37. The Protest Singer by Alec Wilkinson
“One day I arrived toward the end of the morning, and Seeger and I talked in the yard for a while and then we went into the house. Toshi [his wife] said, ‘Pete, you didn’t have any breakfast,’ and he said, ‘I had a cookie.'”
– Alec Wilkinson, The Protest Singer
Folk music is in my bones. Mixed into the double helixes of my DNA I have banjo chord progressions – G, C, and D7. I’m pretty sure that I have some sort of Fetal Folk Syndrome (related to Fetal Alcohol Syndrome), due to my mother taking in too much Joni Mitchell while I was in the womb. In fact, my middle name was almost “Guthrie.” Luckily my parents went with Lily instead. But the Guthrie/folk legacy was implanted in my being nonetheless.
When I was little, my parents used to take my brother and I to county fairs all over the tri-state area. We didn’t go on any rides. We didn’t play any games. We went to watch Arlo Guthrie and Pete Seeger sing their songs. I remember mistaking their hippie clothes for wizard outfits.
In our little hatchback Honda, we listened to cassette tapes of Pete and Arlo and Cat Stevens and Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan. We also listened to lots of musicals, but my brother and I try to forget that, for the most part.
I feel like I should note here that my family’s roots go back to Brooklyn and – before that – Eastern Europe. No Appalachia runs naturally in my veins. But enough about me. Now – a transition to Pete Seeger, “The Protest Singer.”
I would recommend this book to anyone. It’s short and manageable and incredibly well-written. The author, Alec Wilkinson, is a writer for the New Yorker. When he asked Pete if he could write a book about him, Pete told him that there were already enough long biographies about him – he needed “a book that could be read in one sitting.” The full title of the book is “The Protest Singer: An Intimate Portrait of Pete Seeger.” The book is certainly intimate. Most of it is made up of direct quotes from the author’s interactions with Pete on his farm in upstate New York. Wilkinson succeeds in writing a beautiful, concise book that not only highlights how badass Pete Seeger is, but is also easy and pleasurable to read.
Pete Seeger, perhaps the most influential and unbelievable American folk singer of the 20th century, was born in Manhattan. He went to the Avon Old Farms boarding school in Connecticut. Pete comes from a seriously privileged background. His mother was a preeminent composer. His father was also a composer and worked with the Library of Congress, pioneering in the field of ethnomusicology. Family members were founders of schools (including Julliard) and wealthy members of society, rubbing shoulders with the likes of Aaron Copland.
Although Pete grew up with this legacy of privilege, he truly managed to become one of The People. He is humble and authentic, and these qualities are some of those that I love most about him. On his first impression of real folk music, Pete says:
“…The words of [the] songs had all the meat of human life in them. They sang of heroes, outlaws, murderers, fools. They weren’t afraid of being tragic instead of just sentimental. They weren’t afraid of being scandalous instead of giggly or cute. Above all, they seemed frank, straight-forward, honest. By comparison, it seemed to me that too many art songs were concerned with being elegant and too many pop songs were concerned with being clever.”
Pete pretty much invented a technique to get crowds to sing along to his songs. In Arlo Guthrie’s words (on the album “Precious Friend), “I’ve been watching Pete now for a few years, and he does something I can’t do, which is – he sings the song twice, at the same time…He sings the song once, in front of the song, and then once with everybody. That’s hard.” This leading-style doesn’t seem so revolutionary now, but Pete invented it out of his insistence on the power of shared song. And Pete managed to engage and share with everybody he sang for.
(If that’s not badass enough, Pete built a log cabin for his family to live in. On his own. He looked up “log cabins” at the library. He cut down trees and split logs. He did the stonework around each fireplace. And, at ninety, Pete still splits wood every day.)
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Pete Seeger. He was born in 1919, to privilege. Went to boarding school, and then went to Harvard briefly. He left Harvard in his sophomore year to study folk music in the field. In 1939 he got a job with his father’s friend John Lomax at the Library of Congress, sorting through folk records. John Lomax and his son, Alan, contributed to Pete’s career as a musician, supporting him and giving him exposure.
Pete met Woody Guthrie in 1939 at a “midnight benefit.” They then traveled around the country together, playing when they could. Pete says that Guthrie allowed him to “tag along because [Seeger] could accompany [Guthrie] on anything he played.” Eventually the two split and Pete started hopping trains. Pete traveled all over the country, studying indigenous tunes and meeting people. He wanted to glean real American music straight from the dirt.
About Guthrie, Seeger said “I can’t stand him when he’s around, but I miss him when he’s gone.”
Eventually Seeger and Guthrie met up again and formed a group called the Almanac Singers, with Lee Hays and Mill Lampell. Lee Hays, like Woody Guthrie, was a hugely influential folk singer. The combination of these three is (and was) pretty electric. The Almanac Singers often played as an incomplete group or with additional singers playing along, acting as a fluid body. They named themselves “The Almanac Singers” because “most farmers had only two books in their houses – a Bible and an Almanac, one book for the next world and one for this one.” The Almanacs really launched Pete’s career on a credible note. After the break-up of the Almanac Singers, Pete and Lee Hays founded The Weavers in 1948. Both groups were extremely influential, although their tenure playing together was short.
