Pete Seeger - Biography

Pete Seeger is first and foremost a folk singer, but his roles as songwriter, folklorist, labor activist, environmentalist, radical leftist, rabble-rouser and peace advocate cannot be underestimated. He was the first singer to inject politics into the lyrics of folk songs and while he’s not known for his songwriting, many of his compositions have become folk and pop standards including “Kisses Sweeter Than Wine,” “Turn Turn Turn,” “If I Had a Hammer,” “Wimoweh (The Lion Sleeps Tonight)” and “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?.” Seeger also rewrote and popularized the old hymn “We Shall Overcome,” probably the most important protest song of the 20th century. Since 1936 he has been singing, performing and recording, with several hundred albums to his credit. He continues to be a tireless performer and activist to the present day, always optimistic and upbeat, no matter how bleak the national outlook.


Pete Seeger, born May 3, 1919 in New York City, was the son of musicologist Charles Seeger and classical violinist , Constance de Clyver Edson. A trip through the South with his father in the mid-30's exposed him to blues, gospel, work songs and other kinds of traditional American music. By 1940, Seeger was singing and playing folk music for family and friends. Then he met Lead Belly and Woody Guthrie. With Guthrie he founded The Almanac Singers, which also included future Weaver, Lee Hays. The group made a 78 RPM album for General Records later reissued as The Almanac Singers: Their Complete General Recordings (1996 MCA).


The Almanacs were communists and sang mostly for left-wing gatheirngs, union meetings and pacifist rallies. When America entered WWII, the Almanacs were blacklisted, making it impossible schedule bookings. Seeger was drafted in 1942, which permanently ended the band. That same year he joined the American Communist Party. Seeger founded People’s Songs in 1945, an organization formed to collect and distribute labor songs to the American people, but the organization never took off. In 1948, Seeger formed The Weavers with Lee Hays, Fred Hellerman and Ronnie Gilbert. They recorded five hit singles for Decca, later collected on Goodnight Irene (1995 MCA), before Seeger was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee and accused of being a Communist. He refused to testify, was found guilty of contempt of Congress and sentenced to a year in prison, but the case was dismissed on a technicality. Nonetheless, it put an end to The Weavers, until their famous concert at Carnegie Hall on Christmas Eve 1955, released as The Weavers at Carnegie Hall (1957 Vanguard). In today’s parlance, The Weavers became an underground folk band, and had an influential career until 1964. Seeger, however, left them in 1961.


Even during the years The Weavers were active, Seeger was recording solo albums for Moe Asch’s Folkways Records, America’s most important folk label. Seeger was prolific, often making five or six albums a year, records that planted the seeds of the folk revival. Most have been reissued in recent years by Smithsonian/Folkways and include: American Folksongs for Children (1953 Smithsonian Folkways), Frontier Ballads Vol. 1 & 2 (1954 Smithsonian Folkways), How to Play the 5 String Banjo (1954 Folkways), probably the most influential music instruction record of all time, Bantu Choral Folk Songs (1955 Smithsonian Folkways), five volumes of American Favorite Ballads (1957  1962 Smithsonian Folkways), and Songs of The Civil War (1960 Smithsonian Folkways). In 1960, Columbia Records signed Seeger to a non-exclusive contract that produced Story Songs (1961 Columbia), Children’s Concert at Town Hall (1963 Columbia), Dangerous Songs (1966 Columbia) and Waist Deep in the Big Muddy and Other Love Songs (1967 Columbia).


When The Smother Brothers defied TV censors and asked Seeger to sing on their hit CBS TV show in 1967, he sang “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy”, a song that criticized the Vietnam War and called Lyndon Johnson a fool, but the song was edited out before the show was broadcast. The Brothers invited Seeger back in February of 1968, once again he performed the same song, but this time it aired on national TV. The world and the war, did not come to an end. Seeger traveled widely through the American south during the civil rights years, performing at benefits and singing for integrated audiences. He became a champion of protest singers like Bob Dylan and Phil Ochs, continued speaking out against the war and all violence and continued to record for Smithsonian Folkways and Columbia. Highlights include: Pete Seeger Sings Lead Belly (1968 Folkways) Pete Seeger Sings Woody Guthrie (1967 Folkways), Young vs. Old (1971 Columbia), Rainbow Race (1973 Columbia) and Banks of Marble (1974 Smithsonian Folkways).


In 1969, Seeger launched the sloop Clearwater into the Hudson River, a vessel that became a traveling hootenanny, sailing up and down the river to stop and give concerts and preach the gospel of environmental responsibility. He began to avoid leftist causes, which he felt had become too polarizing, concentrating instead on the larger issues of human rights, ecology and economic freedom for all. And he kept recording: Circles & Seasons (1979 Warner), which included Fred Hellerman and Ronnie Gilbert singing along, Sing-A-Long at Sanders Theater, 1980 (1992 Smithsonian Folkways), the Grammy winning Pete (1996 Living Music) and Pete Seeger & Arlo Guthrie: Together in Concert (1999 Rising Son).


By the ‘90s, Seeger finally began receiving long overdue recognition. The Presidential Medal of the Arts in 1994, entry into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996, The Harvard Arts Medal in 1996, and a Grammy Award for Best Traditional Folk Album of 1996 for Pete. In 1999 he traveled to Cuba to accept the Felix Varela Medal, Cuba's highest honor for his work in defense of the environment and against racism.


Seeger has been widely anthologized as well. Examples include, The Essential Pete Seeger (1990 Vanguard), Greatest Hits (1987 Columbia), Link in the Chain (1996 Columbia legacy), and a great three volume set from Appleseed Records with Seeger singing some of the hundreds of songs he’s written with the help of friends ranging from Ani DiFranco to Bruce Springsteen: Where Have All the Flowers Gone: the Songs of Pete Seeger Volume 1 (1998 Appleseed), If I Had a Song: the Songs of Pete Seeger Volume 2 (2001 Appleseed) and Seeds: the Songs of Pete Seeger Volume 3 (2004 Appleseed).


On January 27th, 2014, Pete Seeger died at the age of 94. His life and legacy will continue to be celebrated and admired by future generations.




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