Pete Seeger, born 1919 in New York City, describes himself, sometimes, as a singer of folk songs. But he is just as much a composer of songs that folks will be singing for many years, a catalyst for musical groups of all kinds, a supporter of just causes, and a prolific writer of books, columns, and pithy postcards.
I have a song....
It's the song about love
between my brother and my sister
All over this land.
The son of distinguished ethnomusicologist Charles Seeger, Pete is part of a musical family that grew to include Ruth Crawford Seeger, Mike Seeger, Peggy Seeger, Ewen MacColl, son-in-law John Cohen, nephew Tony Seeger, and grandson Tao Rodriguez, among others. An unemployed journalist, Pete became the first intern at the Archive of American Folk Song. He then literally wrote the book on playing the banjo, and now has most of his collected works in the Smithsonian and Library of Congress. Pete always wanted audiences to appreciate music they had not heard before. As a young man, he traveled with Woody Guthrie, seeking songs and music of the people. As a mentor, he invited young artists to join him on concert tours. With his wife Toshi, he held open house at his cabin in Beacon, New York, for visiting songwriters. He became famous for introducing his songs with long descriptions of their context and the people who wrote them, and then fixed them in his audiences' minds by having them sing the songs along with him. A concert became a history lesson, the history lesson a rally, the rally a strengthening of an organization or cause.
The world to come may be like a song,
with a little this and that
To make ev'rybody want to sing along,
with a little this and that
A little dissonance ain't no sin
A little skylarking to give us all a grin
Who knows but God's got a plan
for the people to win,
with a little this and that.
Pete himself has had many causes. A member of the Almanac Singers with Butch Hawes, Bess Lomax, and sometimes Woody Guthrie, he sang for the rights of workers. As a member of the Weavers he popularized folk songs including Lead Belly's "Goodnight Irene." His adaptation of the gospel hymn "We Shall Overcome" with Guy Carawan and Zilphia Horton became the anthem of the Civil Rights Movement. Through Sing Out! and Broadside magazines he advocated social justice. Adaptations of folk song and poetry such as "Guantanamera" and "Wimoweh" broadened many cultural horizons. Songs like "Abiyoyo" stimulated children's imaginations. "Where Have All the Flowers Gone" and "Waist Deep in the Big Muddy" became rallying cries for a generation.
We'e waist deep in the Big Muddy and the
Big fool says to push on.
Pete faced blacklists but found a supporter in Moe Asch, who issued scores of his albums on Folkways. Pete performed at the Newport Folk Festival and with Toshi volunteered, served on the board, and made it a success. Dear to Pete's heart was the effort to clean up the Hudson River and use the Clearwater sloop for environmental education. Pete's support of numerous good causes is found everywhere. Constantly encouraging others, he also expresses delight at what he finds them doing.
Pete helped establish Folkways at the Smithsonian, participating on the Folkways, A Vision Shared benefit album and companion video. He and Toshi served on the Folkways Advisory Board. Pete participated in numerous Smithsonian Festivals and has supported the Save Our Sounds project. He is a Kennedy Center Honoree and winner of the National Medal of Arts.
If the world to come has any songs, and people are singing along, it will partly be because of Pete Seeger's encouragement and the songs he has written. No subject is so important that it can't use some wit; no dissonance so strong that it cannot be appreciated; no organization so small that it won't grow with encouragement; no future so bleak that it holds no hope:
If we'd only stick together,
we'd not be here
If we could learn to love each other's lives,
we'd not be sitting here
And if only this we could believe
We still might, we might still be reprieved.