The New Yorker
April 17, 2006
THE PROTEST SINGER
Pete Seeger and American folk music.
BY ALEC WILKINSON
It was the ambition of the singer and songwriter Pete Seeger, as a child, in the nineteen-twenties, to be an Indian, a farmer, a forest ranger, or possibly an artist, because he liked to draw. He went to Harvard, joined the tenor-banjo society, and studied sociology in the hope of becoming a journalist, but near the end of his second year he left, before taking his exams, and rode a bicycle north from New York through New England. He was tall and thin and earnest and polite. He would make a watercolor sketch of a farm from the fields, then knock on the farmhouse door and ask if he could trade the drawing for a meal.
In the nineteen-forties, Seeger was a member of a group called the Almanac Singers, which included Woody Guthrie. The name derived from their belief that many farming homes had two books: a Bible and an almanac. The Almanac Singers appeared mainly at strikes and at rallies held to support the rights of laborers. Seeger says that they were "famous to readers of the Daily Worker," the newspaper of the Communist Party. When the Almanac Singers broke up, Seeger played on his own for a while, then became a member of the Weavers, whose version of "Goodnight Irene," by Leadbelly, was, for thirteen weeks in 1950, the best-selling record in America. The Weavers quit playing in 1952, after an informant told the House Un-American Activities Committee that three of the four Weavers, including Seeger, were Communists. (Seeger knew students at Harvard who were Communists and, with the idea in mind of a more equitable world, he eventually became one himself.) Following the informant's testimony, the Weavers found fewer and fewer places to work. Seeger and his wife, Toshi, decided that Seeger should sing for any audience that would have him. They printed a brochure and sent it to summer camps, colleges, schools, churches, and any organization that they thought might be sympathetic. Seeger began engaging in what he calls "guerrilla cultural tactics." Arriving in a town he'd been hired to play in, he'd call the local radio station, where the disk jockey, remembering the Weavers, would usually invite him to talk on the air. Seeger would discuss his concert, then play that night, and be gone before anyone had time to object. In towns where his appearances were more widely publicized, he grew accustomed to pickets with signs saying things such as "Khrushchev's Songbird." In "How Can I Keep from Singing," a biography of Seeger, David Dunaway writes that a poll conducted during the period by Harvard said that fifty-two per cent of the American people thought Communists should be put in jail.
A promoter brought the Weavers back together in 1955 for a concert at Carnegie Hall—he had told each of them that the others wanted to do it. The concert sold out, and they began performing together again. Seeger left them in 1957. One of the songs from their catalogue, "Pay Me My Money Down," the lament of an indignant sailor, appears on "We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions," Bruce Springsteen's new record, which will be released on April 25th. The other songs on the record are versions of folk songs that Seeger recorded and tended to sing on his own.
Springsteen began listening to Seeger in 1997, when he was asked to provide a song for a Seeger tribute record. To choose one, he told me, he "went to the record store and bought every Pete record they had. I really immersed myself in them, and it was very transformative. I heard a hundred voices in those old folk songs, and stories from across the span of American history—parlor music, church music, tavern music, street and gutter music. I felt the connection almost intuitively, and that certain things needed to be carried on; I wanted to continue doing things that Pete had passed down and put his hand on. He had a real sense of the musician as historical entity—of being a link in the thread of people who sing in others' voices and carry the tradition forward— and of the songwriter, in the daily history of the place he lived, that songs were tools, and, without sounding too pretentious, righteous implements when connected to historical consciousness. At the same time, Pete always maintained a tremendous sense of fun and lightness, which is where his grace manifested itself. It was cross-generational. He played for anyone who would listen. He played a lot for kids. When I set the musicians up in my house to make this record, and we started playing Pete's songs, my daughter said, 'That sounds like fun—what is that?'"
