A member of the Community Church of New York, Pete Seeger was born to a musicologist and a music teacher. Music and activism blended naturally for Seeger, who at sixteen saw a performance that has since directed his life. As Seeger recalled: “That summer I visited a square dance festival in Asheville, North Carolina, and fell in love with the old-fashioned five-string banjo, rippling out a rhythm to one fascinating song after another.” These songs seemed frank, straightforward, honest. “I liked the rhythms,” Seeger said. “I liked the melodies, time tested by generations of singers. Above all, I liked the words.”
Seeger entered Harvard in 1936 but Harvard proved a weaker attraction than the life of a traveling musician; Seeger left college in his sophomore year, setting out to absorb American folk music straight from its roots in communities across the country.
Swapping watercolor paintings for food and shelter, Seeger traveled all around the United States, learning “a little something from everybody” as he sought to master the five-string banjo and internalize the folk traditions he’d come to love. On the road Seeger met Woody Guthrie and Huddie Ledbetter, who both became strong influences and collaborators in Seeger’s early career.
In addition to churches, migrant camps, and everything between, Seeger made his way to the Library of Congress, where he fortified his background in folk music as an assistant in the Archive of American Folk Song. Seeger, Guthrie, and others formed Seeger’s first group, the Almanac Singers, in 1940. Seeger and Guthrie traveled throughout the United States and Mexico as singer-activists, bolstering labor movements with song as they blended activism and folk music.
In 1942, Seeger joined the Army, performing for his fellow soldiers and picking up “soldier songs”. Discharged a corporal in 1945, Seeger founded People’s Songs, Inc., a musicians’ union through which he hoped to bind labor movements and folk music in a relationship that would advance both. People’s Songs eventually grew to 3,000 members, and Seeger remained involved in politics, campaigning for 1948 Progressive candidate Henry A. Wallace and helping to establish the musical side of labor organizing.
In 1948 Seeger co-founded The Weavers, a folksinging quartet with which he recorded such classics as “If I Had a Hammer,” “Kisses Sweeter than Wine,” and “On Top of Old Smoky.” Seeger also toured extensively on his own, helping to establish the Newport (Rhode Island) Folk Festival and selling out such venues as Carnegie Hall. His position in mainstream music was stifled by blacklisting, however, as controversy surrounding his ties to the Communist Party led major television networks to keep him off the air.
The House Committee on Un-American Activities called Seeger to hearings in 1955; instead of citing the Fifth Amendment as grounds for silence, Seeger cited the First, a move for which he was sentenced to a year in jail for contempt of court. Citing his unconditional willingness to share his music regardless of supposed political alliances, Seeger even offered to play a song for the court. Although his sentence for contempt was soon overturned, Seeger remained blacklisted by many organizations. Nonetheless, he remained firm in his love of sharing music. “I’d sing for the John Birch Society or the American Legion, if they asked,” he said. “So far they haven’t.”
Seeger continued playing in spite of political controversy, recording such hits as “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” and “Turn, Turn, Turn.” His clear and catchy singing and his mastery of the five-string banjo — as well as steel drums and several other instruments — have won him tremendous popularity. His work has since extended to environmentalism and folklorist studies of America’s music. Whether in songwriting, musicology, or activism, Seeger has enjoyed a life dedicated to music and to humanity, winning thousands of admirers and greatly influencing folk music and activism alike.
Adapted from an article by Thomas Blair