I am that rare person who’s not a big fan of Pete Seeger (1919-2014) as a performer. I prefer my folksingers more rough-hewn and genuinely working class. And the gentle, soft-spoken, educated, and polished Seeger always struck me as something of a musical carpetbagger (indeed a pioneer in that respect), though I hasten to add that I have mad respect for his contributions as a songwriter, arranger, collector, popularizer, educator, scholar, and activist, and the respect grows still more when you factor in his family as a whole. And so we begin with them.
His uncle was the poet/soldier Alan Seeger (1888-1916), whose prophetic poem “I Have a Rendezvous with Death” was a favorite of John F. Kennedy’s. Seeger was one of the first Americans to die in World War One; he’d volunteered with the French Foreign Legion prior to America’s entry into the war. He died in action at the Somme. Throughout the war, he had contributed dispatches to the New York Sun, and garnered praise for another poem, an “Ode in Memory of the American Volunteers Fallen in France”. Seeger had attended Harvard, was a cohort of John Reed, and socialized with the likes of John Butler Yeats (father of William Butler Yeats) and Edwin Arlington Robinson, favorite poet of Teddy Roosevelt, whom we wrote about here. Prior to the war he participated in the bohemian communities of Greenwich Village and Paris.
Pete’s father Charles Seeger (1886-1979) was not as famous, but just as significant. He was a musicologist, and considered a founder of the field of ethnomusicology. He taught at UC Berkley, Yale, UCLA, Julliard (then known as as the Institute of Musical Art) and the New School, and held a wide variety of positions at various Federal cutural programs during the New Deal. Seeger was friends with great folklorist, scholar and collector Alan Lomax, best known for amassing the voluminous and influential Archive of American Folk Song for the LIbrary of Congress. Like millions of other Americans, I have played scores of record albums compiled from these collections; they’ve played a huge part in my life. Lomax was to mentor the young Pete Seeger, who worked for him as a teenager.
Pete’s mother was classical violinist and teacher Constance de Clyver Edson, who grew up in Tunisia and studied at the Paris Conservatory of Music. The parents divorced when Pete was seven. He and his two brothers remained with their father, who then married ultramodern composer Ruth Crawford, first woman to win a Guggenheim, who had been one of Charles’s composition students. Early in her career, Crawford contributed the musical arrangements for Carl Sandburg’s American Songbag, and had also created musical settings for eight of Sandburg’s poems. Another friend of the Seegers was Americana painter Thomas Hart Benton, who introduced Pete to many traditional folk songs at gatherings at his Greenwich Village home.
So this was Seeger’s background. Music was the family business. He was a teenager when he accompanied his father to the Mountain Dance and Folk Festival near Asheville, NC, which is where he first became enamored with the instrument with which he would always be associated, the banjo. Seeger briefly attended Harvard, but dropped out after a few months to pursue music. In addition to working with Lomax, he performed with a puppetry troupe, and taught kids to sing at New York’s posh Dalton School, where his aunt was principal and his brother would later teach. From 1936 through 1949, Seeger was affiliated with the Communist Party, later dropping out, more through distaste at Stalin’s authoritarianism than political pressure in the U.S. (to clarify, he did experience and suffer from that pressure, but that wouldn’t have effected this decision. He was a commited leftist). Through Will Geer, he met the likes of Woody Guthrie, and he performed with Guthrie, Cisco Huston, Leadbelly, Josh White, and Burl Ives on the radio show Back Where I Came From, produced by Lomax and future filmmaker Nicholas Ray from 1940 through 1941. With these and others, he formed the Almanac Singers in 1941, recording several albums with them and singing on radio.
From 1942 through 1945 Seeger served in the army as an entertainer. In 1943 he married Japanese-American Toshi Ohta, whose grandfather had been banned from Japan for translating the writings of Karl Marx. Toshi had been born in Munich. Seeger’s immigrant ancestor Karl Ludwig Seeger was from Wurttenberg. For Seeger, and for many other Americans, this war was about ideology: defeating Nazism and imperialism — not about killing Germans and Japanese. During the war, with his Almanac cohorts, he also recorded Songs of the Lincoln Battalion, a record of tunes commemorating the earlier Spanish Civil War.
In 1950 Seeger co-founded the singing group The Weavers, named after Gerhart Hauptmann’s 1892 labor play. The Weavers had numerous hit records including versions of Leadbelly’s “Good Night Irene”, the folk standard “On Top of Old Smoky”, Guthrie’s “So Long, It’s Been Good To Know You”, Israeli folk song “Tzena, Tzena, Tzena”, Merle Travis’s “Sixteen Tons” and their original tune “Kisses Sweeter Than Wine”, which became an even bigger hit for Jimmie Rodgers. Throughout these years, Seeger and his colleagues fought a defensive battle against McCarthyism and HUAC and for a time they were banned from radio.
In the late ’50s, Seeger went solo and performed on college campuses, helping to fuel the folk revival that would explode by the 1960s. Tunes he either wrote or popularized included “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?”, “If I Had a Hammer (The Hammer Song)”, “Turn! Turn! Turn!” and “The Bells of Rhymney” (both covered by the Byrds in 1965), “Little Boxes” (which became the theme song for the TV show Weeds), and the anti-war song “Waste Deep in the Big Muddy”. He also helped popularize the Civil Rights anthem “We Shall Overcome” and led a famous singalong of John Lennon’s “Give Peace a Chance”, the most famous rendition of the song after Lennon’s own. He (and The Weavers) were major influences on The Kingston Trio and Peter, Paul and Mary (both of whom covered, and had hits with, his songs) and he was instrumental in the early career of Bob Dylan.
In 1965 and 1966, Seeger hosted his own TV variety show Rainbow Quest which had major guests like Johnny Cash and June Carter (Seeger was to appear on their show a couple of years later), Reverend Gary Davis, Mississippi John Hurt, Doc Watson, Patrick Sky, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Tom Paxton, Judy Collins, Donovan, The Clancy Brothers, Richard and Mimi Fariña, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott et al. Later he would famously apper on The Smothers Brothers, and the usual talk show round of Johnny Carson, David Frost, Merv, Dick Cavett, et al.
From the ’80s until the end of his life (a shockingly short time ago), while well remembered for his musical contributions, Seeger’s primary impact was as an activist, especially as an environmentalist. He was closely associated with his beloved Hudson River Valley and his sailing vessel The Clearwater (which my ex-wife briefly served on as a volunteer!) By then his image had attained legendary status — he was almost like Santa Claus or Johnny Appleseed. He affected a sort of nautical look, invariably seen sporting a canal boat pilot cap that evoked Mike Fink. While I know of no family connection to the similarly surnamed E.C. Segar, there have been times when Pete’s appearance has also evoked that cartoonist’s creations Popeye and (in later years) Poopdeck Pap. Seeger was still cranking out records as late as 2012.
But wait! There’s more. We mentioned his family. There were other musical Seegers in his generation, All four of his younger half-siblings went into the family business. His sister Peggy Seeger (b. 1935) has recorded almost as many albums as Pete, both solo and with her husband Ewan MacColl. (1915-1989) Peggy was a much stauncher Marxist than her brother and lived in exile from the U.S. in England for many decades. She identifies as bi-sexual. As distinguished in his own way as both these siblings was Mike Seeger (1933-2009), a multi-instrumentalist, a founder of the New Lost City Ramblers, who produced many other artists in addition to playing on dozens of records himself. Their younger sisters Penny (who was married to new Lost City Rambler John Cohen, and Barbara, were singers as well.
For more on show business history, including radio and TV variety, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous,