Happy Birthday, Pete Seeger
by Peter Dreier
Huffington Post Blog
May 3, 2012
Today is Pete Seeger's 93rd birthday.
What's an appropriate gift for the most influential folk
artist of the 20th century? A few years ago some of Pete's
fans launched a campaign to nominate him for the Nobel Peace
Prize. It is time to resurrect that effort.
No one can get a crowd singing like he can. The songs he has
written, including the antiwar tunes "Where Have All the
Flowers Gone?," "If I Had a Hammer," and "Turn, Turn, Turn"
(whose text is drawn from Ecclesiastes), and those he has
popularized, including "This Land Is Your Land,"
"Guantanamera," "Wimoweh," and "We Shall Overcome," have
been recorded by hundreds of artists in many languages and
have become global anthems for people fighting for freedom.
His songs are sung by people in cities and villages around
the world, promoting the basic idea that the hopes that
unite us are greater than the fears that divide us.
In addition to being a much-acclaimed and innovative
guitarist and banjoist, a globe-trotting minstrel and song
collector, and the author of many songbooks and musical how-
to manuals, Seeger has been on the front lines of every key
progressive crusade during his lifetime -- labor unions and
migrant workers in the 1930s and 1940s, the banning of
nuclear weapons and opposition to the Cold War in the 1950s,
civil rights and the anti-Vietnam War movement in the 1960s,
environmental responsibility and opposition to South African
apartheid in the 1970s, and, always, human rights throughout
During the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s, two overlapping groups
-- collectors of traditional songs and American progressives
-- celebrated folk music and "people's music." Carl
Sandburg, John Lomax, his son Alan Lomax, Lawrence Gellert,
and other folklorists collected work songs, sea shanties,
hillbilly songs, prison songs, African American and slave
songs, and union songs. Progressives used songs not only to
promote cross-cultural understanding and a sense of common
humanity, but also to energize picket lines, enliven
rallies, and galvanize labor unions and political campaigns.
For example, the struggle by mine workers in Harlan County,
Kentucky, inspired Florence Reese to write the labor classic
"Which Side Are You On?"
The son of musicologists Charles and Ruth Seeger, Pete spent
two years at Harvard, where he got involved in radical
politics and helped start a student newspaper, the Harvard
Progressive, but he quit in 1938 in order to try his own
hand at changing society by making music. He worked at the
Library of Congress's Archive of American Folk Song (where
he learned many of the songs he would sing throughout his
career), traveled around with Woody Guthrie singing at
migrant labor camps and union halls, and perfected his
guitar- and banjo-playing skills.
In 1941, at age 22, Seeger formed the Almanac Singers with
Lee Hays and Millard Lampell, later joined by Guthrie, Bess
Lomax (daughter of musicologist John Lomax), and several
others who rotated in and out of the group. The Almanacs
drew on traditional songs and wrote their own songs to
advance the cause of progressive groups, the Communist
Party, the Congress of Industrial Organizations unions, the
New Deal, and, later, the United States and its allies
(including the Soviet Union) in the fight against fascism.
The Almanacs were part of a broader upsurge of popular
progressive culture during the New Deal, fostered in part by
programs like the federal theater and writers' projects.
Even so, the group was hounded by the FBI, got few bookings,
and was dropped by its agent, the William Morris Agency.
After Seeger and Guthrie joined the military, the group
disbanded in 1943.
The Almanacs cultivated an image of being unpolished
amateurs. Guthrie once said that the Almanacs "rehearsed on
stage." Among them, however, Seeger was the most gifted and
disciplined musician, with a remarkable repertoire of
traditional songs. He carefully crafted a stage persona that
inspired audiences to join him, a performing style that he
perfected when he began working as a soloist. Every Seeger
concert involves a lot of group singing.
Immediately after World War II, American radicals and
liberals sought to resume popular support for progressive
unions, civil rights, and internationalism. The left's folk-
music wing hoped to build on its modest successes before and
during the war. In 1946 Seeger led the effort to create
People's Songs (an organization of progressive songwriters
and performers, dominated by but not confined to folk
musicians) and People's Artists (a booking agency to help
the members of People's Songs get concert gigs and recording
contracts). They compiled The People's Song Book (which
included protest songs from around the world), sponsored a
number of successful concerts, and organized chapters in
several cities and on college campuses.
