Pete Seeger was born on 3 May 1919 in a small town about 100 miles north of New York. He was sent to boarding school at the age of 4, then in 1927 his parents divorced - he was 8. Neither really had custody - apart from the odd holiday, Pete was at boarding school for most of his childhood. One of three sons (Pete was the youngest) he refused either piano or voice lessons but it was at this time, whilst still very young, that he made up the story song, Abiyoyo.
At the age of 13 his father and his new wife (later to become the mother of Peggy and Mike) took him to an unheated loft in Greenwich Village New York where two dozen prominent New York composers assembled. They called themselves The Composers Collective - the majority were communists. Here they declared that the social system was going to hell and perhaps music might be able to do something about it - a philosophy that Pete obviously took on board at this young and impressionable age.
These new acquaintances told him of textile strikes in North Carolina, of the Scottsboro boys, of songs and coal strikes in Harlan County, of blacks imprisoned and executed for rape and murder on flimsy evidence. By 1932, (when Pete was 13), banks were calling in loans, farms were foreclosed by the thousand and with mortgages gone and dust storms blowing, families wandered the land. One in four was out of work in a country with no unemployment insurance and no social security.
His father meanwhile had finally found a way to mix music with activism. He took Pete to his first May Day demonstration where he heard songs like Pie In The Sky and The Soup Song. He bought a tenor banjo from a school teacher for 10 dollars and started playing in the school jazz band.
In 1935, Pete (now 16) met Alan Lomax who was a few years his senior and already famous for his folk song collecting with his father, John. Then, in 1936, Pete and his dad travelled south through the North Carolina hills and then westward to the Smokey Mountains to the Ninth Annual Folk Song Festival. Samantha Baumgartner and Bascom Lunsford transfixed him as he suddenly discovered that banjos could have five strings as well as four. He heard music he had never heard on the radio and it was Lunsford who loaned Pete his first 5 string.
He went to Harvard in the fall of 1936, despite depression stretched resources. And whilst other students went to dances in tuxedos, he washed dishes in a boarding house to make a living. Pete did not like Harvard. They didn’t teach journalism, he studied sociology instead and it bored him, so instead of working he was writing tunes and songs for (wait for it) The Hasty Pudding Club Show.
An acne faced 18 year old, too shy to ask a girl out, he spent lonely nights in his dorm room playing the banjo. He listened to records over and over, slowed the turntable with his thumb and taught himself to play. He had no tutor. At this point he joined the Young Communist League and founded a radical paper, The Harvard Progressive. He lost his scholarship because of poor grades and left Harvard without taking any exams. One afternoon just before he left, he passed John F Kennedy bustling across the yard with his personal secretary. If JFK became the most famous graduate of the class of 1940, Pete Seeger was surely its best known drop out.
One Sunday in 1939 he met a young Japanese girl called Toshi Ohta, but despite going for a few hamburgers together the friendship drifted as Alan Lomax (now in NY) introduced Pete to a fascinating new world of musicians, including Aunt Molly Jackson and the first real protest songs he had heard.
He took a job as a porter at the 1939 World Fair, sweeping up cigarette butts and watching the jitterbug contests. Then he met Huddie Ledbetter. Pete had not actually ‘met’ a black person before and he marvelled at his music, comparing him to Beethoven. Having won his freedom from jail from singing, Leadbelly provided living proof of the power of song and it proved to be one of the most momentous meetings in Seeger’s life.
On 3 March 1940, Pete Seeger waited backstage for his first concert performance. It was a benefit concert for migrant workers in California. Burl Ives, Josh White, Leadbelly, Aunt Molly Jackson and Woody Guthrie were among the bill. Pete went on and totally messed up. He couldn’t remember his words, his fingers wouldn’t work and he walked off to polite applause half way through his first song. He felt a complete failure. It was not a good beginning, but it was the night that Pete met Woody. Alan Lomax said it was the renaissance of American folk song.
Lomax persuaded Woody and Pete to work with him on a book of political song entitled Hard Hitting Songs For Hard Hit People. Publishers found it too hot to handle in 1940 and it didn’t see light of day until 1966. With the book written, Woody suggested that Pete should head out west with him and ‘discover’ America. And thus it was from 1939 until 1941 that Pete learned basic musicianship from Woody and Leadbelly. Pete eventually paid them both back by exposing their songs to millions of people.
He met Lee Hayes in 1940. They became friends, teamed up and together, became a sort of Laurel and Hardy of the Left and in December 1940, Lee and Pete started singing at the Jade Mountain Restaurant in New York City. Soon Millard Lampell joined them, then Woody Guthrie and The Almanac Singers were born. Records by the Almanac Singers were too radical for their label, Keynote, but they were too popular to ignore; so the label simply put the records out on The Almanac Label. At this time, Pete changed his name briefly to “Lanky Pete Bowers” to protect his father’s job and inspired by the Anonymous Movement in Paris, they refused to put their names onto the sleeves.
On a warm Sunday afternoon in June 1941, the Almanacs were holding their Sunday ‘Rent’ party when a friend burst into the room to announce that Germany had invaded Russia. The Almanacs were setting off on a national tour of unions terminating in San Francisco where 1000 longshoremen were waiting, somewhat bemused and unreceptive, to listen to this bunch of New York Cowboys. They finished their show to deafening applause with The Ballad Of Harry Bridges. One man not clapping in the audience however was an FBI operative. Along with Paul Robeson, the Almanacs (and Pete in particular) were now under surveillance.
In December 1941, Pearl Harbour was attacked and America finally entered the war. The unions were asked (and acceded) to a ‘non-strike’ pledge and songs like Talking Union were put out to pasture for the duration. So now the peace songs and the union songs were gone. The Almanacs were out of work and with no money coming in, they spent a miserable winter without heat and with a landlord filing for eviction. Pete didn’t mind sacrificing if the others did, but the others didn’t! Pete thought new instrument strings were more important than whiskey and women which brought him into direct conflict with Woody and Lee! Meanwhile Toshi Ohta had not exactly disappeared and their friendship blossomed into courtship.
After months of heatless nights and watery soup, the Almanacs’ fortunes began to rise again. The William Morris Agency signed them up and in February 1942 they played for nearly 30 million people on a radio programme called This Is War. It was broadcast at prime time on Saturday night on all networks from Maine to California. But 3 days after the programme was aired, the New York Post headlined the paper “PEACE CHOIR CHANGES TUNE. SINGERS ON NEW MORALE SHOW WARBLED FOR THE COMMUNISTS”.
As a result, the Almanacs’ commercial career crumbled as suddenly as it had begun. Pete received his draft notice in June of 1942 and he told Toshi he was almost glad to get out of the Almanacs before they fell apart. Before leaving however, he wanted one good thing in shape - his banjo. He was concerned about the limitations of the instrument, he couldn’t play in F# and other keys required constant re-tuning so he persuaded an instrument maker to saw the head off his banjo and extend it by three frets whilst he was away. Thus the long necked banjo was born. Pete married Toshi on July 20th 1943.
In 1946, Pete set up People’s Song Incorporated, with himself as editor. At first it became very popular, but at the same time the FBI opened a file on the group. Red baiting within the unions increased with a vengeance, so, despite its popularity, People’s Songs had begun at a dramatically inappropriate time. Very soon a report arrived on Hoover’s desk that People’s Songs performed for Communist led groups. In the next two years the FBI compiled over 500 pages on People’s Songs. It would be true to say that the FBI took them more seriously than the Communist Party did - in their opinion, they threatened national security.
In 1948, Henry Wallace (Roosevelt’s former secretary of agriculture) decided to stand on a third party ticket making anti-cold war speeches. Both Seeger and Paul Robeson supported him and joined him on his campaign. The sight of black and white together in the same car sent shock waves around the south; singing became almost impossible at most gatherings and indeed even Wallace himself was frequently abused whilst attempting to speak.
