A tall man who spoke his mind, Pete Seeger was the embodiment of society. It just was not anyone’s society, it was everyone’s society. Following his father’s footsteps, Pete Seeger became a member of the American Communist Party in the early 1940s. His father, a musicologist, professor and pacifist who earned a series of well-placed teaching positions at a number of prestigious schools in the United States, had himself become a member of the Industrial Workers of the World after being appalled by the treatment of migrant workers in California. The combination of music and social consciousness in the Seeger family is well documented.
The power of music as a social medium is pervasive throughout communities. In the late 1930s researcher Alan Lomax hired the young Seeger to help him catalog commercial and field recordings made by the African-American artists and the bluegrass and folk or “hill-billy” communities in the Southern and Eastern regions of the United States. A musicologist, Lomax was passionate about documenting musical traditions throughout the United States, aiming to raise awareness of the importance and value of music thriving within the groups of the population who were normally without support from the national media. His short-lived radio show “Back Where I Come From” showcasing folk traditions, employed what was named as an “integrated” cast. Pete Seeger became a regular feature singing songs, a habit that Lomax encouraged.
Pete Seeger had not intended to become a professional musician. His mother, Constance, was a concert violinist and taught at Julliard. Although raised in an extremely musical environment his parents did not anticipate that their son would pursue music. Early on he experimented with the ukulele, followed by the banjo and guitar. His father’s second wife was Ruth Crawford, a composer with a strong interest in folk music. The influence of Charles Seeger’s second wife in the phenomenally musical family is obvious, as it produced three folk singers, Pete, Penny and Peggy Seeger.
The Weavers formed the second singing group in which Pete Seeger sang alto/tenor. Their repertoire’s core consisted of standard tunes such as “On Top of Old Smoky” and “Goodnight Irene.” The Weavers performed over three years and occasionally appeared on mainstream television before they were blacklisted during the restrictive McCarthy age. Pete Seeger himself said he’d drifted away from Communism, but nonetheless the impact of the ban rendered The Weavers unable to earn a living wage as musicians.
In the 1960s Seeger was hired by Columbia Records where his career flourished as part of a national momentum of folk singers including the decade’s iconic artists John Dylan, Joan Baez, and Peter, Paul and Mary. It was the height of the civil rights movement and right where Seeger felt at home, moving with an organized mass of people towards social progress. His incredible output as a musician is evident from his recordings and relentless touring. Pete Seeger provided the embodiment of society through his tireless cross cultural renditions of folk and gospel tunes. Always at home on stage, Seeger was gregarious and enthralling, coaxing an audience to participate in what may be called everyone’s music, perhaps leading a sing-a-long to “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” Seeger died on January 27, 2014 leaving a large catalogue of songs behind.
In an age where music is readily available with the touch of a button, the world that Pete Seeger grew up in seems miles away. His world was made up of musicians who could play instruments, not just listen to recorded music continually without physical effort. Playing an instrument, or singing a song, meant that a message was in the act of being sent by the very presence of a person or people making music.
This is a powerful tool that throughout thousands of years humans, nations and causes have used to promote themselves and their beliefs. Singing a song to Pete Seeger did not mean turning on the karaoke machine. Today the legacy of Pete Seeger may seem a little out of date and does not appear spectacular to the average person on the street. However, the life of Pete Seeger was just that, he was willed with the insight to make everybody on the street recognize that the music they made is a wonderful thing.
Music is available to all in all branches of society and rightly should be celebrated for its magical ability to make change happen. The impulse to create a brand of American patriotism based on the pride of the people to overcome obstacles is very much the core of Pete Seeger. This is how Pete Seeger was the embodiment of American society.
By Persephone Abbott
Pete Seeger Net