Pete Seeger’s personal motto, “Strive for simplicity, and learn to distrust it,” sounds a warning to anyone who dares write about his extraordinary life. To Bob Dylan he is “a saint,” yet it was Seeger who attempted to cut the power the moment Dylan went electric at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival. Like Studs Terkel, Stanley Kunitz and George McGovern, Seeger, who turned 90 on May 3, has lived long enough to be venerated as a sage. Though only a singer-as Mercedes Sosa and Victor Jara are only singers-he has played a crucial role in the labor, civil rights, peace and environmental movements.
According to environmentalist John Cronin, “He’s a walking history of the role of the citizen.” Bruce Springsteen, who performed with Seeger at the Obama inauguration and covered the older man’s songs on a 2006 album called We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions, said “Pete’s library is so vast that the whole history of the country is there.”
Seeger traces his ancestry to Mayflower Pilgrims and 19th-century abolitionists, and though age now keeps him from hitting the high notes of “Wimoweh,” he continues to lift his voice on behalf of the voiceless and oppressed. Seeger is a man who contains multitudes. Portraiture of Seeger can easily become caricature: the genial, populist activist strumming a banjo. Seeger’s life hasn’t been one long round of “Kumbaya,” the mellow hymn of reconciliation he helped popularize.
Uncomfortable with celebrity and loath to talk about himself, Seeger has urged audiences not to buy or even play his records (he’s recorded more than 100), but to sing the songs instead. When Alec Wilkinson, a staff writer for The New Yorker, approached Seeger, the singer protested, “Too much has been written about me, and at too great length … . What’s needed is a book that can be read in one sitting.” The Protest Singer is that volume, what its author calls “a small, descriptive book, a long essay-a factual novella.” Anyone seeking a detailed account of Seeger’s long, eventful life is advised to read David King Dunaway’s How Can I Keep From Singing? The Ballad of Pete Seeger, published in 1981 and updated in 2008.
Throughout his sketch, Wilkinson refers to Dunaway’s 544-page book. To recount the momentous reunion of The Weavers-the popular folk group comprised of Seeger, Ronnie Gilbert, Lee Hays and Fred Hellerman-Wilkinson makes do with a single sentence: “In 1955, a promoter brought The Weavers back together for a concert at Carnegie Hall-he had told each of them that the others wanted to.” To find out who that promoter was (Harold Leventhal) and how he engineered the concert, you have to turn to Dunaway. Aside from one infelicitous clause, however, (“The blacklist was demised in 1962”), Wilkinson writes with grace and respect for the complexities of his subject and the limitations of his genre.
The Seeger Wilkinson comes to know is an egalitarian child of privilege and the leftist lord of a sylvan manor-17Â½ wooded acres in Beacon, N.Y., about 65 miles north of Manhattan. There Seeger built the log cabin that he, his wife Toshi, and their two young children moved into after purchasing the land in 1949. Conversing with Wilkinson, Seeger prepares syrup from the sap of his own maple trees. The Beacon estate has been the base for his successful campaign to rescue the adjacent Hudson River from death by toxins.
Beacon is 18 miles from Peekskill, site of the 1949 riots instigated by riled veterans and the Ku Klux Klan. After performing at an outdoor concert headlined by Paul Robeson, Seeger drove his family through a perilous gauntlet of rabidly anti-Communist stone-throwers. He had joined the Communist Party of the United States in 1938, the same year that his father, ethnomusicologist Charles Seeger, quit in disgust over the Moscow show trials. Joseph Stalin’s ruthless despotism had become apparent to anyone willing to put aside romantic illusions of benign revolution. The young Seeger was not willing, though Wilkinson dismisses his party membership in a single, parenthetical sentence: “(Seeger knew students at Harvard who were Communists, and, idealistically, he became one for several years, too).” He remained in the party until 1949, though he tells Wilkinson: “I should have left much earlier. It was stupid of me not to … I didn’t realize the danger the world was in; I thought everything would turn out right. I thought Stalin was the brave secretary Stalin, and had no idea how cruel a leader he was.”