In 1949 Pete decided to quit New York City. He had two young children and no job and he didn’t want to live off Toshi’s parents with whom they had been staying. His connections with the Wallace campaign (and doubtless with Robeson) brought up road blocks in his career. Needing a major change, he decided to build a log cabin and live off the land. He found a few hardy acres outside a village called Beacon, overlooking the Hudson Valley about 60 miles north of the City. He went to the library, looked up log cabin, took down some notes and started to build.
The Weavers were formed in 1949. Fred Hellerman, Ronnie Gilbert and Lee Hays joined Pete, but the progressives who made up their audience were reluctant to gather in public. Dispirited, the group was ready to disband and only Seeger’s enthusiasm kept them together. Pete and Lee Hays had written a song together, If I Had A Hammer which was first performed at a benefit concert for 11 Communist Party leaders on trial. Gordon Jenkins of Decca Records persuaded the Weavers to record on Decca and their songs became some of the biggest hits Decca ever had. Decca couldn’t press their records fast enough. Success surprised the Weavers as much as it had the Almanacs before the black list in 1942. However not everybody was happy with the Weaver’s triumphs. The FBI was still watching Pete with agent Harvey Matusow in particular collecting information that would help to shatter the Weavers’ career.
Harvey had made himself a ‘friend’ of the Weavers, but actually he was an FBI informer. In the1950’s, anti-communism was big business. All in all, the Weavers were fish in strange waters. On June 25th, just as their first records appeared, the Korean War erupted. The casualty list made communists America’s mortal enemies. At the end of June 1950, Counterattack (a magazine run by three ex-FBI agents) published Red Channels – Communist Influence On Radio And Television. Bound in red (with no authors listed) it destroyed hundreds of careers in a single edition. The book listed artists and entertainers with alleged Communist links and the House Committee of Un-American Activities led by Senator McCarthy got into full swing. The only Weaver listed was Seeger. He had 13 citations against him. Yet, despite the best efforts of Counterattack, the Weavers recorded hit after hit.
Then, in September of 1951, the FBI stepped up its activity against the Weavers. The cancellations started coming in - first a scheduled spot on the Dave Garroway TV show melted away, next the Ohio State Fair. Senator Pat McCarran (Nevada) joined the hunt and the song Rock Island Line was declared subversive.
On February 6th 1952, after a meeting with Joe McCarthy’s aide, Harvey Matusow testified before the HUAC under oath that 3 of the Weavers were members of the communist party. (Lee, he reported, had quit). The FBI phoned all organisations who were engaging the Weavers and overnight they became untouchable. Thus, though record sales now amounted to an incredible 4 million, they could find nobody to book them. Later Matusow admitted in a book that he had committed perjury and had been a false witness. For this he served 5 years in Lewisburg Federal Penitentiary.
And thus it was that the Weavers took a Sabbatical, but the song, If I Had A Hammer was unconquerable. Only ‘Commies’ used words like ‘peace’ and ‘freedom’ in 1952, but the song would live on to be a hit for Peter, Paul and Mary and countless other singers recorded it after them.
Pete eventually found an audience where none previously existed, playing college campuses throughout 40 states at $25 a time and in doing so he formed a huge fan base right across America. He had been forced into a situation of struggle which Pete thrived on. Audiences were astonished at the way he got them all singing and he found an ally in Moe Asch at Folkways Records.
In the first week of August 1955, Pete received his subpoena to appear before the House Committee on Un-American Activities. He had been expecting it for five years. When questioned, he said: “I love my country very dearly and I greatly resent this implication that some of the places that I have sung and some of the people that I have known and some of my opinions, whether they are religious or philosophical, make me any less of an American.”
Pete knew that he was now in danger of losing his log cabin and spending possibly 10 years in jail whilst his young children grew into teenagers without him. The court costs would be massive. Any professor or administrator who hired Pete after that testimony had to be willing to pay with his job for the privilege. There was a constant stream of letters cancelling engagements. The musicians union even considered kicking him out. Think on that one - Pete kicked out of his own union!
