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Pete Seeger

Pete Seeger (1955)
Pete Seeger (1955)

Peter Seeger (born May 3, 1919) almost universally known as "Pete Seeger", is a folk singer and political activist. As a member of the Weavers, he had a string of hits, including a 1949 recording of Leadbelly's "Goodnight Irene" that topped the charts for 13 weeks in 1950. He was a major contributor to folk and pioneer of protest music in the 1950s and the 1960s.

He is perhaps best known today as the author or co-author of the songs "Where Have All the Flowers Gone", "If I Had a Hammer", and "Turn, Turn, Turn", which have been recorded by many artists both in and outside the folk revival movement and are still sung throughout the world. "Flowers" was a hit recording for The Kingston Trio (1962), Marlene Dietrich, who recorded it in English, German and French (1962), and Johnny Rivers (1965). "If I Had a Hammer" was a hit for Peter, Paul & Mary (1962) and Trini Lopez (1963), while The Byrds popularized "Turn, Turn, Turn" in the mid-1960s.

Family and personal life

Seeger was born in New York City. His father Charles Seeger was a musicologist and an early investigator of non-Western music. His stepmother, Ruth Crawford Seeger, was one of the most significant women composers of the 20th Century. His siblings Mike Seeger and Peggy Seeger also had notable musical careers. Half-brother Mike Seeger went on to form the New Lost City Ramblers, who influenced Bob Dylan. His uncle, Alan Seeger, a noted poet, was killed during the First World War. In 1936 he heard the five-string banjo for the first time at the Folk Song and Dance Festival in Asheville, North Carolina, and his life was changed forever. Pete Seeger attended the Avon Old Farms boarding school in Connecticut and then Harvard University until he left in 1938 during his sophomore year. In both cases, he was a scholarship student. In 1943 he married Toshi-Aline Ohta, whom he credits with being the support that helped make the rest of his life possible. Pete and Toshi have three children, Danny, Mika and Tinya, and grandchildren Tao, Cassie, Kitama, Moraya, Penny, and Issablle. Tao is a folk musician in his own right, singing and playing guitar, banjo and harmonica with The Mammals.

He lives at home in the hamlet of Duchess Junction in the Town of Fishkill, NY and remains very politically active in the Hudson Valley Region of New York, especially in the near-by City of Beacon, NY. He and Toshi purchased their land in 1949, and lived there first in a trailer, then in a log cabin they built themselves, and eventually in a larger house.

Early work

"Arlo, folk songs are serious."
- Pete Seeger to Arlo Guthrie

In late 1930s and early 1940s - after Seeger dropped out of Harvard in 1939, where he had been studying journalism - he took a job in New York at the Archives of American Folk Music. In that capacity, he met and was influenced by many important musicians such as Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly. He met Woody at a "Grapes of Wrath" migrant workers concert on March 3, 1940 and the two thereafter began a musical collaboration.

Pete Seeger, 1944
Pete Seeger, 1944

In 1948, Seeger wrote the first version of his now-classic How to Play the Five-String Banjo, a book that many banjo players credit with starting them off on the instrument. He went on to invent the Long Neck or Seeger Banjo. This instrument is three frets longer than a typical Banjo, and slightly longer than a Bass Guitar at 25 Frets, and is tuned a minor third lower than the normal 5-string banjo.

As a self-described "split tenor" (between an alto and a tenor), he was a founding member of the folk groups The Almanac Singers with Woody Guthrie and The Weavers with Lee Hays and Ronnie Gilbert. The Weavers had major hits in the early 1950s, before being blacklisted in the McCarthy Era.

On August 18, 1955, Pete was subpoenaed to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) where he refused to name personal and political associations stating it would violate his First Amendment rights... "I am not going to answer any questions as to my association, my philosophical or religious beliefs or my political beliefs, or how I voted in any election, or any of these private affairs. I think these are very improper questions for any American to be asked, especially under such compulsion as this." Seeger's refusal to testify led to a March 26, 1957 indictment for contempt of Congress; for some years, he had to keep the federal government apprised of where he was going any time he left the Southern District of New York. He was convicted in a jury trial in March 1961, and sentenced to a year in jail, but in May 1962 an appeals court ruled the indictment to be flawed and overturned his conviction.

