Pete Seeger, Legendary Folk Singer and Activist

Once Blacklisted, Singer Became a Revered American Icon

Photograph of Pete Seeger
Pete Seeger in a familiar pose, leading a sing-along.

 Getty Images

Pete Seeger was an American folksinger and political activist who became a prominent voice for social justice, often performing at rallies for civil rights and the environmental movement as well as at protests against the Vietnam War. Always holding fiercely to a set of core beliefs, Seeger was blacklisted in the 1950s for his political activities, but he eventually came to be widely appreciated as an American icon.

In January 2009, at the age of 89, Seeger performed alongside Bruce Springsteen at a Lincoln Memorial concert celebrating the inauguration of President Barack Obama. As he led a massive crowd in a singalong, Seeger was revered as a veteran activist. The prison sentence he once faced for refusing to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee was by then a distant memory.

Fast Facts: Pete Seeger

  • Born: May 3, 1919 in New York City
  • Died: January 27, 2014 in New York City
  • Parents: Charles Louise Seeger, Jr. and Constance de Clyver, both prolific musicians
  • Wife: Toshi Aline Ohta (married 1943)
  • Known For: Legendary folk singer and songwriter closely associated with causes including civil rights, Vietnam War protests, and conservation of natural resources
  • Quotation: “I have sung in hobo jungles, and I have sung for the Rockefellers, and I am proud that I have never refused to sing for anybody.”

Early Life

Peter R. Seeger was born May 3, 1919 to a very musical family in New York City. His father was a composer and conductor and his mother was a concert violinist and music teacher. While his parents taught at various universities, Seeger attended boarding schools. As a teen he traveled to the South with his father and saw local musicians at a North Carolina folk festival playing 5-string banjos. He fell in love with the instrument.

Entering Harvard College, Seeger intended to become a journalist. He became involved in radical politics and joined the Young Communist League, an affiliation which would come to haunt him years later.

Folk Singer

Seeger left Harvard after two years in 1938, determined to see the country. He traveled on freight trains and, having become an adept banjo player, performed wherever he could. In 1939 he took a job in Washington, D.C., as an archivist of folk songs at the Library of Congress. He met and became friends with the legendary folksinger Woody Guthrie while performing at a benefit for migrant farm workers. In 1941 and 1942, Seeger and Guthrie performed together and traveled the country.

During World War II, Seeger served in a U.S. Army unit of entertainers. He performed for the troops at camps in the U.S. and in the South Pacific. While on furlough in 1943, he married Toshi Aline Ohta. They remained married for nearly 70s years, until Toshi Seeger's death in 2013.

In 1948, Seeger helped found a popular folk quartet, The Weavers. Singing mostly traditional folk songs, The Weavers performed at night clubs and major theaters, including New York City's prestigious Carnegie Hall.

The Weavers recorded "Goodnight Irene" by Seeger friend Huddie "Leadbelly" Ledbetter and it became a number one hit in 1950. They also recorded a song co-written by Seeger, "If I Had a Hammer," which would eventually become an anthem of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s.

Political Controversies

The career of The Weavers was upended when a witness before the House Un-American Activities Committee named Seeger and others in the group as members of the Communist Party.

The Weavers were blacklisted. Clubs and theaters refused to book them and radio stations refused to play their songs, despite their previous popularity. The group eventually broke up.

Seeger, who maintained a following as a solo performer, managed to make a living by recording a number of albums for a small record label, Folkways. His recordings in that period tended to be albums of folk songs for children, and he often performed at summer camps which ignored the dictates of the blacklist. Seeger would later joke that the children of leftists who became his fans at summer camps in the 1950s would go on to be the college activists he sang to in the 1960s.

Photo of Pete Seeger testifying before HUAC
Pete Seeger (alongside his lawyer) testifying before HUAC. Getty Images 

On August 18, 1955 Seeger testified at HUAC hearings targeting supposed communist infiltration of the entertainment industry. At the federal courthouse in lower Manhattan, Seeger appeared before the committee, but only to refuse to answer questions and to accuse the committee of being un-American.

When pressed about whether he had performed for communist groups, he answered:

"I have sung for Americans of every political persuasion, and I am proud that I never refuse to sing to an audience, no matter what religion or color of their skin, or situation in life. I have sung in hobo jungles, and I have sung for the Rockefellers, and I am proud that I have never refused to sing for anybody. That is the only answer I can give along that line."

