One of the most remarkable Americans of the 20th century, Pete Seeger is a performer, songwriter, peace advocate, social activist and environmentalist. His career in music and social activism has spanned 60 years and shows no signs of slowing down.
Pete Seeger was born at his grandparent’s estate in Patterson, New Jersey on May 3, 1919. He’s the son of musicologist Charles Seeger and his wife, Constance de Clyver Edson Seeger, a violin teacher. Although both parents could trace their ancestors to the Mayflower, Seeger was raised in a politically left-wing home.
His father, a pacifist during World War I, had become a radical while a student at Harvard , and had passed this radicalism on to his son. His pacifism, while teaching music at UC Berkeley, cost him his teaching position (1918).
Seeger’s parents divorced and Charles married Ruth Crawford in 1931.Two of their children, Mike and Peggy Seeger, became folksingers.
Around 1932, Pete started subscribing to the Communist New Masses. He wanted to become a journalistÅBHis heroes were Lincoln Steffens (1866-1936) and Communist writer Mike Gold (1893-1967). However, in 1936 he went to the Folksong and Dance Festival in Asheville, N.C. While there he heard a five string banjo for the first time and it changed his life forever.
Seeger spent two unhappy years at Harvard (1936-1938).The school did not offer a journalism major so he majored in sociology, which bored him. Although the Spanish Civil War was raging at this time, Seeger was not political as a freshman. However, by 1938 he was passing out leaflets for Spanish war relief on the Harvard campus. It was the start of his long life of political activism. He dropped the Harvard Banjo Club for the Young Communist League. Only a C student, he didn’t care about his studies and soon found himself on academic probation. He left Harvard in the spring of 1938 without bothering to take his exams.
He went to New York where he found work with the Archives of American Folk Music. During 1939-1940, Seeger sought out legendary folk song figures including Huddie “Leadbelly” Ledbetter. Inspired by these people and learning much about folk music, he began working with the five string banjo and by 1940 was an accomplished player.
Seeger met (Mar. 3, 1940) Woody Guthrie, a folksinger from Okemah, Oklahoma. Together they helped form the Almanac Singers, a musical collective including Lee Hays, Millard Lampell, Sis Cunningham, Brownie McGhee, Sonny Terry and others. Initially they recorded labor songs, such as The Talking Union Blues which they wrote as an organizing song for the CIO. But they also recorded pacifist tunes such as The Ballad of October 16.
Seeger was drafted into the Army in 1942 and stationed at Keesler Field, Mississippi. At this time the FBI was already building a file on him because of his left-wing activities. While on leave from the Army, Seeger married a young Japanese activist named Toshi Ohta on July 20,1943 in a little church in Greenwich Village.
Seeger joined the Communist Party in 1942 and left it in 1950. After World War II he realized that the labor unions no longer wanted to be associated with left-wing musicians. In 1948, he accompanied Progressive Party presidential candidate Henry A. Wallace during the campaign in the South, an experience that he would later describe as depressing. In 1945, after his discharge from the Army, Seeger founded the People’s Songs collective but by 1949 it had gone bankrupt.
On Sept. 4, 1949, Communist sympathizer Paul Robeson was scheduled to perform at the Lakeland Picnic Grounds in Peekskill, N.Y. Seeger was also scheduled to perform. This was during the wave of anticommunist hysteria that was sweeping the nation. There was no concert that day. A large mob of vigilantes, including many from the Veterans of Foreign Wars, stormed the picnic grounds attacking performers and audience alike. When they had finished their destruction the vigilantes left behind a burning cross. While trying to drive away from the scene, Seeger’s car was attacked by the vigilantes. His wife Toshi and their three year old son Danny were injured by flying glass.
In the late 1940s, Seeger and Lee Hays wrote If I Had a Hammer. By 1950 Seeger, Hays, Fred Hellerman and Ronnie Gilbert had formed The Weavers. The group achieved great success with their renditions of Tsena Tsena and a Leadbelly tune, Goodnight Irene. But they had no sooner charted with these songs when their careers were shattered by the anticommunists. Blacklisting, Red-baiting and many last minute cancellations of their performances killed any chance The Weavers had for commercial success.
During the 1950s Seeger occasionally performed with The Weavers but mainly paid the bills with his appearances on the college circuit. He also recorded several albums a year for Folkways Records.
