Seeger, Pete

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.

Seeger, Pete

Pete Seeger (Peter Seeger), 1919–2014, American folksinger, composer, and environmentalist, b. New York City. Seeger, a son of musicologist Charles Seeger and violinist Constance Edson Seeger, stepson of composer Ruth Crawford Seeger, and nephew of poet Alan Seeger, left Harvard in 1938, met Leadbelly in New York City, and subsequently archived folk songs for the Library Congress and met and traveled with Woody Guthrie. Seeger cofounded the Almanac Singers, a folk trio, in 1940, and the Weavers, a popular and influential folk quartet, in 1948. Most often he played the 12-string acoustic guitar or five-string banjo, and he was a particular master of the latter. He was intimate and casual as a performer, often encouraging the audience to sing along. Among the many songs he composed are "Where Have All the Flowers Gone," "Turn, Turn, Turn," and "If I Had a Hammer" (co-written with Lee Hays). He also contributed to "We Shall Overcome," which was reworked from a gospel hymn and became the anthem of the civil-rights movement. Seeger, who recorded more than 100 albums and was (1959) one of the founders of the Newport Folk Festival, played a major role in reviving national interest in folk music in the 1950s and 60s, and influenced many later singers, including Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen A four-time Grammy winner, he also was awarded (1994) the National Medal of Arts.

A leftist activist who had been a Communist in the 1940s, Seeger was charged (1957) with contempt of Congress for refusing to answer questions posed by the House Un-American Activities Committee. Blacklisted from the 1950s to the late 60s, he was barred from network television but continued to record and to perform. Throughout his life, Seeger actively supported labor, civil-rights, antiwar, environmental, and other causes, and raised money for the Clearwater, a sloop that has plied the Hudson River since 1969, working to rejuvenate the river and advocating for environmental issues generally.

See R. and S. Rosenthal, ed., Pete Seeger: His Life In His Own Words (2012) and R. D. Cohen and J. Capaldi, ed., The Pete Seeger Reader (2014); biographies by D. Dunaway (1981, repr. 2008) and A. Wilkinson (2009); A. M. Winkler, To Everything There Is A Season: Pete Seeger and the Power of Song (2009); J. Brown, dir., Pete Seeger: The Power of Song (documentary, 2007).



His half-brother, Mike Seeger (Michael Seeger), 1933–2009, was an American singer, instrumentalist, and folklorist, b. New York City. A son of Charles and Ruth Crawford Seeger, he played the guitar, banjo, dulcimer, mandolin, harmonica, and several other instruments. He collected songs from old records and from fellow musicians. In 1958 he founded the New Lost City Ramblers, a three-member string group that specialized in music of the 1920s and 30s. He recorded dozens of albums with this group, with other musicians, and as a soloist.

Mike's sister Peggy Seeger (Margaret Seeger), 1935–, is an American-British singer and songwriter who plays the piano, guitar, banjo, concertina, and other instruments. From the late 1950s, she lived in London with English singer-songwriter Ewan MacColl (1915–89), who also became her performing and recording partner; they married in 1977. Seeger has performed and recorded as a soloist and with many others, singing both traditional and new songs (many of those her own). Among her songbooks is The Peggy Seeger Songbook (1998).

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