoire reflected the nation’s growing objection to the Vietnam conflict, I Can See A New Day (including Pete’s adaptation of Welsh poet Idris Davies’ “Bells Of Rhymney” on miners’ plight), God Bless The Grass (whose “My Dirty Stream” foreshadowed his efforts to clean up the Hudson River), Dangerous Songs!? with Phil Ochs’s timely “Draft Dodger Rag,” retrospective Pete Seeger’s Greatest Hits (though as a solo he’d never cracked the top 40) and Pete Seeger Now.
With Danny Kalb of the Blues Project, his first electric LP was laid down in August 1967. Pete’s typical combination of wholesome, uplifting ditties and hard-hitting politics, Waist Deep In The Big Muddy And Other Love Songs mirrored the ongoing controversy over his music. Along with gospel/political “Seek And Ye Shall Find” and “Down By The Riverside,” he took the statement of an immigrant San Jose housewife upon her arrest at a napalm bomb storage site and set it to music as “My Name Is Liza Kalvelage.” A German immigrant, she had encountered difficulty entering the U.S. because she hadn’t protested Hitler; this had solidified her belief that she shouldn’t ignore government misdeeds again, her song stated. The LP’s scathing title track was an obvious metaphor for President Lyndon Johnson’s escalation of the Vietnam war. The record didn’t sell. “When I was singing in Denver, a young man came backstage and said, ‘Pete, I work in the local distributor for Columbia Records, and when Waist Deep In The Big Muddy came out, my boss took one listen and hit the ceiling. He said, “Those people in New York must be nuts to think that I can promote a record like this.” Pete, your record did not leave the shelves in the distributor’s office. They sent them back or threw them away.’ In other words, John Hammond could make my record, but he couldn’t force a sales department to promote it,” Pete says in a lengthy phone interview where he at times repeats almost verbatim passages he’s written—an understandable situation considering how many interviews he’s done over the decades.
“Waist Deep In The Big Muddy” would prove controversial in the world of network TV too—a world that had long been closed to Pete despite his dreams of its ability to bring authentic folk music to the sedentary masses. ABC’s Hootenanny variety show, while showcasing rising young folk turks, politely put off Pete’s requests to perform. In early 1963 the show was filming two segments at Brown University where a student asked a staffer why Seeger was never on. On March 6, radical lawyer William Kunstler received a letter from the student reporting the staffer’s words that Seeger wouldn’t be invited. Kunstler told Harold Leventhal, who notified Pete and civil libertarian writer Nat Hentoff. Hentoff broke the story in the March 14, 1963, Village Voice. Folk queen Joan Baez was already dedicating a song to Seeger in each show (as we hear before “Pretty Boy Floyd” on Joan Baez In Concert) due to the TV-wide boycott and had specifically refused to go on Hootenanny if Pete couldn’t. Hentoff called on her fellow folkies to follow suit, but it was a tough demand since the show did so much for their music and their careers. The folk community split in its response. Dylan, the Greenbriar Boys and Peter, Paul & Mary boycotted; the Clancy Brothers appeared without Tommy Makem. Pete, ever noble, didn’t encourage his musical children to pass up their opportunity. Saying Pete told her to, Judy Collins appeared three times, but the show’s producers had so little regard for the narratives of folk balladry that they whacked a few verses out of her “John Riley.” By the time producers consented to present Pete—provided he signed a loyalty oath—he was so disillusioned with them that he said no. Anyhow, he and Toshi were preparing to take their kids on a 10-month world trip to film roots music in its native habitats, though editing the resulting 200,000 feet of film eventually proved too much for him.
The TV boycott eased a bit the next year with appearances on network religious show Lamp Unto My Feet and non-network David Susskind Show. The next year CBS agreed to let him on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour sponsored by Procter & Gamble (whose sponsorship of Hootenanny had been used as an excuse to exclude him there). Ending the Seeger boycott garnered the show reams of advance publicity. But on a September 10, 1967, broadcast, Tom Smothers asked Pete if he’d do “that song” (meaning “Waist Deep”) followed by an obvious editing cut in the tape and no “Waist Deep.” On Seeger’s return to the show five months later, CBS broadcast the song. The network’s motives remain unclear. Did they censor the song in September out of conservatism or fear? Or did they simply want to churn the publicity mill so his February ’68 appearance could generate a second round of press? Regardless, the TV boycott had emphatically ended.