Seeger started a solo career in 1958, and is known for songs such as "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?," "If I Had a Hammer" (co-written with Lee Hays), "Turn, Turn, Turn," adapted from the Book of Ecclesiastes, and "We Shall Overcome" (based on a spiritual). Seeger became influential in the 1960s folk revival centered in Greenwich Village. He helped found Broadside Magazine and Sing Out!. To describe the new crop of folk singers, many of whom were politically minded in their songs, he coined the phrase "Woody's children", alluding to his former bandmate Woody Guthrie, who by this time had become a legendary figure. He has often sung and is associated with the song "Joe Hill".

In the mid-sixties he hosted a regional folk music TV show called Rainbow Quest which featured folk musicians playing traditional folk music. Among his guests were Johnny Cash, June Carter, The Stanley Brothers, Doc Watson, Tom Paxton, Judy Collins, Richard Farina and Mimi Farina, and many others. Thirty-eight hourlong programs were recorded at new UHF station WNJU's Newark studios in 1965 and 1966, produced by Seeger and his wife with Sholom Rubinstein.

An early advocate of Bob Dylan, Seeger was incensed over the distorted electric sound Dylan brought into the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, especially with the inability to clearly hear the lyrics. There are many conflicting versions of exactly what ensued, some claiming that he actually tried to disconnect the equipment.

Seeger at 86 on the cover of Sing Out! (Summer 2005), a magazine that he helped found in 1950 and to which he still occasionally contributes.
Seeger at 86 on the cover of Sing Out! (Summer 2005), a magazine that he helped found in 1950 and to which he still occasionally contributes.

Later work

Seeger achieved some notoriety in 1967 and 1968 for his song "Waist Deep in the Big Muddy", about a captain - a "big fool" - who drowned while leading a platoon on maneuvers in Louisiana during World War II. Seeger performed the song on the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour after some arguments with CBS about whether the song's lyrics were objectionable. Although the song was cut from the Smothers Brothers show in September 1967, Seeger returned in January 1968 and sang the entire song. It was clearly an allegory about the U.S. under the leadership of Lyndon Johnson which was in over its head in the Vietnam War. The song is included in Seeger's Greatest Hits collection CD, published in 2002.

Another slight against Lyndon Johnson can be heard in his singing of Len Chandler's seemingly juvenile song, "Beans in My Ears" from his album Dangerous Songs!? in which he accuses "Mrs. Jay's little son Alby" (Alby Jay is meant to sound like LBJ) of having beans in his ears, or of not listening to the people.

Pete Seeger still performs occasionally in public (his voice has gotten weaker), but for a number of years has appeared at the National Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough Tennessee to tell stories, these days mostly children's stories, such as Abiyoyo. He recently performed at MerleFest April 27-30, 2006 in Wilkesboro, NC.

In April 2006, Bruce Springsteen released a collection of songs associated with Seeger or in Seeger's folk tradition, We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions. He had recorded one Seeger favorite, "We Shall Overcome", on a 1998 tribute to the folk singer, and had covered songs by other folk singers like Guthrie and Dylan in live concerts in the past.

Leftist politics

Seeger is known for his ardent political beliefs and his involvement with leftist political organizations, including the Communist Party. Political opponents called him by pejorative names such as "Stalin's Songbird". His supporters called him "America's Tuning Fork" and "A Living Saint". Seeger's anti-war record Songs for John Doe, released in 1941 took the Communist Party's official isolationist line (Hitler and Stalin having signed a non-aggression pact in 1939). At that time Seeger was also strongly anti-Franklin D. Roosevelt, owing to what he considered the President's weak support of workers' rights. After Germany's breaking of the pact, the pacifism of Songs for John Doe was hopelessly obsolete and copies were quickly removed from sale. The remaining inventory was reportedly destroyed. Only a few copies exist to this day. After the invasion of the Soviet Union, Seeger returned to his earlier stance as a strong proponent of military action against Germany; he was drafted into the Army, where he served in the Pacific. He did not serve in a combat unit, his job was to entertain the American troops with music. When people later asked him what he did in the war, he always answered 'I strummed my banjo'. Seeger left the Communist Party in 1950, five years before Nikita Khrushchev's Secret speech revealed Stalin's crimes and led to a mass exodus from the Party. "I realized I could sing the same songs I sang whether I belonged to the Communist Party or not, and I never liked the idea anyway of belonging to a secret organization.He became a strong anti-Stalinist but retained his belief in.