Thus locked out of clubs and colleges, Pete started turning out discs at the astonishing rate of six per year. All Pete wanted to do was to sing songs, most of them patriotic in their own way, but nobody would book him. Then suddenly to everyone’s surprise, Harold Leventhal booked the Carnegie Hall so that the Weavers could do a reunion concert. It was Christmas Eve, a night nobody else wanted, but the hall was packed to the rafters.
In July 1956, the House of Representatives voted 373 to 9 to cite Pete and seven others for contempt. Pete now awaited trial. On 26 March 1957, Seeger moved one step closer to jail. A federal grand jury indicted him on 10 counts of Contempt of Congress. He pleaded not guilty and was released on $1,000 bail. He was forbidden to travel outside of the Southern District of New York without permission. He had become the oddest sort of celebrity. Only a tiny sliver of the population knew his music, yet he had started a growing cultural movement.
He began to take right wing attacks as a perverse tribute to his effectiveness. In some ways the HUAC ordeal became the making of Seeger, not his undoing. The other Weavers meanwhile were finding life difficult. Lucky Strike cigarettes asked the Weavers to do a commercial for them. The other three, desperate for the money, agreed and as a consequence Pete reluctantly acceded. They did the commercial and Pete resigned from the group the next day.
He came to Britain in 1959 and I saw his first ever concert here (with Jack Elliot) at St Pancras Town Hall. As his popularity grew abroad, the letters piled up on his desk and Pete and Toshi would work together answering each one by hand - one to me included! Without Toshi, Pete might probably have folded. She arranged his travel, gave him his pocket money. She was the one who got things done.
In March 1961, Pete went on trial for Contempt of Congress in NY City and on April 3rd he arrived in court for sentencing. A part of his statement before sentencing went like this: “I am 42 years old and count myself a very lucky man. I have a wife and three healthy children and we live in a house we built with our own hands on the banks of the beautiful Hudson River. For 20 years I have been singing the folk songs of America and other lands to people everywhere. The specific song mentioned in this trial, Wasn’t That A Time, is one of my favourites. The song is appropriate to this case. I wonder if I might have your permission to sing it here before I close.”
The judge refused and sentenced Pete to 10 years in prison. But the sentences were to be served concurrently leaving him a year and a day in prison. To this sentence, the judge gruffly added costs of prosecution which meant he even had to pay for the judge’s lunch! Three hours later Pete was released from jail on bail of $2,000
Meanwhile his following in GB was increasing. There were many special concerts to raise funds to help Pete with his court costs - I remember going to one that featured Cyril Tawney, the Thames-side Four and the Spinners.
Seeger suddenly now became more famous and money started entering his life at embarrassing levels. Song royalties pushed his income into six figures. But the more money he had, the less he wanted to know about it and he had a dreadful argument with his manager when a concert promoter handed him the cheque instead of posting it to NY. He was horrified to find he was being paid several thousand dollars and demanded immediately that Harold Leventhal reduce his concert fee.
Then on 18 May 1962, the Court of Appeals ruled that Seeger’s indictment was faulty and dismissed his case. The New York Post called the decision “A Return To Reason”.
ABC-TV decided to have a folk programme called Hootenanny (the name Pete had brought back with him after one of his trips west with Woody). Pete was promised a slot on that, but it never materialised and suddenly the folk scene was split in two in NY. Joan Baez was disgusted that some city singers who didn’t need the money were going on the programme, so a boycott was set up. Barbara Dane, Hedy West, Bob Dylan, Dave Van Ronk and Mary Travers refused to appear. Peter, Paul and Mary to their credit turned down $25,000. As an excuse for his exclusion, ABC eventually said that “Seeger was too slow and thoughtful, and anyway he couldn’t hold an audience.” But Pete’s logic to those who refused to go on the show was: “Go on the show; the fact they’ve blacklisted me brings more attention to the folk music movement.” As always with Pete, the song was more important than the singer.