When Henry Wallace ran for president on the Progressive
Party ticket in 1948, his campaign relied heavily on folk
music. Seeger traveled with Wallace during the campaign,
distributing song sheets at every meeting or rally so that
sing-alongs, led by Seeger, could alternate with Wallace's
By 1949 folk music had become increasingly popular, with
performers like Burl Ives, Josh White, and others gaining a
foothold in popular culture, but the folk music of this
period had lost much of its political edge.
For a brief period, as a member of the Weavers folk quartet,
Seeger achieved commercial success, performing several
chart-topping songs that reflected his eclectic repertoire.
The group was formed in 1948 by Seeger and Hays (both former
Almanacs), along with Ronnie Gilbert and Fred Hellerman.
They exposed audiences to their repertoire of songs from
around the world as well as to American folk traditions, but
without the overt advocacy of left-wing political causes.
Decca Records signed the Weavers to a recording contract and
added orchestral arrangements and instruments to their
music, a commercial expediency that rankled Seeger but
delighted Hays. The Weavers performed in the nation's most
prestigious nightclubs and appeared on network television
In 1950 their recording of an Israeli song, "Tzena Tzena,"
reached number 2 on the pop charts, and their version of
Lead Belly's "Goodnight, Irene," reached number 1 and stayed
on the charts for half a year. Several of their recordings
-- "On Top of Old Smokey," "Kisses Sweeter Than Wine," the
African song "Wimoweh," and "Midnight Special" -- also made
the charts. Their 1951 recording of Guthrie's song "So Long
It's Been Good to Know You," reached number 4.
But the Weavers' commercial success was short-lived. As soon
as they began to be widely noticed in 1950, they were
targeted by both private and government witch-hunters. The
FBI and Congress escalated their investigations. Seeger and
the Weavers were mentioned in Red Channels and
Counterattack, the semiofficial private guidebooks for the
blacklist. A few performers, notably Josh White and Burl
Ives, agreed to cooperate with the investigators and were
able to resume their careers; others refused to do so, and
some were blacklisted. The Weavers survived for another year
with bookings and even TV shows, but finally the escalating
Red Scare caught up with them. Their contract for a summer
television show was canceled. They could no longer get
bookings in the top nightclubs. Radio stations stopped
playing their songs, and their records stopped selling. They
never had another major hit record.
Seeger left the Weavers to pursue a solo career, but he was
blacklisted from the early 1950s through the mid-1960s. In
1955 he was convicted of contempt of Congress for refusing
to discuss his political affiliations at a hearing called by
the House Committee on Un-American Activities, although he
never spent time in jail. (The conviction was overturned on
appeal in May 1962.) Many colleges and concert halls refused
to book Seeger. He was kept off network television. In 1963
ABC refused to allow Seeger to appear on Hootenanny, which
owed its existence to the folk music revival Seeger had
helped inspire. During the blacklist years, Seeger scratched
out a living by giving guitar and banjo lessons and singing
at the small number of summer camps, churches, high schools
and colleges, and union halls that were courageous enough to
invite the controversial balladeer. In 1966, on New York
City's nonprofit educational television station, he hosted a
low-budget folk music program, Rainbow Quest, that gave
exposure to many little-known country, bluegrass, and folk
Eventually, however, Seeger's audience grew. In the 1960s he
sang with civil rights workers at rallies and churches in
the South and at the march from Selma to Montgomery,
Alabama. He popularized the song "We Shall Overcome" in the
United States and during his concerts around the world. In a
letter to Seeger, Martin Luther King Jr. thanked him for his
"moral support and Christian generosity." In 1967 Tom and
Dick Smothers defiantly invited Seeger onto their popular
CBS television variety show, the Smothers Brothers Comedy
Hour. True to his principles, Seeger insisted on singing a
controversial antiwar song, "Waist Deep in the Big Muddy."
CBS censors refused to air the song, but public outrage
forced the network to relent and allow him to perform the
song on the show a few months later.
Seeger helped catalyze the folk music revival of the 1960s,
encouraging young performers, helping start the Newport Folk
Festival, and promoting the folk song magazine Sing Out!
that he had helped launch. His book How To Play the 5-String
Banjo taught thousands of baby boomers how to play this
largely forgotten instrument. On stage, he always taught his
audiences songs from around the world, often sung in their
original languages, such as the South African song "Wimoweh"
and the Cuban song "Guantanamera."