I’m sorry. This shouldn’t be another biography of Pete. I’ll wrap the history lesson up quickly. So – Pete made a name for himself with Guthrie and Hays. He became a fan of Communism, although he was disinclined to officially affiliate himself with any political group – he says he played for “everybody.” Seeger also fought in World War II for three years – a significant contribution to the country that Pete so loved.
In 1955, Pete was called to testify in front of the House Un-American Affairs Committee. His complete testimony is included in Wilkinson’s book. There are some absolutely fabulous quotes from this hearing that I just have to include.
As a form of introduction, Pete told the Committee the following:
“I am not going to answer any questions as to my association, my philosophical or religious beliefs or my political 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. I would be very glad to tell you my life if you want to hear of it.”
Pete’s responses to questioning not only proved that he is a total badass, but also emphasized a truth that he maintains to this day – that Pete Seeger loves his country, and he holds the values that he sees as American above almost anything else.
Here are some of those fabulous responses to Committee questioning:
“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.”
“…I am proud that I have sung for Americans of every political persuasion, and I have never refused to sing for anybody because I disagreed with their political opinion, and I am proud of the fact that my songs seem to cut across and find perhaps a unifying thing, basic humanity,and that is why I would love to be able to tell you about these songs, because I feel that you would agree with me more, sir.”
And, my favorite:
“I decline to discuss, under compulsion, where I have sung, and who has sung my songs, and who else has sung with me, and the people I have known. I love my country very dearly, and I greatly resent this implication that some of the places that I have sung and some of the people that I have known, and some of my opinions, whether they are religious or philosophical, or I might be a vegetarian, make me any less of an American. I will tell you about my songs, but I am not interested in telling you who wrote them, and I will tell you about my songs, and I am not interested in who listened to them.”
After his appearance in front of the HUAC, Pete was sentenced to a year in prison for contempt of Congress, but he appealed and the decision was overturned – seven years later, in 1962.
In 1969, Pete turned his attention to cleaning up the Hudson River. He organized funding for an old-fashioned Hudson River sloop that he named Clearwater. The Clearwater is now both an organization and a boat, dedicated to improving the environment and cleaning up the Hudson. People sailed along the river, singing songs and encouraging people to pay attention to environmental causes.
We used to listen to a song in the car called “Sailin’ Up, Sailin’ Down” about the Clearwater cause. Pete wrote it, obviously. On the track, before he starts singing, Pete says, “You know, you bring people together for any purpose whatsoever, you’re in politics. You can bring ’em together to drink beer, to watch a football game, but you’re affecting the body politic. And the river’s got cleaner – we’re swimming in the Hudson again.”
Pete, if nothing else, is a believer in the power of music to bring the people together. He worked hard for the Civil Rights movement. Pete wrote the version of “We Shall Overcome” that became Martin Luther King’s primary call to (peaceful) arms. In fact, most influential folk music has ties to Pete Seeger. With The Weavers, Pete wrote “If I Had A Hammer.” They also made Leadbelly’s “Goodnight, Irene” famous – one of the most beautiful songs ever. He made “Kumbaya” big. “Waist Deep In The Big Muddy” was an iconic song of the Vietnam War era. “Solidarity Forever” is still the song of the IWW. And there are so many more.
Pete wrote two books – “How to Play the Five-String Banjo” and “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” Both of these are phenomenal, and his instructional banjo book pretty much taught me (along with many banjo players before me) how to play the banjo, singlehandedly.
The most wonderful thing about Pete, which “The Protest Singer” makes clear, is that he has lived his life according to the firm belief that music can change the world. And he was right – Pete Seeger created legitimate change through music.
On Woody Guthrie’s guitar were the words “This Machine Kills Fascists.” Pete’s banjo reads, “This Machine Surrounds Hate and Forces It to Surrender.”
In summation – please read this book. It’s the best book I’ve read in a while. I am usually partial to fiction, but this book is written so well that I easily made the non-fiction exception. It’s aesthetically pleasing, with a pretty cover and lots of great photographs. But, most importantly, it provides a glimpse into the life of an absolutely inspirational, unbelievable man. It’s Pete-Fucking-Seeger, yo! The most magically modest, underrated, influential dude of the 20th century.
I love folk music and Americana because it’s real – it’s the truth; it’s organically grown on front porches and in back yards. And the reason that we get to see this perspective on America is largely because of Pete Seeger and his work.
One last gorgeous quote:
“People ask, is there one word that you have more faith in than any other word…and I say it’s participation. I feel that this takes on so many meanings. The composer John Philip Sousa said,’What will happen to the American voice now that the phonograph has been invented? Women used to sing lullabies to their children.’ It’s been my life work, to get participation, whether it’s a union song, or a peace song, civil rights, or a women’s movement, or gay liberation. When you sing, you feel a kind of strength; you think, I’m not alone, there’s a whole bunch of us who feel this way. I’m just one person, but it’s almost my religion now to persuade people that even if it’s only you and three others, do something. You and one other, do something. If it’s only you, and you do a good job as a songwriter, people will sing it.”
Thank you, Pete. Still changing the world through twice-sung songs and chutzpah, even at 90.