Northern Yankee Seeger’s embracing of the 60s Civil Rights movement inevitably included some culture shocks. In a rare instance where he couldn’t work his audience, he brought his banjo to a 1963 Albany, Georgia, church rally only to discover that proper, church-going blacks associated the banjo with loose living. Also, African-derived black congregational singing styles were quite different from the white group singing ones Pete was used to. On that trip he encouraged young Albany native Bernice Johnson to get involved with a group of black vocalists touring the U.S. to sing for their movement. These Freedom Singers became part of the background for today’s intensely political Sweet Honey in the Rock, founded and long directed by Dr. Bernice Johnson Reagon, whose inspiration and moral support from the Seegers led her to name her first child Toshi.
Says Bernice, “Toshi Seeger was an important model for me as a cultural worker. When I met her, she was managing Pete’s career. I watched her work and organize and book and run a house. She booked my first tour with the Freedom Singers and was our contact. I learned about booking from her. It was very important to me as an artist to have a chance to work with somebody with those administrative skills. Pete was important as an example of an artist who was a working artist like a plumber or a teacher, not a star. I saw somebody who had started to sing before he was 20 and simply had sung his music wherever he could for decades. Being able to work with him and have his advice was very important. He was always available. He was always trying to think of ways to help the movement. And he was not just empathizing. He was there with recommendations, suggestions. Whether it was a recording or a joint concert or starting a singing group or whatever, he was there trying to figure out how to make the music more effective in supporting and extending the struggle of the Civil Rights movement. For me as an artist, it was a wonderful example to have.”
As Pete explains in Where Have All The Flowers Gone, Civil Rights anthem “We Shall Overcome” had its roots in black hymns “I’ll Be All Right” and Rev. Charles Tindley’s 1903 “I’ll Overcome Some Day.” In 1946 American Tobacco Company strikers in Charleston, South Carolina, adapted the song, changing I to we. (“The most important word in the song is we,” Pete maintains.) Zilphia Horton learned that song at the Highland Folk School, a labor education center in Tennessee. She taught it to Seeger, who further developed it with Frank Hamilton and community organizer/musician Guy Carawan. Characteristically they didn’t copyright it until being warned that Hollywood would cash in on it if they didn’t. “Royalties and income from the song go to the We Shall Overcome Fund, which gives grants to further African American music in the South,” says Pete, who jokes that it might have been his Harvard education that led to changing “we will overcome” to excruciatingly grammatical “we shall overcome.”
“A good song is like a basketball backboard. It bounces back new meanings as life bounces new experiences against it. That’s why songs like ‘We Shall Not Be Moved’ and ‘We Shall Overcome’ last,” Pete reflects.
Of course, the song—like so much else Pete does—attracted attacks, even from the Left. Playwright Lillian Hellman impatiently trashed it as being “namby pamby, wishy washy” for seeking only to overcome someday, not right now. “If we said we were going to overcome next week, it would be a little unrealistic. What would we sing week after next?” Bernice sensibly pointed out.
Meanwhile, other songs Pete had helped to create were getting covered. In 1963 Judy Collins #3 (a breakthrough LP in acknowledging the new singer/songwriter renaissance) boasted Pete’s “Turn! Turn! Turn!” and “Bells Of Rhymney.” Most of the disc’s arrangements were by its banjoist/second guitarist Jim McGuinn, whose folk rock pioneers the Byrds redid “Bells Of Rhymney” and hit number 1 in 1965 with “Turn! Turn! Turn!” “Their chiming electric guitars were like great big gongs and bells. It was wonderful,” Pete recalls. His adaptation of “Guantanamera,” originally written by Cuban revolutionary Jose Marti (1853-95), hit number 9 in 1966 thanks to the lulling Sandpipers. “I thought they weakened it a little bit singing it so prettily,” Pete states.