After dropping out of Harvard in his sophomore year, Seeger toured with an agitprop troupe called the Vagabond Puppeteers and then worked in the Library of Congress on Alan Lomax’s collection of American folk songs. Faithful to the party line after the 1939 Molotov-Rippentrop nonaggression pact, Seeger initially opposed intervention in the European conflict and, as a member of the Almanac Singers, recorded an album, Songs for John Doe, critical of FDR’s peacetime draft. After Germany invaded Russia, he changed his tunes and supported America’s entry into World War II. Drafted in 1942, he spent almost six years in the Army, much of it in Saipan. After the war, he and Robeson barnstormed for and with Henry Wallace, the Progressive Party candidate for president.
In 1950, The Weavers’ recording of Leadbelly’s “Good Night, Irene” soared to the top of the charts, and they were offered a contract for their own TV show. But after Seeger was named, along with 150 other alleged subversives, in the right-wing report Red Channels, the contract was rescinded, and he found himself blacklisted, largely limiting his professional performances to children’s groups. Subpoenaed to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee on Aug. 18, 1955, he responded with genial defiance-a stance and a moment Wilkinson portrays as elevating Seeger to heroic stature. Seeger did not base his refusal to cooperate with congressional red-baiters on the Fifth Amendment. He came, banjo in hand, prepared to sing but not snitch, and to talk about his life, but not to name names or describe his beliefs. “I am not going to answer any questions as to my association, my philosophical or religious beliefs, or my political beliefs, or how I voted in any election, or any of these private affairs,” he told Francis Walter, the committee chair. “I think these are very improper questions for any American to be asked, especially under such compulsion as this.”
Seeger’s refusal earned him a conviction for contempt of Congress and a one-year prison sentence, later revoked on a technicality. His banishment from network airwaves ended in 1967 with an invitation to appear on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. Even then, CBS expunged his performance of “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy,” a song mocking a bellicose leader who, like L.B.J., insists on forging into the morass.
“Seeger’s politics are of the most extravagantly conservative kind,” Wilkinson writes. “He believes ardently in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. His interpretation of them is literal. In his years of activism, through the movements for workers’ rights, civil rights, the movement against the Vietnam War, and the ecological movement, in all of which he figured prominently, there is no conceit that he has more emphatically embraced than that all human beings are created equal and have equal rights.” Music was integral to that activism, and after changing “We Will” to “We Shall” and adding a couple of verses to an old hymn, Seeger made “We Shall Overcome” the unofficial anthem of progressive causes. It and other Seeger compositions such as “If I Had a Hammer,” “Turn, Turn, Turn,” and “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” became staples of the folk revival. Though Wilkinson notes that “… Seeger did more to make people aware of folk music in the middle of the twentieth century than any other performer,” the singer-songwriter continued to insist on music as a collective activity rather than a business, entertainment, or even an exhibition of artistic virtuosity.
Following his portrait of a self-effacing dynamo of extraordinary talents and energies, Wilkinson appends 10 apothegms that Charles Seeger once proposed to explain “The Purposes of Music.” For the father, as for his son, music is not an end itself, but “if it bids fair to aid in the welding of the people into more independent, capable and democratic action, it must be approved.”
Welding people together may not always seem consistent with independence and democracy, but it’s hard not to approve of Wilkinson’s final image of the battered optimist: Seeger, then 84, stood alone, anonymous, holding a sign beside the road on a winter day. “He’s just standing out there in the cold and the sleet like a scarecrow getting drenched,” a friend recalls. “I go a little bit down the road, so that I can turn around and come back, and when I get him in view again, this solitary and elderly figure, I see that what he’s written on the sign is ‘Peace.'”
With such an inspiring example to follow, even cynics can believe we might overcome.
Contributing writer Steven G. Kellman is the editor of the new reissue of M. E. Ravage’s 1917 memoir An American in the Making (Rutgers University Press).