Seeger's album Clearwater Classics. The title alludes to his work with the Clearwater group, working to clean the Hudson River.
Seeger's album Clearwater Classics. The title alludes to his work with the Clearwater group, working to clean the Hudson River.

Environmental activism

Seeger is involved in the environmental organization Hudson River Sloop Clearwater, which he founded in 1966. This organization has worked since then to highlight pollution in the Hudson River and worked to clean it. As part of that effort, the sloop Clearwater was launched in 1969 and regularly sails the river as classroom, stage and laboratory with an all-volunteer crew. The Clearwater Festival is an annual two-day concert held on the banks of the Hudson in Croton Point, New York.


Seeger has been the recipient of many awards and recognitions throughout his career, including:

  • The National Medal of Arts from the National Endowment for the Arts (1994)
  • Kennedy Center Lifetime Achievement Honor (1994)
  • The Harvard Arts Medal (1996)
  • Induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (1996)
  • Grammy Award for Best Traditional Folk Album of 1996 for his record "Pete" (1997)
  • The Felix Varela Medal, Cuba's highest honor for "his humanistic and artistic work in defense of the environment and against racism" (1999)


Pete Seeger

  • "I like to say I'm more conservative than Goldwater. He just wanted to turn the clock back to when there was no income tax. I want to turn the clock back to when people lived in small villages and took care of each other."
  • "My father, Charles Seeger, got me into the Communist movement. He backed out around '38. I drifted out in the '50s. I apologize [in his recent book] for following the party line so slavishly, for not seeing that Stalin was a supremely cruel misleader."
  • "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. But if by some freak of history communism had caught up with this country, I would have been one of the first people thrown in jail."
  • "Plagiarism is the basis of all culture." Seeger quoting his father.
  • "Any darn fool can make something complex; it takes a genius to make something simple."
  • "Some may find them [songs] merely diverting melodies. Others may find them incitements to Red revolution. And who will say if either or both is wrong? Not I."
  • "Technology will save us if it doesn't wipe us out first".

Other quotes

United States v. Seeger

Jim Musselman, longtime friend and record producer for Pete Seeger:

"He was one of the few people who invoked the First Amendment in front of the McCarthy Committee. Everyone else had said the Fifth Amendment, the right against self-incrimination, and then they were dismissed. What Pete did, and what some other very powerful people who had the guts and the intestinal fortitude to stand up to the committee and say, "I'm gonna invoke the First Amendment, the right of freedom of association....""
"...I was actually in law school when I read the case of Seeger v. United States, and it really changed my life, because I saw the courage of what he had done and what some other people had done by invoking the First Amendment, saying, "We're all Americans. We can associate with whoever we want to, and it doesn't matter who we associate with." That's what the founding fathers set up democracy to be. So I just really feel it's an important part of history that people need to remember."


  • Seeger, Pete. How to Play the Five-String Banjo, 3rd edition. New York: Music Sales Corporation, 1969. ISBN 0-8256-0024-3.
  • Dunaway, David K., How Can I Keep from Singing: Pete Seeger, McGraw Hill (1981), DaCapo (1990), ISBN 0-07-018150-0>, ISBN -07-018151-9, ISBN 0-306-80399-2
  • Wilkinson, Alec, "The Protest Singer: Pete Seeger and American folk music", The New Yorker, April 17, 2006, p. 44-53.
  • Zollo, Paul. "Pete Seeger Reflects On His Legendary Songs", GRAMMY Magazine, 7 January 2005.

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It uses material from the Wikipedia article - Pete Seeger