Pete Seeger

By: Matthew Battles
May 3, 2010


Born in Manhattan, raised in a family of daunting musical sophistication, educated at boarding school and Harvard, the blueblood bona fides of PETE SEEGER (born 1919) would seem to have presented insurmountable obstacles to a banjo-strumming career. But a febrile mixture of ideology, mass media, and Woody Guthrie transformed folk music from a pastime and an academic curiosity into a consciousness-raising meme and a means of identifying with the poor and the downtrodden. It was Alan Lomax, Pete Seeger’s boss at the Library of Congress, who encouraged him to trade the recording apparatus and notebook for a banjo and a song. What can we say about what happened next? With his group, The Weavers, Seeger helped to generate a musical scene notable for earnestness, clumsiness, and false authenticity. Scrubbed and credulous, The Weavers domesticated such earthy songs as Leadbelly’s “Goodnight Irene” and “Wimoweh” (the latter based on “Mbube,” a song written by South African isicathamiya artist Solomon Linda, who would die uncredited and poor in 1962). As the folk scene followed inexorably the commercial path he had helped to set it upon, Seeger rebelled, famously (and perhaps apocryphally) hacking at Bob Dylan’s amplifier cords during the 1965 Newport Folk Festival. But if his earnestness could grate, Seeger’s passion was true. His commitment to social justice earned him a place on HUAC’s blacklists; his seemingly artless music rested on the subtlety and sophistication he had inherited from his parents and step-mother, the composer Ruth Crawford Seeger; his leafy, gentle tenor still finds its way to the hearts of children and heads of state alike. And when he undertook to make original songs, like “We Shall Overcome” and “Where Have All the Flowers Gone,” they seemed not so much written as revealed.

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