Folk Scene

April 1979

Charles Seeger by Jim Capaldi

The world of music has lost a truly great man. Charles Seeger, the brilliant musicologist and founding father of America's foremost folk music family, recently died at the age of 92 at his Bridgewater, Connecticut home. Practically inventing the subject of musicology (defined as the historic and scientific study of music), he made enormous contributions to the field during his lifetime. Because of his tremendous influence on several of his children, Charles Seeger is largely responsible for the folk music revival in America today.

Charles Louis Seeger was born in Mexico City on December 14, 1886. His ancestors sailed to the shores of America on the Mayflower. Seegers fought in the Revolutionary War and in the Civil War. They have been doctors, lawyers, and school teachers; they have also been abolitionists and radicals. And Charles Seeger reflected this background and passed it on to his descendents.

Shortly after his birth, the family returned to Boston where Seeger was raised. He majored in music at Harvard, graduating in 1908. Because of his knowledge of the great musical classics, he became a conductor with the Cologne Opera in Europe. Returning to the United States, he married Constance de Clyver Edson on December 22, 1911. They had three children: Charles, Jr., John and Peter. Pete is, of course, Americas finest folksinger, while Charles, Jr. is a radio astronomer and John is a high school principal.

From 1912 to 1919, Seeger was a professor at the University of California, becoming the first head of the music department there in 1916. Shortly before Peter was born, Charles Seeger was fired from his position at the university because of his outspoken opposition to World War I. The Julliard School of Musical Art offered the chairmanship of its musical theory department, so the family moved to New York where Pete was born on May 5, 1919.

While on the east coast, Dr. Seeger also lectured at the Institute of Musical Art during much of the 1920’s. During this period, and on into the 1930’s, he taught at the New School for Social Research and edited the American Library of Musicology. At the same time, he was beginning to delve into various aspects of the country’s native folk music. Seeger married his second wife, the late Ruth Crawford Seeger, on November 14, 1931; together they worked to preserve much of our musical heritage. They had four children, Michael, Peggy, Barbara and Penny. Two of them, Michael and Peggy, became well known performers of the music that their parents played over and over again as they were growing up. In 1935 the family moved to Washington, D.C., so that the Seegers could collaborate with their friends John Lomax and his son Alan, on a massive undertaking, the Archive of Folk Song for the Library of Congress. Out of this pioneering work was to come the collection "Folk Songs, U.S.A.," a joint venture of the Seegers and Lomaxes.

During the summer of 1935, the same year he moved his family to Washington, Charles Seeger took his son Pete to a mountain square dance and music festival in Asheville, North Carolina. This was the event begun and run for many years by the legendary Bascom Lamar Lunsford. Here Pete, sixteen years old at the time, heard his first folk music. He says that it was love at first sight, after hearing a five-string banjo being played and listening to old ballads about lords and ladies. It’s probably safe to assume that if Seeger had not taken his young son on that fateful journey, there might have been no renewed interest in folk music, for his son Pete is responsible in many ways for sparking our love for this almost forgotten music. The performers he has influenced are too many to count; no one knows how many amateur musicians around the world have been inspired by his example. To say that Charles Seeger was proud of Pete and his other children and their accomplishments would be an understatement.

For the next fifteen years, Dr. Seeger remained mostly in Washington where he served in several capacities. From 1938 to 1940 he was assistant director of the Federal Music Project of the ill-fated WPA, and from 1941 to 1953, Chief of the Music Division of the Pan American Union. During the 1949-50 semester, he was a guest lecturer at Yale. After an absence of many years, Seeger returned to the University of California in 1957 and was made consultant to the Institute of Ethnomusicology and a regent professor at UCLA. In his eighties, he invented the Seeger Melograph, a vital research tool that permits comparisons of singing styles of various ethnic cultures. It consists of electronic devices that transcribe aspects of music on paper, allowing analysis of the differences and similarities of the singing modes of people from different areas. A few years ago, "Studies in Musicology, 1935—1975," a collection of Seeger’s writings, was published by the University of California Press.

Though the passing of Charles Seeger is a great loss to his family and friends, it is also a great loss to anyone who loves music. Because he was a pioneer and led the way for many others, Charles Seeger will long be remembered for his lifetime of accomplishments. And while we mourn his death, we must also celebrate his life.

Charles Seeger had a brother named Alan. Shortly before he was killed in the First World War, Alan Seeger penned these now immortal lines:

"I have a rendezvous with death
At some disputed barricade,
When spring comes back with rustling shade
And apple blossoms fill the air —
I have a rendezvous with death
When spring brings back blue days and fair.

It may be he shall take my hand,
And lead me into his dark land,
And close my eyes and quench my breath —
It may be I shall pass him still.

I have a rendezvous with death
On some scarred slope of battered hill,
When spring comes round again this year
And the first meadow flowers appear.

God knows ‘twere better to be deep
Pillowed in silk and scented down,
Where love throbs out in blissful sleep,
Pulse nigh to pulse, and breath to breath,
Where hushed awakenings are dear...

But I’ve a rendezvous with death
At midnight in some flaming town,
When spring trips north again this year;
And I to my pledged word am true,
I shall not fail that rendezvous."

Alan Seeger. All Rights Reserved

 

Back to read more articles