Meanwhile the Newport Folk Festival had turned into a major annual event. The 1965 festival marked a turning point—some say a death knell—for the traditional folk revival when mercurial Bob Dylan shifted to electric rock from its stage, to the joy of some in the audience and the horror of others. According to some reports, furious Pete tried to cut Bob’s power lines. Pete claims he was only trying to clear up muddy sound so Dylan’s vocals could be better heard.
Nothing has interested Pete less than the wealth and acclaim many musicians crave. When he learned his fee for concerts, he demanded that Harold Leventhal lower it. In 1966 Bernice designed a poster for a concert tour they would share. Since he’d be the bigger draw, practical Bernice made Pete’s name larger than hers, but Pete insisted that their names be equal size. As for money, Toshi would make sure he had some cash in his pocket when he’d set out for a gig. Near April 15, she covers up the dollar amounts on his tax forms and simply shows him the signature lines.
The Incompleat Folksinger reprints a typically humble self-assessment Pete wrote in the third person as he approached his 46th birthday in 1965: “…Scattered throughout [his] discs, you will occasionally hear some passable ballad singing. (Pete’s sister Peggy is a much better ballad singer. But if you really like ballads, why not listen to the master balladeer Horton Barker, on Folkways and Library of Congress LPs?)
“As for banjo picking, Pete only occasionally does some good traditional picking. His brother Mike can play rings around him, not only on the banjo, of course, but on guitar and half a dozen other instruments which Pete does not attempt. But much of PS’s banjo accompaniment is mere whamming. …
“He is known to go out on a stage before a thousand people (who have paid hard-earned cash for tickets) and, sticking the words of a song with Scotch tape to the microphone, sing them for the first time in his life. You may be able to get away with it on a stage, but do you have to record it, Peter? … [I]f one could dub a tape of a few songs from … his many LPs, one might have quite a good one-hour tape of Pete Seeger. The trouble is, no two people would make the same selections.” So much for Seeger’s public opinion of Seeger.
For his 1973 Rainbow Race, Columbia handed him to producer Bob Johnson, who brought in for the session bluegrass heroes Earl Scruggs (who had stunned Nashville by joining the antiwar movement) and Lester Flatt. Dunaway reports that when the label refused to put a cover of Country Joe & the Fish’s “Fixin’ To Die Rag” on the disc, Seeger decided to return to Folkways. Pete now says, “‘Fixin’ To Die Rag’ would have been at the top of the top 40 if radio and television had been willing to play it, but it did get into the movie Woodstock so kids all around the country knew the song. My grandson and I sing it everyplace we go. My grandson has a good voice. He’s 24 and three inches taller than I am.” One treasure Rainbow Race did include was philosophical “Old Devil Time,” which Pete had composed for film director Otto Preminger.
“I was here at home and the phone rings and a German accent said, ‘Are you the Pete Seeger that writes songs?’ and I said yes. ‘My name is Otto Preminger. I need a song about the will to live.’ I said, ‘Well, that’s my business.’ He said, ‘Can you come down and see the rough cut of the film?’ So a couple of days later my wife and I found ourselves viewing the film, Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon. He says, ‘I need a song to go under the titles at the beginning of the film.’ It’s an interesting story about three people who meet in a hospital and pool their meager resources to get a house. One is a young woman who’s had her face permanently scarred by a man throwing acid after she’s laughed at him. Another is a gay man who’s in a wheelchair for the rest of his life for making an advance to the wrong person. Another is a young man who’s epileptic and never knows when one of seizures will kill him. These three people all have strikes against them, but the movie shows the possibility of working together and not giving up. It’s a nice little movie. I’m glad it’s being seen now on videotape.
“So I got 5 or 10 ideas for a possible song—some old gospel songs with some new verses or lines—and we fly out to LA, then fly to Fresno and then drive to the sequoia groves where I was supposed to film the song while strolling around under the big old trees. Preminger says, ‘Can I hear the song?’ and I say, ‘Well, I have several.’ I sang them and could see he was not enthusiastic about any of them. Well, nothing works like a deadline. I borrowed a pencil from my wife and, with the drone of the plane in my ears, I dredged up some verses that had been hanging around the back of my mind for a while and got a tune derived from old ballads. When we got to Fresno, I sang them and he said, ‘Oh, this will do very well. Why didn’t you sing this to me first?’ I said, ‘Oh, I just made it up.’ He said, ‘Don’t tell me that. You had it all the time.’”
Content to return to Folkways, Pete next released 1974’s Banks Of Marble including environmental “Garbage,” “Estado Chile” by doomed poet/politico Victor Jara and “I Know A Young Woman Who Swallowed A Lie,” a women’s lib spoof of children’s rhyme “I Know An Old Woman Who Swallowed A Fly.” The next year witnessed Pete Seeger And Arlo Guthrie Together In Concert (Warner Brothers), a typical mixture of traditional folk (“Golden Vanity,” an old Almanacs song) and Arlo’s late father Woody’s grim “Deportee.”
The 70s brought vocal and other health problems, causing Pete to limit his concertizing, though he found he needed to sing to an audience for his own emotional state. Meanwhile, he was paying attention to situations very close to home in Beacon. Back in 1965, some Beaconers had tried to stop him from doing a benefit at the local high school, forcing world citizen Pete to realize how little he’d been part of his own community. The motto “think globally, act locally” took on credence, especially after the blacks kicked the whites out of the Civil Rights movement and some antiwar movement tactics left him feeling like an old fuddy duddy. Developing a taste for sailing, he turned his attention to the putrid Hudson River stinking right outside his door. A mere century earlier it had been the sparkling home for numerous varieties of fish. Sailing solo one night, he composed “Sailing Down My Golden River,” but characteristically didn’t think much about it though Don McLean jumped at it.
Seeger conceived of a sloop to sail the river, spreading music and environmentalism. Forming the Hudson Valley Sloop Restoration Project, he helped to build the Clearwater, a 106-foot-long replica of a 19th-century sloop with a 108-foot mast. With electricity and a motor as its nod to modernity, it slept 16 and was launched June 27, 1969. Of course, as with many of Pete’s efforts, controversy followed. Its crew included hippies; local workers feared environmentalism would cost them their jobs; some radicals thought Pete should be dealing with more important issues. The Clearwater project showed it was no idle pastime when it hauled General Electric into court for dumping PCBs into the river; the giant suffered a multimillion-dollar fine. Pete’s writings glow with pride in describing the Clearwater’s effectiveness.
As he moved into his 60s, Pete’s recording activities declined. Warner Brothers’ 1979 Circles And Seasons rippled with environmentalism. A January 1980 concert of his standards at his alma mater Harvard’s acoustically superb Sanders Theatre led to Singalong (Folkways), which Smithsonian Folkways expanded to a two-CD box in 199l.
Also in 1980 Pete decided to briefly regroup the original Weavers for two Thanksgiving-week concerts at Carnegie Hall. “Whatever Pete proposes, he don’t get no no’ses,” Lee quipped regardless of his pain as diabetes racked what was left of his body after assorted amputations. Intervening years of musical theater had added drama to Ronnie’s delivery, though she and Lee had understandably lost a lot of vocal power over time. Still they could laugh in singing, “How do I know my youth is all spent? My get up and go has got up and went. But in spite of it all I’m able to grin and think of the places my get up has been.” “Wasn’t That A Time” was revamped to address the McCarthy era: “Informers took their Judas pay to tell their sorry tale. The gangs in Congress had their way and free souls went to jail.” Mary Travers of Peter, Paul & Mary joshed Leventhal, “You left somebody off the list of invitees. You should have called the FBI. Those guys went to so many Weavers concerts back then, they must have gotten to like the music by now.” The Weavers Together Again (Loom) preserved the show, which also figured in Weavers documentary Wasn’t That A Time, where legless Lee jokes that the quartet’s blacklist-based sabbatical turned into a mondical and a tuesdical. He died on August 17, 1981. At his request, his ashes were added to his compost pile.
