Our friend and comrade Pete Seeger died a year ago this month, on January 27, 2014. Pete was a long-time reader of Monthly Review and, occasionally, a writer for this magazine. Harry Magdoff used to say that when a letter arrived from Pete, nearly always handwritten and often pages long, responding to an article or suggesting a topic to be covered or a book to be reviewed, it would go right home with him, to be pondered, considered, answered, and, especially, enjoyed. Seeger’s communications were never innocuous: he would tell the editors that something MR had published was wrongheaded (or, sometimes, right-headed); he would take an idea, turn it over, and suggest where to go with it. Like his music, Seeger’s letters demanded engagement, participation—and action. He had a special place in the MR family.
Pete Seeger was born May 3, 1919, into an old New England family of musicians and activists. His mother, Constance, was a concert violinist and taught at the Juilliard School of Music in New York. His father, Charles, founded the musicology program at the University of California, Berkeley, from which he was fired for his pacifism in 1918. When he was seven, Pete’s parents divorced; in 1932, Charles Seeger married Ruth Crawford. Now considered to be one of the most important modernist composers of the twentieth century, she had a profound interest in folk music, something she passed on to her children and stepchildren. In fact, all four of Pete’s half-siblings became folk singers.
During the Depression, Charles Seeger worked for various New Deal agencies, often traveling with his family. On one such trip, for the Farm Resettlement Administration, Pete first heard the five-string banjo that would come to be his signature instrument. After attending boarding school, Pete followed family tradition to Harvard, where he studied with Paul Sweezy, and like others in his highly politicized family and world, he chafed at his inability to do anything about the suffering he saw all around him. He dropped out of college and went to New York City to work for the Archives of American Folk Music, founded by the great ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax. There Seeger’s engagement with music and his emergent radical political perspective came together, and his life’s vocation was set.
Seeger met Woody Guthrie in 1940 and, with him and others, went on to found the Almanac Singers. The Almanacs, a collective that included Lee Hays, Millard Lampell, Sis Cunningham, Sonny Terry, Brownie McGhee, and others, were committed to radical political action. They performed for CIO organizing campaigns, writing, singing, and performing pieces like “Talking Union”—“If you want higher wages let me tell you what to do /You’ve got to talk to the boys in the shops with you….” In wartime 1942, Seeger was drafted—and coincidently joined the Communist Party. While on leave, he continued to perform with the Almanacs, recording songs like the “Ballad of Harry Bridges” and, more famously, “The Reuben James,” about a torpedoed U.S. cargo ship sunk by a Nazi U-Boat. “The Reuben James” became a kind of anthem for National Maritime Union members (among them Guthrie) who sailed the dangerous Atlantic to Britain and the Soviet Union. The Almanacs also released an album of Songs of the Lincoln Battalion (still available from Folkways Records), chronicling the exploits of the volunteers from around the world who went to Spain to fight Franco’s fascism during the Spanish Civil War.
On his return from military service on Saipan Island in the Pacific, Pete, by now married to Toshi Aline Ohta, resumed both singing and activism. He organized and led People’s Songs, founded in 1946 to “Create, promote and distribute songs of labor and the American People.” People’s Songs published The People’s Songbook and supported Henry A. Wallace’s failed 1948 anti-Cold War Presidential campaign. Toshi Seeger went on to help found the Newport Folk Festival and, in 1965, joined the Selma to Montgomery voting rights march.
From here, Pete’s story is picked up, in a variety of different registers, by the contributors to this section.
Unable to find a job after the 1948 election, Seeger worked as a music teacher at progressive schools in New York City, first at the City and Country School (where decades before Leo Huberman had taught) and then the Downtown Community School. Emily Paradise Achtenberg’s article details Seeger’s work with the latter and, more particularly, with its summer camp, Camp Woodland, where she encountered Pete.
Brett Clark and Scott Borchert narrate Seeger’s ongoing career, his work with the Weavers—Pete, Ronnie Gilbert, Lee Hayes, and Fred Hellerman, who, arguably, led the folk music upsurge in the 1950s and ’60s, gained national acclaim, and were blacklisted for their trouble—and his central place in the folk music revival. Clark and Borchert also chronicle Pete’s political evolution as his voice moved from the margins to the (nearly) mainstream.
As lyrical in prose as in song, Holly Near tells us about Seeger’s resonant talent and clarity, abilities that made him both a beloved artist and a towering figure in this country’s popular culture. And she warns us, too, of the danger of making an icon of Pete and thereby losing sight of all the other troubadours who do (and do not) survive the “hazards of truth-telling.”
Providing a framing analysis of Seeger’s commanding radical presence of nearly seven decades is Daniel Rosza Lang/Levitsky’s examination of Pete as cultural worker and organizer.
It is hard to describe the wonderful stew that was Seeger’s humanity, imagination, and influence. Hard to say exactly what we will miss so deeply. But Pete’s sister and singing comrade, Peggy Seeger, comes close:
A bunch of rocks, sittin’ on a hill
Doing what rocks do, sittin’ still
On a stone nearby there’s a lanky man
With a longneck banjo in his hand
Now normally rocks don’t do a thing
But one by one they begin to sing
[Chorus]: It’s Pete, It’s Pete
Strummin’ his banjo, stampin’ his feet
That lanky man goes down your street,
What do ya know, you’re singing
Now down in the cemetery folks don’t move
They just lie there in their groove
Sittin’ under a tree there’s a lanky man
With a longneck banjo in his hand
Now normally dead folks don’t say a thing
But ghostily the voices begin to sing
There’s a place nearby not far from here
Where folks can’t talk and folks can’t hear
Here he comes that lanky man
With a longneck banjo in his hand
Like an angel choir, like birds on the wing
All these folks begin to sing
Raise your voice, loud and sweet
Feel that rhythm and tap your feet
Turn, turn hear the banjo ring
The whole wide world begins to sing
Saint Peter will smile when Pete comes along
And God himself’ll sing those songs
Two additional articles related to Pete Seeger’s life and work—“How I Came to Know Old Pete, and the Difference Between the U.S. and Chilean New Song” by Fernando Andrés Torres and “Joseíto Fernández and His Guantánamo Sweetheart” by Gabriel Molina Franchossi—are available online at MRZine (http://mrzine.monthlyreview.org), along with links to performances of “Guantanamera.”
“Guantanamera” started out as a poem written in 1899 by Cuban writer José Martí; it was about a young girl from Guantanamo, and was written from the point of view of a Cuban revolutionary. In 1962, at the time of the Cuban missile crisis, Pete Seeger heard an adaptation by Joseíto Fernández. Seeger’s performance combined Martí’s original Spanish with spoken English and made it into an activist anthem for the peace movement.