Many prominent musicians, including Bob Dylan, Bono, Joan
Baez, the Byrds, Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks, Bonnie
Raitt, Tom Morello, and Bruce Springsteen consider Seeger a
role model and trace their musical roots to his influence.
Many of his 80 albums -- which include children's songs,
labor and protest songs, traditional American folk songs,
international songs, and Christmas songs -- have reached
wide audiences. His travels around the world -- collecting
songs and performing in many languages -- inspired today's
world music movement. Among performers around the globe,
Seeger became a symbol of a principled artist deeply engaged
in the world.
In 1969 Seeger launched the group Clearwater (near his home
in Beacon, New York) and an annual celebration dedicated to
cleaning up the polluted Hudson River, an effort that helped
inspire the environmental movement.
Through persistence and unrelenting optimism, Seeger endured
and overcame the controversies triggered by his activism. In
1994, at age 75, he received the National Medal of Arts (the
highest award given to artists and arts patrons by the US
government) as well as a Kennedy Center Honor, when
President Bill Clinton called him "an inconvenient artist,
who dared to sing things as he saw them." In 1996 he was
inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame because of his
influence on so many rock performers. In 1997 he won the
Grammy Award for his eighteen-track compilation album, Pete.
In the 21st century, some of the nation's most prominent
singers recorded albums honoring Seeger, including
Springsteen's Seeger Sessions. PBS broadcast a ninety-three-
minute documentary on Seeger's life, The Power of Song.
On a cold afternoon on January 18, 2009, Pete Seeger stood
in front of the Lincoln Memorial and sang "This Land Is Your
Land" at a preinaugural celebration, with President-elect
Barack Obama and his wife, Michelle, sitting nearby on the
platform, half a million people standing on the mall, and
millions of people watching on television across the country
and around the world. Defiantly, the 89-year-old Seeger sang
two little-known stanzas of his friend Woody Guthrie's
patriotic anthem -- one about Depression-era poverty, the
other about trespassing on private property -- that reflect
its author's, and Seeger's, radical political views.
In May 2009 more than 15,000 admirers filled New York City's
Madison Square Garden for a concert honoring Seeger on his
ninetieth birthday. The performers included Bruce
Springsteen, Dave Matthews, Emmylou Harris, Joan Baez, Billy
Bragg, Rufus Wainwright, Bela Fleck, Taj Mahal, Roger
McGuinn, Steve Earle, Ramblin' Jack Elliott, Dar Williams,
Tom Morello, Ani DiFranco, and John Mellencamp. Seeger
joined in on several numbers with his banjo and also led the
crowd in singing "Goodnight, Irene" and an a cappella
rendition of "Amazing Grace."
Every day, every minute, someone in the world is singing a
Pete Seeger song.
What are remarkable life he's led! Happy Birthday, Pete!
[Peter Dreier teaches politics and chairs the Urban &
Environmental Policy Department at Occidental College. His
new book, The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century: A
Social Justice Hall of Fame, will be published next month by
Nation Books. Pete Seeger is one of the individuals profiled
in the book.]
Happy Birthday, Pete Seeger
Pete Seeger performs a song called "Quite Early Morning"
PBS via Common Dreams
May 3, 2012
Here Pete Seeger performs a song called "Quite Early
AMERICAN MASTERS Pete Seeger: The Power of Song aired
February 27  on PBS (check local listings). For more
information, visit http://www.pbs.org/americanmasters
Pete Seeger helped introduce America to its own musical
heritage, devoting his life to using the power of sing as a
force for social change. Standing strong for deeply-held
beliefs, Seeger went from the top of the pop charts to the
top of the blacklist and was banned from American commercial
television for more than 17 years. This determined
singer/songwriter made his voice heard and encouraged the
people of the world to sing out along with him. Now almost
90, Seeger continues to invigorate and inspire the musicians
who help tell his story- including Joan Baez, Bruce
Springsteen, Natalie Maines, Tom Paxton, Arlo Guthrie, and
AMERICAN MASTERS is produced for PBS by Thirteen/WNET New
Pete Seeger's 90th Birthday Celebration from Madison Square
Seeger and Friends Perform "This Land Is Your Land"
Pete Seeger and friends perform the classic "This Land Is
Your Land" together on stage at Madison Square Garden for
Pete Seeger's 90th Birthday Celebration.
"We Shall Overcome"
Dave Matthews Performs "Rye Whiskey"
The Happy Birthday Song
Joan Baez Performs "Where Have All the Flowers Gone"
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