Directed by Jim Brown, Wasn’t That A Time was popular on the art house circuit and PBS. Unfortunately its videocassette version on Warner Reprise Video is out of print. Besides presenting the original quartet in their later lives (Pete, age 60-plus, atop the Clearwater mast), it shows 50s news clips, rare TV footage of the Weavers, plus plenty of rehearsing, fond reminiscing, and testimonials. Mary Travers notes, “We learned from them that folk music was a process that had to be carried on, that it had a responsibility to the community from which it sprang, that the folk tradition was one of social commitment as well as just old-fashioned have-fun-together.”
Reprising assorted Weavers classics along with “Will The Circle Be Unbroken” and “Wabash Cannonball,” Pete, Arlo and Arlo’s band Shenandoah put out Precious Friend (Warner Brothers) in 1982. Ever preferring to sing with groups, Pete teamed up with Ronnie, Arlo and Holly Near (who had brought her childhood inspiration Ronnie back into national touring) on HARP (Redwood) recorded at the Universal Amphitheatre in Los Angeles September 17 and 18, 1984. In 1986 the political Flying Fish label put out two-LP Carry It On with Pete and younger community organizer/performers Jane Sapp and Si Kahn. Here briefly was the interracial group he’d once hoped the Weavers would be, singing of Wobblies, union maids and Underground Railroad heroine Harriet Tubman.
After years away from the recording studio, 1996’s soft, Grammy-nominated Pete (Living Music) shows his banjo rippling like a clear brook. The voice has grown weak though the spirit is strong. The Gaudeamus chorus often carries the album’s vocal weight as the 77-year-old’s repertoire mellows from the in-your-face anger of his youthful Almanac recordings. “I would say I’m more pacifistic than I’ve been. I’m convinced that while struggling hard is important, it’s too easy to say it’s nice to make enemies. The world’s too full of angry people already,” experienced Pete now says. The first verse of “Old Devil Time” takes on a new aura in his twilight years. As he sings of Leadbelly in “Huddie Ledbetter Was A Helluva Man” (“He’s a long time gone but his songs live on”), we realize the same will someday be said of Pete, but since life expectancy is often hereditary, he’ll likely be here for quite a while.
He fondly reminisces on his father’s last decades. “In 1952, when he was 66, he was visited by the FBI. They said, ‘Mr. Seeger, we’d like to ask you some questions.’ He found they knew all about him. He said, ‘I’ll tell you anything you want to know about me. I’ll undress, figuratively speaking, but I’m not going to talk about anybody else.’ They said, ‘Oh, no. You have to talk about everybody you knew.’ He said, ‘In that case I just won’t talk at all.’ The next day he walked down to his office—he was in charge of the music department at the Pan American Union in Washington, D.C.—and resigned and took a very small pension and ended up going west to work with the Institute of Ethnomusicology at UCLA for another 10 years and then finally moved back east. He was in such good health I think he might be alive now but he fell downstairs at age 92. He was very disciplined. Here’s a true story. In Connecticut he lived in a little two-story house and a young musicology student came to discuss something with him and found a note on the door: ‘Come in. Without my hearing aid I won’t hear you knock, but I’ll be down at 9:00.’ She’s sitting on the sofa and from upstairs she hears, ‘hhhu-huh-hhhu-huh.’ ‘Heavens,’ she says, ‘the old man’s having a heart attack.’ She rushes upstairs and finds him rolling around on the floor stark naked doing his yoga exercises. He’d come to see us at a ripe old age and show our children how to stand on their heads.”
So how is Pete spending his time as a senior citizen besides chopping wood? Last year he went to India, happily finding that “We Shall Overcome” is widely sung in a variety of dialects. “I have to confess I don’t hardly listen to music at all. The one time I do is in January and February in ice cold weather. We have a skating rink in my backyard. I turn on steel drum music, which is my favorite skating music—better than waltzes, better than anything—wonderful bubbly rhythms to skate to.”
The Brahmin who spent years without indoor plumbing remains suspicious of technology and is firmly committed to the notion of people creating their own entertainment. “Probably neither you nor I would be alive if it hadn’t been for medical science and technology of all sorts, and I wouldn’t be sitting in a nice warm house now if it wasn’t for machinery of one sort or another, but I also think that what they call the ascent of civilization might be called the descent of mankind because, while machinery has certainly made things easier for us, it’s brought us very close to a possible end.
“I look at TV as the great one-eyed monster. We’re not becoming athletic; we’re just watching champion athletes. We’re not learning to tell stories; we’re watching stories. Of course, the most ridiculous of all is husbands and wives there on the sofa looking at the professional lover pretending to kiss the other professional lover. It’s reflected in our politics. The most important fact about the last presidential election was hardly ever mentioned in the press—almost 50% of the electorate did not vote.”
What tasks remain unfinished for you, I ask the grand old man of folk music. His answer is down to earth: “Oh, I wanted to make a study with a moving picture camera of folk music instrumental techniques, but I realized I was going blind looking at that little screen. I didn’t have enough time to do it right anyway. My life is littered with unfinished projects, most recently one on how to get a portable port-a-john which could be carried on the subway. So I designed one. It’s nothing but a small tent about 9-1/2 feet in diameter and a drop cloth to the ground around half so there’s a closed-in semicircle. There’s a plastic pail with a toilet seat and a urinal and a canvas door 32 inches wide for wheelchairs, and in front of the other side of the tent there’s a volunteer sitting.
“Sooner or later I’ll find somebody who’ll help me build one. There will be a set of shelves all sealed off from dust of any sort. You unzip the flaps and there’s shelves where you can put food for a potluck supper and on the other sides are another set of shelves for suitcases or instruments or whatever. So it’s a checkroom and an information center and a port-a-john. And at the end of the day it can all be broken down. One person carries the poles in a canvas sack. Another person carries the tent. A couple of people carry the pails of sawdust and shit and another person carries the urinals and the shelves. So the whole thing can be carried on the subway if necessary and stored in the closet until the next time it’s used. I have yet to build it. It’s just on the drawing board. My wife says, ‘Don’t you even start to build it. Somebody else is going to build it.’”
The tent’s instrument shelves can serve Pete’s “descendants” in creating music with a social purpose. “Some of that music is very angry—I think anger has its limitations. Some is too sweet and soulful. Some of the best has a sense of purpose and activism to it. I love the songs of Pat Humphreys like ‘Swimming To The Other Side.’ Another of hers says, “We’ll keep on walking forward, we’ll keep on walking forward, never turning back, never turning back.’ Only one line changes in each verse: ‘We’ll teach our neighbors courage, we’ll teach our neighbors courage, never turning back.’ Charlie King is one of the best satirical songwriters along with Tom Paxton. Funny songs. John McCutcheon and Greg Brown are very good. And that fellow Dillon Bustin, he’s a folklorist for the state of Massachusetts, has got a beautiful song about gardening. One of the funniest songwriters is Bob Bossin up in Vancouver. Did you hear his song ‘Show Us The Length Of Your Cock’? Bob had a real success when he wrote a song to stop clearcutting in a beloved valley of his. There are good songwriters everywhere, not dozens, but hundreds, thousands.”
Meanwhile various companies—Smithsonian Folkways, Vanguard, Columbia/Legacy, MCA—are reissuing his solo and group recordings at an impressive clip. (The Smithsonian Institution formed Smithsonian Folkways in 1987 when it bought the Folkways catalog after Moe Asch’s death.) The largest retrospectives are Vanguard’s four-CD Weavers box Wasn’t That A Time and Legacy’s two-CD A Link In The Chain broken down into four “chapters”: “Songs Of Freedom,” “For The Children,” “Saints, Sinners, Just Plain Folks” and “Tall Tales And Stories.” Vanguard’s Live At Newport presents Pete in his optimum setting—before an audience—in previously unissued 1963-65 Newport Folk Festival tracks. He’s also the most prominent artist in Bear Family’s mammoth Songs For Political Action.
Pete’s philosophical about all the attention. “All I can do is laugh. I never expected anything like this would happen. I just thought I’d gradually slow down and fade away. All of a sudden at age 77 I’m getting more publicity and my records are selling more than ever before. Who knows? I guess what I’d like to see is more and more people realizing that music has this delightful and extraordinary dual function of helping to lift us out of our problems—some music helps us forget our troubles and some music helps us understand our troubles. And once in a while some music helps us do something about our troubles.