Seeger was subpoenaed by the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1955.One of the few witnesses who did not invoke the Fifth Amendment, he told the committee that he would not discuss his political views because it violated his First Amendment rights.
In 1956, after writing Where Have All the Flowers Gone? Seeger, playwright Arthur Miller and six others were indicted for contempt of Congress by the House of Representatives. He was found guilty of contempt in 1961 and on April 2, was sentenced to ten years in prison. He was released from prison in 1962 when his case was dismissed on a technicality.
During this time there was a folk music revival. ABC-TV took advantage of this by airing a folk music show called Hootenany, but interest in the show waned when it was discovered that Pete Seeger had been blacklisted by the network and was not allowed to appear.
Seeger became involved in the 1960s Civil Rights marches in the South, both as a marcher and as a performer for the marchers. His version of We Shall Overcome became the anthem of the movement.
He was strongly against the Vietnam War. On Sept. 10, 1967, he appeared on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour on CBS-TV where he was scheduled to sing Waist Deep in the Big Muddy, an attack on President Johnson’s war policies, but the song was cut by the network censors. Seeger later made a second appearance on the show and sang the song.
By the late 1960s, Seeger’s attention was turning more and more to the environment. Even as a young boy, Seeger had always had strong views about the environment, and in 1965 had begun writing songs about the Hudson River, including Sailing Down My Dirty Stream. He got the idea to build a giant sloop and travel the Hudson River, drawing the public’s attention to the polluted condition of the river. To get the money to build the sloop, the Seegers and others in the Hudson Valley Sloop Restoration attended cocktail parties and other social functions and hit up the wealthy for contributions. Between social functions and fundraising concerts, Seeger helped out with construction at the shipyard in Maine.
The sloop Clearwater was launched on June 27, 1969. It was 106 feet (32 meter) long with a 108 foot (33 meter) mast. In August, 1969,the sloop pulled into the East River in New York City on its way to the Hudson River. Seeger also formed the Clearwater organization, an environmental group dedicated to advances in sewer treatment, industrial waste disposal, and the discharge of major pollutants into the Hudson.
Seeger’s purpose was not to just call attention to environmental problems but to entertain people along the Hudson. In 1970, the sloop docked for a songfest at the town of Cold Springs, once a Ku Klux Klan stronghold. The crowd numbered about 500 as the Mid-Hudson Philharmonic played. As Seeger appeared on stage to thank the audience for coming, fifteen drunks stood up waving little American flags, yelling “Throw the Commies out.” They stood in front of the stage and unrolled a banner that said: STOP POLLUTION, GET RID OF PETE. That night someone cut the sloop’s moorings and there were threats to torch the boat. All of this created tension within the Clearwater organization.
Seeger’s testimony for the defense at the trial of the Chicago Seven did little to help win over his conservative colleagues in Clearwater. It finally dawned on them that Pete Seeger would sing Waist Deep in the Big Muddy or anything else he wanted whenever he wanted. The wealthy disenchanted sailors and historians, worried about their financial investment in Clearwater, forced Seeger out.
Although Seeger had called attention to environmental pollution. it has taken years to clean up the Hudson River, damaged by lack of corporate concern and public water usage. Only future generations will be able to judge Clearwater’s impact in restoring the river.
Today, at age 82, Pete Seeger is still going strong. He is a member of the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism, a group formed after the Soviet coup of 1991, supporting Mikhail Gorbachev.
It only takes one person to care, one person to make a difference. Pete Seeger, musician and activist, has been one of those people for many years.
There are many books and articles written about Pete Seeger. Two good sources are Encyclopedia of the American Left (1990) by Buhle, Buhle, and Georgakas and How Can I Keep From Singing: Pete Seeger (1981) by David King Dunaway.
We’ve found very little on the web about Seeger’s environmental activities. His Clearwater organization has a website concerned mostly with their current activities and only mention the past briefly. The University of Pennsylvania has a good biography. Jim Capaldi has an extensive site about Seeger, though it only mentions his environmental activities in passing. Many other websites have information only about his musical and political activities, but not about his environmental record. If you know of any other websites we should list here, please let us know at the address below.
This page was written by Steve Gosden