Seeger typically performed with the simplest instrumentation—by himself, with banjo and guitar, and, in the Weavers, with another guitar player. Springsteen is accompanied by drums, bass, piano, guitar, accordion, banjo, double fiddles, horns, and backup singers. His versions include more references than Seeger's did—Dixieland, Gospel, stringband music, rhythm and blues, and rock and roll among them. It is as if folk music, temporarily dormant, had been revived in a more populist and modern form. "The Seeger Sessions" does not include any songs that Seeger wrote, such as 'Turn! Turn! Turn!" which was a No. 1 record for the Byrds in 1965. Springsteen recorded "If I Had a Hammer," but felt that it asserted itself too forcefully among the other songs, possibly because it was so well known. The songs he chose, he said, are "ones that I heard my own voice in. When you're going through material that way, you're always trying to find your place in the story. With the songs I picked, I knew who those characters were, and I knew what I wanted to say through them to transform what we were doing. That's your part in the passing down of that music. You have to know what you're adding. Every time a folk song gets sung, something gets added to that song. Why did I pick Pete Seeger songs instead of songs by the Carter Family or Johnny Cash or the Stanley Brothers? Because Pete's library is so vast that the whole history of the country is there. I didn't feel I had to go to someone else's records. It was very broad. He listened to everything and collected everything and transformed everything. Everything I wanted, I found there."
Seeger is eighty-six—he was born in May of 1919. He and his wife, Toshi, who is half Japanese, live in Beacon, New York, about sixty miles north of Manhattan. They have been married for sixty-three years. Their house is remote and surrounded by woods. Seeger chops wood almost every day and complains when he can't. The woods around the house are so clean that it is as if someone had gone through them with a broom. Trying to recall a name or a fact, he sometimes places his hand over his forehead and closes his eyes. When he speaks at any length, he tends to look into the middle distance, as if reading the words there. He has a sharp nose and full, round cheeks. His eyes are blue and heavily lidded and so small that he seems to be regarding a person from some remove. His conversation passes quickly from one subject to another, as if many things were occurring to him at once. He never aspired to a career as a singer, and he dislikes being so well known. Celebrity, he thinks, comes for most people at the expense of others, whose accomplishments are more practical and serious. He and Bruce Springsteen met several years ago, either at a tribute to Woody Guthrie or at the Grammys; Springsteen thinks the former, and Seeger the latter. Seeger is pleased that Springsteen, whom he regards as a friend, has recorded songs from his past—he thinks they're good songs, and he is gratified by the thought that people will hear them—but he is not looking forward to the mail and the attention that will follow. He has work he wants to do. He gets so many letters as it is that he can answer them only with postcards. His nature is almost unflaggingly hopeful, but a line of melancholy runs through it. Once, after a performance in Spain that didn't go well, he wrote in a journal, "I seem to stagger about this agonized world as a clown, dressed in happiness, hoping to reach the hearts and minds of the young. When newspaper reporters ask me what effect my songs have, I try and make a brave reply, but I am really not so certain."
When Seeger was younger, his singing voice fell between the range of an alto and a tenor—what he calls a split tenor. It was robust, and even in complicated passages his pitch was precise. He had a dramatic falsetto that he could deliver as a moan or a shout. He sang without vibrato or with only an occasional trace of it. His phrasing was subtle but resourceful, enough to inflect meaning and character, and to enliven a narrative, but not so much as to deflect the listener toward the singer's personality. His presence onstage was confident, offhand, and compelling, but he regarded any attention paid him as a performer to be misplaced. He considered a singer to be a tool for a song. He believes that songs can make people feel powerful when they aren't by any measure except their own determination. As a young man, he embraced the conviction that songs are a way of binding people to a cause. A piece of writing may be read once or twice; a song is sung over and over. Performing, he did not expect the audience to attend to him so much as he tried to engage them. Seeger felt that folk songs sounded best when sung by a crowd, and whenever he could he tried to persuade people to sing with him. Every word in every song he ever sang was intelligible, which had a lot to do with the force of his performances. The issue at stake, he says, between him and Bob Dylan at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965, when he said that he wished he had an axe to cut the cord to Dylan's microphone, was not that Dylan had performed with electric instruments—there were no prohibitions against them, he points out; the Paul Butterfield Blues Band had been hired for the festival—but that no one could hear the words to Dylan's song. "It was a good song, too," Seeger says. " 'Maggie's Farm.' " He was sure that Dylan wanted the audience to hear the words—or what would be the purpose of singing the song—and that the people in charge of the microphones were failing him.
