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Smithsonian Folkways Magazine

Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage

Pete Seeger

Pete Seeger (1919-2014) described himself, sometimes, as a singer of folk songs. But he was 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 was 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 most of his collected works are in the Smithsonian and Library of Congress.

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 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 “I’ll Overcome Someday”—which became “We Shall Overcome”—with Guy Carawan and Zilphia Horton became the anthem of the African-American 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’re 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 Records. Pete performed at the Newport Folk Festival and with Toshi volunteered, served on the board, and made it a success. The effort to clean up the Hudson River and use the Clearwater sloop for environmental education was dear to Pete’s heart. The results of his support of numerous good causes is found everywhere. Constantly encouraging others, he always expressed delight at what he found them doing.

Pete helped establish Folkways at the Smithsonian, participating in the Folkways, A Vision Shared benefit album and companion video. He and Toshi served on the Folkways Advisory Board. He participated in numerous Smithsonian Festivals and supported the Save Our Sounds project. He was reocgnized as 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 wrote. 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.

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Photo by Diana Davies.

“Deep in my heart, I do believe / We shall overcome some day.”
— Pete Seeger