My Take on Pete Seeger

Judson L. Jeffries, PhD

Arguably the most influential folk singer (even more so than Woody Guthrie) of twentieth century America, Pete Seeger, died on January 27, 2014 at a New York City hospital where he had been admitted several days earlier. As someone who collects vinyl, not CDs, I have several of Seeger’s albums including my personal favorite Dangerous Songs!?, released in 1966. To say that Seeger, an artistic maestro, was to the manner born is British understatement. His father, the Harvard-trained composer, reportedly not only established the first musicology curriculum in the U.S. in the early 1900s, but was instrumental in developing ethnomusicology as a discipline. Seeger’s mother was a concert violinist and taught at the Institute of Musical Art (later named the Julliard School). While Seeger is commonly associated with the 1960s, his career spanned seven decades starting in the early 1940s. His activism however began in the mid-1930s when he joined the Young Communist League as a teenager. Later, during World War II he joined the Communist Party USA although by 1950, feeling disillusioned, he cut ties with the organization.

Seeger’s combination of music and protest is, in some sense, rooted in a long tradition of old Negro spirituals as Blacks as early as 1619 used song as not only a means to express what they could not say directly, but to defy those who created the circumstances under which they were forced to live. Seeger loved the Blues, and he was heavily influenced by the legendary Blues singer Huddie William Ledbetter aka Leadbelly whom Alex Haley called “the Mount Everest of blues singers.” Seeger’s list of credits, those he sang as well as those he wrote for others combined issues of human rights, civil rights and worker’s rights; and many were not without controversy. One of Seeger’s earliest controversial recordings was Songs for John Doe, which was highly critical of the Roosevelt administration; it came as a member of a collaborative effort known as the Almanac Singers, a group founded by him and Woody Guthrie along with several others. Among the record’s lines was “Franklin Roosevelt is leading an unwilling people into a J.P. Morgan war.” When Roosevelt was made aware of the controversial song, it is reported that he quipped “few people will ever hear it.” Not coincidentally, the recording was removed from store shelves across the country and destroyed. Interestingly, one year later, after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor the Almanacs extended an olive branch in the form of Dear Mr. President. This song contained such lines as “So, Mr. President, we got this one big job to do, that’s lick Mr. Hitler and when we’re through, let no one else ever take his place, to trample down the human race, so what I want is you to give me a gun so we can hurry up and get the job done.”

By the end of the 1940s, Seeger was accompanying Henry Wallace around the country as part of his 1948 presidential campaign. Like many left-leaning public figures of the 1950s, Seeger was targeted by the Joe McCarthys of the world, as he was summoned before the House on Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in 1955. Under questioning by members of HUAC on August 18, Seeger exclaimed “I am not going to answer any questions as to my association, my philosophical or religious beliefs or my political beliefs, or how I voted in any election, or any of these private affairs. I think these are very improper questions for any American to be asked, especially under such compulsions as this.” Seeger’s stance resulted in being blacklisted for many years, yet like his friend Paul Robeson, Seeger never relented and his activism never waned. Throughout the 1960s Seeger could often be found at marches and civil rights demonstrations throughout the south.

In the late 1960s, Seeger was one of the music industry’s most vocal critics of the war in Vietnam. Indeed, during that period President Lyndon Baines Johnson would find himself in Seeger’s crosshairs when Seeger used an appearance on the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour to proffer a scathing attack on the president and the Vietnam War via his 1967 album Waist Deep in the Big Muddy and other Love Songs. Although Seeger would not enjoy the same level of notoriety in subsequent decades his impact on the music industry is indisputable. Among those influenced by Seeger are Harry Belafonte, Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, and Tracy Chapman to name a few.

Born one year after World War I Seeger died at the ripe old age of 94 and leaves behind a legacy unmatched by any other twentieth century American folk singer.

2 thoughts on “My Take on Pete Seeger

  1. I thought your take on Pete Seeger (in my opinion, one of the world’s greatest musical icons) was very informative and right on point! Thank you!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *