Pete Seeger: The art of folksong
Pete Seeger, May 3 1919 - January 27 2014
Pete Seeger was undoubtedly one of the most important and well-loved American folk musicians of the 20th century, being also a folksinger, songwriter and political activist.
Why was Pete so important a figure on the folk music scene from the 1940s up until the present? The answer lies in his approach to folk music and its performance. This is clear not only from his pronouncements, as set down in The incompleat folksinger,1 but also in the excellent compilation produced by Bob and Sam Rosenthal entitled Pete Seeger in his own words.
In their introduction, the Rosenthals write: “With his gently enthusiastic manner, carefully honed and recalibrated over the years, he encourages his audience to join him in performance … a musician encourages democracy by encouraging people to lift their voices in song.” Furthermore, “Seeger’s importance as role model, committed to collective singing and collective struggle, has endured for over 70 years now, a span that’s hard to fathom … he has served as a bridge between eras, struggles and peoples.” Finally, while happily introducing non- Americans to authentic US culture, “he has urged those who come to hear this music to also treasure their own culture, to resist being overwhelmed by the popular culture being beamed in from the dominant economic powers.”2
Discovery of folk
Pete Seeger’s letters often make for some fascinating reading. The first one in the Rosenthals’ collection, written in 1957, contains some lines about his forebears, stressing their radicalism. Earlier family members included:
Pilgrims, puritans - and I’m proud to see a lot of Quakers around, on both sides of the family (and now, I find, in Toshi’s family too).3 Even great-grandpa Charlier [who became a rich man] was the son of a French Huguenot preacher.
Later, the radicalism took a more political turn. Great-great-grandpa Seeger got disgusted with Prussian tyranny, came to America and was an ardent Jeffersonian; refused to teach any of his sons the German language even; went around New England orating for the new Republican-Democratic party (in between making his living as a doctor). Another branch of the family were all fervent abolitionists about one generation later.4
He goes on to say:
in this [20th] century, miscellaneous other relatives experimented with Christian Science, yogism, nudism, advocated women’s suffrage, pacifism, vegetarianism, organic gardening, and one was part of the New York Daily Worker. This might all add up to sound like a family of crackpots, but, believe me, they have all been well-thought-of members of their communities.5
Pete’s parents were Charles Louis Seeger, a composer and musicologist, and Constance de Clyver (née Edson), a concert violinist. Charles Seeger established the music department at the University of California, and was a pioneer musicologist. Pete’s parents divorced when he was seven years old, and Charles went on to have four more children by his second wife, Ruth Crawford Seeger, who was herself a composer. All four became folk singers, and one, Peggy, is also an important song-writer.
Pete described his early musical education in these words:
At age eight I was given a ukulele. Started picking out chords, learning their names. At boarding school I learned popular tunes of the day. Silly words, but clever rhymes. Plunk, plunk. My father was researching some of the few collections of folk music available in those days. I learned from him that there were often different versions of the same song. People changed words, melody, made up new verses.6 This was an important lesson: you can choose the version of the song you want to sing.7
This led Pete eventually, in the 1930s, to the discovery of American folk music:
In the 1930s some of the younger folklorists such as Alan Lomax8 said, ‘American folk music is too good to die out. Let’s give it back to the folks, and see if it can grow and flourish again.’ And I seized upon it with enthusiasm. Here were songs with words full of all the richness and variety of life: love, hate, satire, protest against injustice. Fine poetry. Fine melodies that had stood the test of time. I said to myself, ‘These are great songs. Twice as good as anything that the Tin Pan Alley songwriters are writing ... And it’s American to the core.’
And I, born in New York City, started learning songs of the Kentucky miners, Wisconsin lumberjacks and Texas farmers. It appears I was just one of the first of thousands of Americans from the city, who felt the same way.9
Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie
In the autumn of 1939 Alan Lomax persuaded Pete to come and work for him in Washington, going through piles of old country music records. Shortly afterwards Woody Guthrie arrived in New York, having left California, where he had gone to escape the dust clouds of Oklahoma. Woodrow Wilson Guthrie was an accomplished folk musician and a song-writer of genius. Seeger records that, after they met:
… my life was never the same again. Woody must have liked my banjo picking, because everything else about me must have seemed pretty strange to him. I didn’t drink or smoke or chase girls …
I was a very naive, puritanical New Englander. It’s a wonder Woody ever put up with me. But I was a pretty good banjo picker who also happened to have a good ear. I could find the right notes to accompany him any time. I didn’t try anything too fancy. Woody didn’t like a lot a fancy chords, so I stuck to the chords he wanted.10
The result was that Guthrie took Pete back home with him to Oklahoma, and they became, as it were, musical partners.
There was, however, a difference of emphasis in their respective approaches to folk music. As Pete says:
Woody took his tunes mostly from different kinds of American folk songs and ballads. He had a deep respect for the ballad form. He knew enough about other song forms to choose many others, but he felt that the old four-line stanzas, which told a story and slowly unfolded a moral, was as good as any he could use. Woody said, ‘I’m not saying some of your tunes from other countries aren’t good. But I wasn’t raised to them, and neither are the people I’m trying to sing to [my emphasis - CG]. So I’m going to use the kind of tunes we understand.11
Pete, however, went on to develop much more of an internationalist approach. My guess is that what made for this difference was their respective audiences, the difference between the American west and cosmopolitan New York. As a folksinger you soon learn that the audience calls the shots: if you can please them with what they know and like then maybe you will get away with extending their taste a little later on.
Pete’s internationalism can be seen in the collection he published in 1964 named after Idris Davies’s wonderful poem about the Welsh miners in the British General Strike of 1926, ‘The bells of Rhymney’, which Pete Seeger set to music.12 Out of 84 pieces, 19 - ie, almost a quarter - are from outside the US.
I doubt whether Pete would have claimed any originality as a thinker, but he was a very good observer and kept his eyes and ears open. In one of his songs, ‘All mixed up’, he recorded a development which illustrates the fate of so-called ‘national purity’ under capitalism. This song is so important that I give here the complete lyric:
You know, this language that we speak
Is part German, part Latin and part Greek,
With some Celtic and Arabic all in the heap,
Well amended by the man in the street.
Choctaw gave us the word ‘okay’,
‘Vamoose’ is a word from Mexico way,
And all this is a hint, I suspect,
Of what comes next.
Chorus: I think that this whole world,
I think that this whole wide world,
Soon, mama, my whole world,
Soon gonna be got mixed up.
I like Polish sausage, I like Spanish rice;
Pizza pie is also nice.
Corn and beans from the Indians here,
Washed down by some German beer.
Marco Polo travelled by camel and pony,
Brought to Italy the first macaroni;
And you and I, as well as we’re able,
Put it all on the table.
There were no redheaded Irishmen
Before the Vikings landed in Ireland;
How many Romans had dark curly hair
Before they brought slaves from Africa?
No race of man is completely pure,
Nor is any man’s mind, and that’s for sure;
The winds mix up the dust of every land,
And so will man.
This doesn’t mean we must all be the same,
We’ll have different faces and different names;
Long live many different kinds of races,
And it’s difference of opinion that makes horse races.
Just remember the rule about rules, brother:
‘What’s right with one is wrong with another’;
And take a tip from La Belle France,
Vive la différence!
Also part of Pete’s repertoire was a well-known Indian song, which was sung on the march that Mahatma Gandhi led against the salt tax imposed by the British Raj in the 1920s. Translated from Hindi, it goes:
Chief of the house of Raghu, Lord Rama,
Uplifters of those who have fallen, Sita and Rama,
Sita and Rama, Sita and Rama,
O beloved, praise Sita and Rama.
God and Allah are your names,
Bless everyone with real wisdom, Lord.
The point of the song is that the supreme being can be called by many names, including Rama and Allah - the march united Hindus and Muslims against the Raj.13
Following the return of Seeger and Guthrie to New York, the group known as the Almanac Singers was launched in January 1941. The group attracted flak because it was (loosely) associated with the Communist Party of the United States of America. Pete has written quite extensively on his relationship with the CPUSA both in The incompleat folksinger and in his correspondence as published by the Rosenthals. In the latter volume he writes:
People will probably ask exactly what kind of control did the Communist Party have over our work. It is surprising how loose things were. I’d been a member of the Young Communist League at Harvard and briefly a member of a communist youth group called Youth Arts, or something like that, in 1938 and 39 in New York. But I never joined the Communist Party until the Almanacs got back from our trip across the country [in 1941].
We had weekly sessions with a nice young man who tried to guide us in learning a little bit more about dialectical materialism, but none of us were really that enthusiastic about becoming great Marxist scholars. We trusted the communists to know generally the right thing that we should be pushing for, whether it was peace or war. We read the Daily Worker regularly. It was one of the best newspapers in the world. It had a great sports section.14
Pete therefore supported the general line prior to Hitler’s attack on the Soviet Union in June 1941 - World War II was an imperialist war. Purists on the left would take issue with that position, but we cannot go into the question here, as time and space do not permit that. Suffice it merely to add that when Operation Barbarossa was launched and the invasion of Russia began, the line changed to defence of the Soviet Union, and Pete and his friends concurred - not because they were told to do so, but because they felt it was right. Pete wrote:
… we were anti-commercial. We were anti-establishment. We looked upon the music establishment as corrupt. We looked upon the economy as corrupt. We looked upon the government as being corrupt most of the time, although when a job had to be done, like beating Hitler, when the government was willing to fight Hitler, there we worked right along with it as much as we possibly could … The Communist Party helped us to do this. We called ourselves communists. Probably none of us would agree even now exactly on the definition of communism. But I don’t think any of us are ashamed of what we did way back in the days of 1941 and 42.15
In another letter Pete explains:
I met Woody Guthrie and we sang together for unions and for communist groups too. After World War II, I was a card-carrying member for about four years. Woody tried to join but was turned down. We both used to laugh at the long words and special definitions they tried to give out. “Revisionism?” said Woody. “I revise myself every morning."
And, of course, after Khrushchev’s speech in 1956 detailing Stalin’s anti-Semitism and other brutalities16 millions of us asked ourselves, ‘What is communism?’17
Not surprisingly, even though he had left the Communist Party by then, Pete was hauled up before the House UnAmerican Activities Committee (HUAC) in 1955, but courageously refused to testify, implicitly invoking the first amendment to the constitution, which protects freedom of association.
I am not going to answer any questions as to my associations, my philosophical or religious 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.18
Effectively, Pete refrained from invoking the fifth amendment (refusal to answer on the grounds that it would lead to self-incrimination), but took his stand on the first. He was determined not to ‘name names’ of any associates - what they call in Ireland ‘felon-setting’ (grassing someone to the authorities). As a result he was cited for contempt of Congress in 1956, indicted in 1957 and finally brought to trial in 1961. He was sentenced to a year’s imprisonment, but this was subsequently quashed on appeal.19
The Rosenthals print a letter from Pete to his descendants setting out exactly what his political position was in 1956 following Khrushchev’s revelations about Stalin. In it he says: “I think I’ll stick with communism, in spite of its mistakes and excesses.”20
It only remains to add that Pete subsequently wrote a song condemning Stalin, entitled ‘Big Joe blues’:
I’m singing about old Joe, cruel Joe,
He ruled with an iron hand.
He put an end to the dreams
Of so many in every land.
He had a chance to make
A brand new start for the human race.
Instead he set it background
Right in the same nasty place.
I got the Big Joe blues.
Keep your mouth shut or you will die fast.
I got the Big Joe blues.
Do this job, no questions asked.
I got the Big Joe blues.21
A lot more could be said, space permitting: eg, about Pete Seeger and the folk revival in Britain in the 1960s, where he was a powerful influence, about his interest in ecology and his endeavours to clean up the Hudson River,22 or about his remarks on how folk music should be defined (his operative definition seems to have been a pretty broad one) and more besides.
Perhaps it is best to ask, in conclusion, what the secret of his popularity was - such that he was able to appeal not just to lefties, but to a much broader swathe of humanity as well. Obviously the emphasis on audience participation played a large part, but I think that the simplicity of many of his best songs, and their ability to appeal on an abstract level, was also important:
If I had a hammer
I’d hammer in the morning,
I’d hammer in the evening,
All over this land.
I’d hammer out: ‘Danger!’
I’d hammer out a warning,
I’d hammer for the love between my brothers and my sisters
All over this land.
Who could be against that? Similar considerations apply in the case of ‘Where have all the flowers gone?’ - sung beautifully in German translation by Marlene Dietrich - and the haunting setting of Ecclesiastes 3, verses 1-8, ‘To every thing there is a season’. This perhaps explains (together with possible effects of conscience) the accolades bestowed on him by presidents Clinton and Obama.23
I would like to give Pete himself the last word:
Our songs are, like you and me, the product of a long, long human chain, and even the strangest ones are distantly related to each other, as are we all. Each of us can be proud to be a link in this chain. Let’s hope there are many more links to come.
No: let’s make damn sure there are more links to come24.
The author wishes to thank the staff at the British Library and at the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library, Cecil Sharp House, London, for help in researching this article.
1. J Metcalf (ed) The incompleat folksinger Nebraska 1972.
2. B Rosenthal and S Rosenthal (eds) Pete Seeger in his own words Boulder 2012.
3. Pete’s wife, Toshi Ota, was of Japanese extraction. She died a year before he did, in 2013.
4. B Rosenthal and S Rosenthal (eds) Pete Seeger in his own words Boulder 2012, p4.
5. Ibid p5.
6. This is known, in the jargon, as the ‘folk process’.
7. B Rosenthal and S Rosenthal (eds) Pete Seeger in his own words Boulder 2012, p6.
8. Alan Lomax (1915-2002) was an important collector of folksongs from both the US and UK.
9. B Rosenthal and S Rosenthal (eds) Pete Seeger in his own words Boulder 2012, p12.
10. Ibid pp13-14.
11. Ibid p49.
12. See ‘The bells of Rhymney’ and other songs and stories from the singing of Pete Seeger Oak Publications, 1964.
13. I swear that when I heard Pete sing this song he gave its meaning as “Who is Allah and who is Ram?” Somehow I do not think it quite bears this interpretation, which, to my mind, tends in an atheist direction.
14. B Rosenthal and S Rosenthal (eds) Pete Seeger in his own words Boulder 2012, p25.
15. Ibid p27.
16. For Khrushchev’s speech to the CPSU 20th Congress (1956) see www.marxists.org/archive/khrushchev/1956/02/24.htm.
17. B Rosenthal and S Rosenthal (eds) Pete Seeger in his own words Boulder 2012, p92.
18. Quoted in J Metcalf (ed) The incompleat folksinger Nebraska 1972, p468.
19. See ibid pp470-73.
20. B Rosenthal and S Rosenthal (eds) Pete Seeger in his own words Boulder 2012, p101.
21. ‘Seeger turns on Uncle Joe’ New Statesman September 27 2007.
22. See B Rosenthal and S Rosenthal (eds) Pete Seeger in his own words Boulder 2012, chapter 8.
23. For Obama’s comments see the obituary of Pete Seeger in The Guardian January 29 2014.
24. B Rosenthal and S Rosenthal (eds) Pete Seeger in his own words Boulder 2012, p343.