Folk songs frequently contain every kind of trouble and harm. A lot are about shipwrecks and strikes and mine collapses and heroes dying by the hands of cowards. Often, they are songs that people sang to themselves or with their neighbors to commemorate a disaster or to give themselves courage or to console themselves for losses and defeats and suffering and hardship. Sometimes they celebrate victories, but typically there is more misfortune than triumph. They have a lot of dark corners. They don't muse so much. They don't describe life from a balcony overlooking a harbor from which the boat is departing at sunset with your sweetheart. The folk-song version of that is we-were-to-wed, but-I-killed-her-instead. They can go on and on. Dylan's recordings of songs that were ten minutes long, verse upon verse, were radical in the context of rock and roll, but he was making use of a conventional folk-music form. It is no observation of my own that Seeger did more to make people aware of folk music in the middle of the twentieth century than any other performer. Not that everyone thanked him for it. David Dunaway writes that purists often resented Seeger's influence. Folk songs, they believed, were the product of refinements made by different singers in different places. A true folksinger knew not only the way a song was sung in Kentucky but also its variations in Oklahoma and Tennessee, not to mention its antecedents in Wales. Once Seeger recorded a song, they said, his version became so widely known that it effaced the others.
Seeger hasn't made a record or sung a concert by himself for several years—his voice is no longer reliable; he thinks he overused it—but he remains an accomplished banjo player and guitarist. Last week, he recorded some tracks in his living room, with his half brother, the old-time musician Mike Seeger, and the guitarist Ry Cooder, for a project of Cooder's. In March, I heard him sing several songs for an afternoon assembly of schoolchildren in Beacon. At the assembly, I sat next to Toshi. The children sat cross-legged on the floor. The principal introduced Seeger by saying, "He's probably the person who's done more for this country than anyone else I can think of."
'You wouldn't have heard that speech fifty years ago," Toshi said.
Seeger bought his land in Beacon in 1949. He and Toshi had two small children. (Later, they had another.) They were living in Greenwich Village with Toshi's parents, and they wanted to move to the country. Seeger was thirty, and Toshi was twenty-seven. He was becoming well known as a musician, but they had no money yet to speak of. A real-estate agent showed them properties he regarded as inexpensive. "I remember a big barn at one place and a little stream and some woods," Seeger told me. "Five thousand dollars. I said no, I couldn't afford it." The agent showed them an old barn with some land for three thousand dollars. "I said I couldn't afford that, either." The agent asked, "What can you afford?" Seeger said, "How about just some land." He showed them a patch of woods on the side of a mountain set back from the river. It had been part of a woodlot attached to one of the brickyards that used to operate along the riverbank. "Hand-made bricks," Seeger said. "All the yards had mountain land above them. They'd have wood carried to the river on a sledge and turned into charcoal and bricks. This parcel had been logged clean in 1911, but it had a cliff, and no one wanted to climb it. People thought it was too steep to build on, but I climbed up here and saw that it leveled off at the top for a bit, and there was room to put a house."
Seeger brought Toshi to the top of the cliff and said, "See what a nice view we'll have." Toshi is small and dark-haired. Her gaze is direct and measuring, and she is more pragmatic than Seeger. She looked around at the brush and the trees that enclosed them and said, "View of what?" They paid seventeen hundred and fifty dollars for seventeen and a half acres. That summer, they moved to the property with their children, who were one arid three, and lived in a trailer while Seeger chopped down trees. A stream ran through a ravine below their campsite. Toshi would carry her younger child on her hip and have the older one grab her skirt, and they would go down to the stream like pioneers and collect water for cooking and washing. Seeger was often gone on the weekends, working. At the end of August, he was to sing near Peekskill, fifteen miles away, on a stage in a field, at a concert to benefit the Harlem chapter of the Civil Rights Congress. The star of the concert was Paul Robeson, whose father had been a slave. Robeson had a law degree from Columbia, but he made his living as an actor and singer. He had played Othello in London and on Broadway, and he had appeared in the London stage version of "Show Boat" and, later, in the movie. In 1934, he went to Russia and became persuaded that Russian society was more just than America's. The Peekskill paper wrote that he was "violently and loudly pro-Russian." The Ku Klux Klan had a chapter in the area. Before the concert, vigilantes tore down the stage. The organizers built another stage on another lot, and the concert was rescheduled, for September 4th. Dunaway writes that, during the interval, the Ku Klux Klan sent a letter to an organization that Seeger had been part of, People's Artists, thanking it and Seeger for the seven hundred and twenty-two applications for membership it had received since the stage was destroyed.
