Pete Seeger, Socialist Songster Introduction

By Lang, Amy Schrager; Simon, John J. | Monthly Review, January 2015 | Go to article overview

Pete Seeger, Socialist Songster Introduction


Lang, Amy Schrager, Simon, John J., Monthly Review


Our friend and comrade Pete Seeger died a year ago this month, on January 27, 2014. Pete was a long-time reader of Monthly Review and, occasionally, a writer for this magazine. Harry Magdoff used to say that when a letter arrived from Pete, nearly always handwritten and often pages long, responding to an article or suggesting a topic to be covered or a book to be reviewed, it would go right home with him, to be pondered, considered, answered, and, especially, enjoyed. Seeger's communications were never innocuous: he would tell the editors that something MR had published was wrongheaded (or, sometimes, rightheaded); he would take an idea, turn it over and suggest where to go with it. Like his music, Seeger's letters demanded engagement, participation-and action. He had a special place in the MR family.

Pete Seeger was born May 3, 1919, into an old New England family of musicians and activists. His mother, Constance, was a concert violinist and taught at the Juilliard School of Music in New York. His father, Charles, founded the musicology program at the University of California, Berkeley, from which he was fired for his pacifism in 1918. When he was seven, Pete's parents divorced; in 1932, Charles Seeger married Ruth Crawford. Now considered to be one of the most important modernist composers of the twentieth century, she had a profound interest in folk music, something she passed on to her children and stepchildren. In fact, all four of Pete's half-siblings became folk singers.

During the Depression, Charles Seeger worked for various New Deal agencies, often traveling with his family. On one such trip, for the Farm Resettlement Administration, Pete first heard the five-string banjo that would come to be his signature instrument. After attending boarding school, Pete followed family tradition to Harvard, where he studied with Paul Sweezy, and like others in his highly politicized family and world, he chafed at his inability to do anything about the suffering he saw all around him. He dropped out of college and went to New York City to work for the Archives of American Folk Music, founded by the great ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax. There Seeger's engagement with music and his emergent radical political perspective came together, and his life's vocation was set.

Seeger met Woody Guthrie in 1940 and, with him and others, went on to found the Almanac Singers. The Almanacs, a collective that included Lee Hays, Millard Lampell, Sis Cunningham, Sonny Terry, Brownie McGhee, and others, were committed to radical political action. They performed for CIO organizing campaigns, writing, singing, and performing pieces like "Talking Union"-"If you want higher wages let me tell you what to do / You've got to talk to the boys in the shops with you____" In wartime 1942, Seeger was drafted-and coincidently joined the Communist Party. While on leave, he continued to perform with the Almanacs, recording songs like the "Ballad of Harry Bridges" and, more famously, "The Reuben James," about a torpedoed U.S. cargo ship sunk by a Nazi U-Boat. "The Reuben James" became a kind of anthem for National Maritime Union members (among them Guthrie) who sailed the dangerous Atlantic to Britain and the Soviet Union. The Almanacs also released an album of Songs of the Lincoln Battalion (still available from Folkways Records), chronicling the exploits of the volunteers from around the world who went to Spain to fight Franco's fascism during the Spanish Civil War.

On his return from military service on Saipan Island in the Pacific, Pete, by now married to Toshi Aline Ohta, resumed both singing and activism. He organized and led People's Songs, founded in 1946 to "Create, promote and distribute songs of labor and the American People. …

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