Seeger's aggressive lack of cooperation with the committee earned him a citation for contempt of Congress. He faced time in federal prison, but following a long court battle his case was finally thrown out in 1961. To civil libertarians, Seeger had become a hero, but he still had trouble earning a living. Right-wing groups began to target his concerts. He would often perform on college campuses where his concerts could be announced on short notice, before protests seeking to silence him had a chance to organize.

As a new generation of singers created the folk revival of the early 1960s, Seeger became a friend and mentor of Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, and others. Though still blacklisted from television, Seeger performed at marches for Civil Rights and protests against the Vietnam War.

In August 1967, when Seeger was booked to appear on a network television show hosted by The Smothers Brothers, the event made the news. The New York Times reported that Seeger had been blacklisted from network television for 17 years and his return to the network airwaves had been approved "at high managerial levels."

There were, of course, complications. Seeger taped a performance of a new song he'd written, "Waist Deep In the Big Muddy," a commentary on America's deepening involvement in Vietnam. Network executives at CBS wouldn't allow the performance on the air, and the censorship turned into a national controversy. The network finally relented and Seeger performed the song on the show months later, in February 1968.

Environmental Activist

In the late 1940s, Seeger had built a house along the Hudson River north of New York City, which made him an eyewitness as the river became increasingly polluted.

In the early 1960s he wrote a song, "My Dirty Stream" that served as a catchy manifesto for environmental action. The lyrics mentioned towns along the Hudson releasing sewage into the river and a paper plant dumping untreated chemical waste. In the refrain, Seeger sang:

"Sailing down my dirty stream
Still I love it and I'll keep the dream
That some day, though maybe not this year
My Hudson River will once again run clear."

In 1966, Seeger announced a plan to build a boat that would sail the river to help raise awareness of the pollution crisis. At that time, stretches of the Hudson River were essentially dead, as the dumping of chemicals, sewage, and garbage meant no fish could live in the water.

Pete Seeger's sloop Clearwater, sailing past a garbage dump.
Pete Seeger's sloop Clearwater, sailing past a garbage dump along the Hudson River.  Getty Images

Seeger raised money and built a 100-foot sloop, The Clearwater. The ship was a replica modeled on sloops used by Dutch traders on the Hudson River beginning in the 18th century. If people came to see the sloop, Seeger believed, they would become aware of how polluted the river had become and how beautiful it had once been.

His plan worked. Sailing the Clearwater along the Hudson, Seeger campaigned tirelessly for action to save the river. Over time, the pollution was curtailed and stretches of the river came back to life.

Years of Redemption

Seeger continued performing at theaters and colleges in his later years, often touring with Woody Guthrie's son Arlo. Seeger received the prestigious Kennedy Center Honors in 1994. In 1996 he was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in its "Early Influencers" category.

photo of Pete Seeger performing beside Bruce Springsteen
Pete Seeger beside Bruce Springsteen at the January 2009 concert celebrating Barack Obama's inauguration.  Getty Images

In 2006, Seeger received an unusual honor when Bruce Springsteen, taking a break from rock music, released an album of songs associated with Seeger. "We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions" was followed by a tour that produced a live album. Though Springsteen admittedly hadn't grown up as much of a Seeger fan, he later became fascinated by Seeger's work and his devotion to particular causes.

On the weekend before Barack Obama's inauguration in January 2009, Seeger, at 89, appeared at a concert and performed beside Springsteen at the Lincoln Memorial.

A few months later, in May 2009, Seeger celebrated his 90th birthday with a concert at Madison Square Garden. The show, which featured a number of prominent guest performers including Springsteen, was a benefit for the Clearwater and its environmental work.

Two years later, on October 21, 2011, 92-year-old Seeger appeared in New York City late one night to march (with the aid of two canes) with the Occupy Wall Street movement. Seemingly immortal, Seeger led the crowd in singing "We Shall Overcome."

Seeger's wife Toshi died in 2013. Pete Seeger died in a New York City hospital on January 27, 2014, at the age of 94. President Barack Obama, noting that Seeger had been referred to at times as "America's tuning fork," praised him in a White House statement, saying, "For reminding us where we come from and showing us where we need to go, we will always be grateful to Pete Seeger. "

Sources:

  • "Pete Seeger." Encyclopedia of World Biography, 2nd ed., vol. 14, Gale, 2004, pp. 83-84. Gale Virtual Reference Library.
  • "Seeger, Pete(r R.) 1919-." Contemporary Authors, New Revision Series, vol. 118, Gale, 2003, pp. 299-304. Gale Virtual Reference Library.
  • Pareles, Jon. "Pete Seeger, Champion of Folk Music and Social Change, Dies at 94." New York Times, 29 January 2014, p. A20.