“I’ve been working with the Music Educators National Conference. Out in Kansas City last April I led a workshop on songleading that had 6,000 music teachers. The head of the council—Will Schmidt, a nice fellow who works out of Milwaukee—coined what I think is a great slogan: ‘The concert is not over until the audience sings.’ He’s trying to persuade high school bands and choirs to involve the audience before the concert is over. If we can do it with Handel’s Messiah, we ought to be able to do it with other things.”
Pete was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as an “early influence” last year. Even his old nemesis, the U.S. government, has honored him twice recently. “One award was from the National Endowment for the Arts. Then I got another award from the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Clinton gave them both out and found something slightly different to say for the second one.”
If I’d been in Pete’s shoes there, I’d have wondered if the ghosts of Paul Robeson and Joe Hill were hovering behind me. Seeger replies, “I think they probably were looking at me and saying, ‘Pete, watch out you don’t get co-opted.’ There’s an old Arab proverb, ‘When the king puts the poet on his payroll, he cuts off the tongue of the poet.’ I think of this every time I get a job on TV.”
Seeger’s belief in community effort still leads him to adapt his lyrics. Ever the story teller, he relates the evolution of his own “Over the Rainbow”: “Its author Yip Harburg was a good friend of mine. Yip was a leftie. He and Harold Arlen got the prize plum of being hired to do the songs for the musical version of Wizard Of Oz. And he says to Arlen, ‘Get me a melody for the phrase over the rainbow.’ And Arlen says, ‘There’s no rainbow in Wizard Of Oz.’ Yip says, ‘I’m putting it in.’ Well, Arlen couldn’t find a melody he was satisfied with, and they only had three days to go before shooting would begin. He was getting worried. Around midnight he was coming back from a shopping trip with his wife, and he thinks of this glorious melody. He runs to a phone booth. ‘Yip, I’ve found the melody for “Over The Rainbow.” Come on over to my house.’ They often worked at night. So Yip comes over and says, ‘Oh, Harold. That’s for Nelson Eddy, not for little Dorothy.’ Poor Arlen. His face turned chalk white. His collaborator had turned down his great melody. Yip thought fast and called up Ira Gershwin. ‘Ira, come over. We need your advice.’ And he came over. He says, ‘Play it a little faster. Give it a little rhythm.’ And they made this unforgettable song. I’m sure, if the human race is around here in 500 years, it will be called a folk song from the 20th century.
“And there’ll be many versions of it around. But my version is, I tell the audience, ‘You all know it. I’ll give you the words.’ And they sing it. I can’t sing it. And right near the end, I say, ‘There are two more lines, but I found out I have to change the words.’ Somewhere up there I can hear Yip say, ‘Pete, you can putz around with your old folk songs, but don’t you touch “Over The Rainbow.” Please.’ So I usually gaze at the ceiling and say, ‘Yip, I’ve got to change two words because if I’d been there when little Dorothy was singing, “Why, oh why, can’t I?” I’d say, “Dorothy, I’ll tell you why you can’t. It’s because you only ask for yourself. You’ve got to ask for everybody ‘cause either we’re all going to make it over that rainbow together or nobody’s going to make it. So sing, ‘If plucky little bluebirds fly beyond the rainbow, why can’t you and I?’” And the whole audience sings it that way. So I make a bit of politics out of that song too.”
Despite the long-ago memories of the Peekskill stonings , the blacklist and a federal prison sentence, Seeger now presents an image of contentment. “I’ve never had to worry about a career. I kept on singing and made a living. My kids never went hungry. Some people really had their lives ruined by the blacklist and all, but I had it pretty darn easy considering all.
“I’m looking out at the Hudson River with a tugboat pulling an empty barge. A long, long freight train is going up the river on the other side. The sun’s going down. Can’t complain. We’ve got grandchildren that live close by. There’s a fire in the fireplace. My granddaughter’s learning how to bake cookies. My wife and I are very lucky.”