Ruth Crawford Seeger: A Composer's Search for American Music

Ruth Crawford Seeger: A Composer's Search for American Music

Ruth Crawford Seeger: A Composer's Search for American Music

Ruth Crawford Seeger: A Composer's Search for American Music


Ruth Crawford Seeger (1901-1953) is frequently considered the most significant American female composer in this century. Joining Aaron Copland and Henry Cowell as a key member of the 1920s musical avant-garde, she went on to study with modernist theorist and future husband Charles Seeger, writing her masterpiece, String Quartet 1931, not long after. But her legacy extends far beyond the cutting edge of modern music. Collaborating with poet Carl Sandburg on folk song arrangements in the twenties, and with the famous folk-song collectors John and Alan Lomax in the 1930s, she emerged as a central figure in the American folk music revival, issuing several important books of transcriptions and arrangements and pioneering the use of American folk songs in children's music education. Radicalized by the Depression, she spent much of the ensuing two decades working aggressively for social change with her husband and stepson, the folksinger Pete Seeger. This engrossing new biography emphasizes the choices Crawford Seeger made in her roles as composer, activist, teacher, wife and mother. The first woman to win a Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship in music composition, Crawford Seeger nearly gave up writing music as the demands of family, politics, and the folk song movement intervened. It was only at the very end of her life, with cancer sapping her strength, that she returned to composing. Written with unique insight and compassion, this book offers the definitive treatment of a fascinating twentieth-century figure.


I first saw the name of Ruth Crawford Seeger on the blue and orange cover of a cri record while browsing in a store on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley, California, in 1970. I immediately bought this curiosity, for I had never encountered music by a female composer, never mind an American woman, on a classical record before. My teachers in graduate school had filled my ears with preclassic symphonies and medieval motets; orthodox musicologists studied the European past. It would be years before I could hear the dissonant harmonies of Ruth Crawford's Preludes for Piano with aesthetic empathy.

Like so many other young women in those awakening years, I began to investigate women's history in my field. I wrote an article about "sexual aesthetics" and a letter in 1971 to Ruth Crawford's husband, Charles Seeger, for information about two obscure pieces whose titles sounded "political." Three years later he answered me that "Sacco, Vanzetti" and "Chinaman, Laundryman" were "declamations of tremendous power" and not in print.

To his friends he wrote, "Have you seen notices of Ruth's music? She would be very pleased at their 'renaissance.'" Slowly, works like the String Quartet 1931 and the Three Sandburg Songs won acclaim from modern audiences and critics. Simultaneously, this obscure American modernist became a symbol of light and dark--for at the same time that the process of recognition started in earnest, so did questions about unfulfilled promise and silence.

I began this project obliquely, not with the intention of writing a biography but with the goal of publishing music still in manuscript. in 1982 I went to Washington, D.C., for the first performance in over fifty years of the Sonata for Violin and Piano. Apparently, there was no autograph among the com-

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