American Icon: Pete Seeger

Pete Seeger never sought to be an icon or a hero, he merely followed his interests and ideals both in his music and his life. Influenced by his father who said that “one must not judge the musicality of a nation by the number of its virtuosos, but by the number of people in the general population who are playing for themselves,” Seeger both encourages and enjoys his audiences’ participation.

Seeger was born in New York City in 1919 to a father and mother who were Julliard professors. Private schools comprised his standard education. He entered Harvard in 1936 to study sociology, but what really held his interest was the five-string banjo that he first heard at a North Caroline music festival.

Seeger devoted himself to learning the instrument and taught himself to play. He and Earl Scruggs are credited with saving the five-string banjo from demise. His formal studies suffered and he left the Ivy League university for a life on the road.

Hopping trains and hitchhiking, Seeger interacted with all manner of people he met along the way. He enjoyed collecting old songs and impromptu opportunities to play music. It was during this period that Seeger met folk music greats such as Leadbelly and Woody Guthrie who influenced the young musician’s style and ideals.

Gale Musician Profiles recounts that Seeger left college to tour with Woody Guthrie. Whichever account is the correct one, it is certain that Seeger’s love of folk music was cemented during this period.

Seeger was accustomed to travel; during his childhood years his parents found work at several different universities, necessitating frequent moving. Perhaps that is where Seeger’s wanderlust was born.

Seeger served during World War II as an entertainer for the troops. Upon returning stateside, he formed a quartet, the Weavers, in 1948. Seeger, who along with Guthrie and other musicians, aligned themselves with striking workers and the Communist Party found fame and acceptance among leftists. In 1949 Seeger became disenchanted with Communist Russia and distanced himself from the American Communist Party.

Although the Weavers sold over four million albums in one year, they were blacklisted in 1949 for being communist sympathizers. In 1955, Seeger was called to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee. Seeger refused to provide any information to the committee, citing his First Amendment rights to free speech. Although later convicted in a jury trial for contempt of Congress and sentenced to 10 years in prison, Seeger was able to get the sentence overturned.

Seeger and his family toured Europe in the following years and played music both in the states and Europe wherever he was welcomed. He continued writing songs and penned books about music.

The 1960s hailed a new era in America and in American music. Seeger was active in the civil rights movement and adapted the song, “We Shall Overcome” for the times. The song became the anthem of the civil rights movement, much as Seeger’s song, “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” became an anthem for the anti-war movement.

One of Seeger’s pet projects was to bring awareness to the pollution of the Hudson River and other endangered waterways.

Seeger is a direct man, not given to celebrity razzle-dazzle or seeking the spotlight simply for the sake of fame. He’s always had a message to send–about music, about joy and about life. Carl Sandburg referred to Seeger as “America’s tuning fork.”

For much of his life, Seeger and his ideals were sorely tested, but he always held fast. This American icon is pleased that he could bring the Southern folk music to the rest of the country and the world. Today Seeger is considered the most influential artist in American folk music. In 1994, Seeger received both the Kennedy Center Honors and National Medal of the Arts. In 1996, Seeger won a Grammy award for Best Traditional Folk Album for “Pete,” and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

At age 91, Seeger hasn’t mellowed much with age. He continues to write songs and perform. In a 1995 interview reported in “The New York Times,” Seeger stated, “I still call myself a communist, because communism is no more what Russia made of it than Christianity is what the churches make of it.”

On January 18, 2009, Seeger, his grandson Tao Rodriguez-Seeger and Bruce Springsteen closed out Barack Obama’s inaugural concert, performing Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land.” Seeger, true to form, played the five-string banjo and encouraged the concert-goers to “sing along.”

Sources: Biography
Encyclopedia of World Biography on Pete Seeger Pete Seeger
“The New York Times”; The Old Left; January 22, 1995