He did not enjoy being a millionaire as his career now rose faster than he could follow. He did a world tour and as soon as he got back home, the countries he visited wanted return engagements. But he felt uneasy with his success and he started to urge fans not to buy his records. He preferred people to sing his songs rather than listen to him sing them (though how he thought they might learn them I’m not sure).
After an infamous gig with Bob Dylan in 1965, Pete spent some time re-valuing his life and he started sailing on the Hudson River, where raw sewage floated by and chemical residues discoloured the water.
With the Vietnam War underway, Pete wrote one of his most infamous songs – Waist Deep In The Big Muddy. Married to an Asian-American, Pete took the destruction of Asian children personally. Pictures of burnt children haunted him. The weeks passed and with them an endless stream of concerts with short intermissions and long encores. Paying taxes to support the war disgusted him so he started doing more and more charity shows. What he didn’t earn the government couldn’t take away.
On 4 April 1968, Martin Luther King was assassinated and Seeger, losing self direction, decided to give up singing. He was looking back at his life with dark reflection. He had started singing to help organise unions and had wound up helping bloated, self satisfied institutions that had no place for him. Both Woody and Leadbelly had died. After the death of King, Seeger’s hopes for integration lay in ruins. But his daughter Mika was arrested and jailed during student demonstrations in Mexico. Paradoxically his troubles led him back to music and he again began composing songs of optimism.
Prompted to work more locally, he decided to build a sloop to help clean up the river. He took to sailing in his yacht at night alone - just him, the river and the big, big sky. Building a giant sloop seemed to him like a wonderful dreamy symbol. People within the NY folk society wondered if Seeger had gone off balance. But together with Jimmie Collier they raised funds through millionaires along the Hudson and the boat started to take shape at a shipyard in Maine.
But of course these millionaires were mostly conservatives, in favour of the Vietnam War, and all wanted to be board members. At some point there was going to be a clash of personalities. Pete worked on the boat and soon, the Clearwater slid quietly towards the Atlantic Ocean - 106 feet long, 24 feet wide, 15 bunks, plus a captain’s cabin.
The crew was an odd bunch which included Jimmie Collier, Jack Elliott, Don McLean, Pete of course, and Louis Killen who lead shanties and played concertina. First Mate was Gordon Bok; the only true sailor on board. With the project deep in debt, they stopped off every night to play a concert. 37 days later, the Clearwater pulled into the murky East River having earned 27,000 dollars on her first cruise.
But Pete wasn’t really happy. He lamented that as a US tax payer he supported one of the biggest, most hypocritical and certainly the most expensive murder machines in history. He had a hard time with the conservative board members, most of whom, once the ship was built, wanted rid of Pete and his left wing ideals. As a result, Pete, having done the bulk of the work, then took a back seat.
It would be incorrect to say that Pete did little since inspiring the building of The Clearwater, but he certainly slowed down. He came to Britain in 1985 to perform at The Royal Festival Hall in a concert to raise money for Chile. Whilst here in Britain, I recorded him in concert with Illapu at the Festival Hall and then recorded him the morning he flew back to the USA. Profits from both albums went to help the miners who were striking against the Thatcher regime.
And so the years of Reagan gave way to Bush Snr, to Clinton, to Bush Jnr and now Obama. Pete received three honours during Clinton’s term as president. In 1994, at age 75, he received the National Medal of Arts (the highest award given to artists and arts patrons by the U.S. government) as well as the Kennedy Center Honor, where 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, Seeger won the Grammy Award for his 18-track compilation album, Pete.
Peter Seeger died on 27 January 2014. He was 94. His wife Toshi, a film-maker and activist, died aged 91 in July 2013. They leave three children. Pete never did receive the Nobel Peace Prize – a terrible oversight by those responsible.
This is edited with permission from a larger article by Joe Stead.
Photo - Bill Revill
Printed in The Living Tradition Magazine Issue 101