Remembering Pete Seeger
Pete Seeger, who died on January 27th, was a key figure in the development of folk music as a progressive force within popular culture. For a later generation, Pete personified the popular front – that broad alliance of progressive forces that led the fight against fascism and racism, and fought successfully for labour rights in the period from the mid-thirties to the mid-fifties. Around the world this past month, people have been remembering a man who survived the persecution of the McCarthy era to see his band, the blacklisted Weavers, return to Carnegie Hall, who planted the seeds that led to the folk revival of the sixties, and who became an inspiring figure in the environmental movement. Pete Seeger’s achievements were the result of hard work, personal courage, an optimistic spirit, a strong understanding of history, and solid socialist principles.
It is easy to imagine that folk music was always the music of the left, but when Seeger was a teenager it was considered by many activists to be a cultural backwater. Before he was won over to his son’s enthusiasm, Pete’s father, composer and ethno-musicologist Charles Seeger, was suspicious of folk music. His view was shared by many left-wing composers of the time, including the young Aaron Copeland and the German communist Hanns Eisler. In his column for the CPUSA’s Daily Worker (circa 1934-35) Charles argued for a proletarian music that combined contemporary popular music (jazz) with elements of twentieth-century European avant-garde music. While the debate continues today (read hip-hop instead of jazz), folk music prevailed for more than a generation, and folk-inspired artists continue to play a significant role in today’s progressive movements.
Pete’s career trajectory was set when he got a job in Washington in 1939 assisting folklorist Alan Lomax at the Library of Congress. It was there that he met Woody Guthrie, the Oklahoma troubadour who was to become his mentor. Inspired by Guthrie and Lomax, his circle grew to include Woody’s sidekick Cisco Houston, African-American musicians like Sonny Terry, Brownie McGee and Leadbelly, and labour singers Agnes ‘Sis’ Cunningham and Lee Hayes. The Almanac Singers, a short-lived but influential group which he co-founded, became the soundtrack of a heroic era of industrial union organizing.
In 1943 Pete married Toshi Ohta (1922-2013), a Japanese-American women he’d met a few years before at a square dance. She came from a left-wing background (her grandfather had translated Marx’s writings into Japanese). Toshi effectively ran the Seeger family’s rustic household near Beacon, NY, raised their three children while Pete was often away on tour, managed his business affairs, endured the dark days of McCarthyism, and became a respected community activist. Later Toshi co-founded the Newport Folk Festival and co-produced films and TV shows about Pete. Toshi Seeger became a renowned figure in her own right, her character and her important contributions acknowledged by the folk-music world and beyond.
Like many communists and socialists, Pete served in the armed forces during the 1939-45 war against fascism. When he came home from his tour of duty in the South Pacific he plunged back into life as musical activist, co-founding People’s Songs with Lee Hayes and Alan Lomax, and later the booking agency People’s Artists. With the onset of the Cold War though, life for artists like Seeger became dangerous, as an ugly 1949 riot in Peekskill, NY demonstrated. Pete and Toshi had helped to organize a concert there, featuring the great African-American singer Paul Robeson. After the show, concert-goers and performers were violently assaulted by anti-communist and racist crowds while the police looked on.
While things were to get even worse, somehow the times were also right for Pete, Lee Hayes, and two other musicians (Ronnie Gilbert and Fred Hellerman) to achieve commercial success with the unabashedly progressive group the Weavers. For several years they enjoyed a series of hit records, (most notably Leadbelly’s “Goodnight Irene”), but their chart success was soon cut short by McCarthyisn and the red scare.
In 1950, a group of screenwriters and directors, who came to be known as the Hollywood Ten, were summoned to appear before the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) to testify about their links to the Communist Party. When they refused to name names, citing in their defence the First Amendment to the US Constitution (free speech), they were convicted of contempt of congress and sent to prison. Over the next five years the practice of HUAC’s victims was to plead the Fifth Amendment (protecting against self-incrimination). Pete Seeger pleaded the First Amendment. For that he was convicted of contempt of congress. He launched an appeal, was released on bail, and finally won his case in 1962. Pete’s inspiring testimony can be found at www.peteseeger.net/HUAC.htm).
It’s been said that this ordeal set Pete Seeger on the path to becoming the torch-bearer of people’s music. I’ll pick up on this story next month.
Cartoon by Mike Constable (Union Art Service)