Seeger and Toshi and their children, Toshi's father, and two friends of the Seegers drove to Peekskill for the concert. They passed men and women and children who shouted obscenities at them. There were woods on three sides of the field and a road on the fourth. Members of several unions surrounded the site so that no one could get in who wasn't supposed to be there, a means, they hoped, of keeping out the vigilantes. At the concert, a woman named Sylvia Kahn sang "The Star-Spangled Banner." "A pianist played Prokofiev, I think," Seeger said. "I played two or three songs, a country blues I learned from Woody called'T for Texas,' and I sang 'If I Had a Hammer,' for one of the first times. Paul Robeson sang for an hour. He sang 'Ol' Man River,' from 'Show Boat,' which he was famous for. He had a man standing behind him and one on either side, so that he wouldn't be hit by a sniper firing from the woods. I suppose they could have got him from the road in front, but you couldn't have someone stand in front of him while he sang."
The concert ended before nightfall—the organizers wanted everyone to be able to leave before dark. Robeson got into a car, then out the other side of it and into another and possibly into a third one. "Unless you were watching closely, you wouldn't have known what car he was in," Seeger said. Robeson's car was among the first to leave. A lot of people had arrived from Manhattan in chartered buses. Seeger left about an hour after the concert ended. When he tried to make the turn toward Beacon, a policeman diverted him. On the road were pieces of glass. "Around a corner was a young man throwing stones at each car that passed," Seeger said. "The cars were moving slowly, and he'd run right up beside them and launch the stones from four feet as hard as he could. They were about the size of a baseball. They came from piles of them that were built up beside the road. While we were singing, these people had been collecting stones."
Toshi's father put the children on the floor of the car and lay on top of them. Rocks broke all the windows except the back ones. Seeger saw a policeman farther up the road. "I stopped and shouted, 'Officer, aren't you going to do something?' All he said was 'Move on. Move on.'" When the chartered buses reached Manhattan that evening, riders told a reporter from the Times that, even as far away as Yonkers, nearly twenty-five miles, people had thrown stones at them.
Seeger drove to a campground that had showers—there was no running water at his place—and he and Toshi and her father washed the glass from the children's hair. They all had to move carefully in order not to be cut by shards that were hidden in their clothes.
When Seeger had cleared two acres, he went to the New York Public Library, on Forty-second Street, and looked up "log cabin." He planned to build a house from trees he had cut down. The Weavers were beginning to work in night clubs. Seeger would either take an evening train to join them or drive. If he drove, he made his way back early in the morning up the West Side, and when he found a packing crate thrown out on the sidewalk he would knock it apart and take the wood home. Much of it he used to frame the roof. If he didn't drive, he would catch the night train delivering mail up the Hudson. The train stopped at each town. Seeger would sleep on the train and arrive home to have breakfast with his family.
People would visit from the city, and Seeger would hand them a shovel or a saw. He had intended, with their help, to haul logs from the woods to where he had dug the foundation, but the trees were too heavy. Instead, he found a man in Beacon with a draft horse. "His name was Watson Shannon," Seeger said. "I can still see the roof of his house from the lawn. He only died recently. How he got the draft horse here, I don't know. I guess he walked it. Anyway, he showed up in the morning, and he had a long chain. He walked up the hill from the house with the horse, and he'd wrap the chain around the log and slap the horse, and then he went running down after it, wrapping the reins around stones and tree trunks. He said once you got the horse started you didn't want it to stop."
Recently, Seeger took me through the cabin, which no one lives in anymore—he and Toshi live in a larger house built later, on the other side of a small clearing. Past the front door was a big room with tree-trunk beams, a stone fireplace, a kitchen, and a picture window. Through the window was the river, about a mile away. "That was our first extravagance," Seeger said of the window. "A hundred dollars." He stepped across the room and stood beside it. "I put up some shelves to hold records and books right here," he went on. "The baby's crib was under it. One night, we heard a terrible crash, and the shelf and all the books and records had come down on her crib. Fortunately, it was a strong oak crib." He shook his head. "That's the kind of stupid thing I've done all my life," he said plaintively. "I have taken greater risks than I should have in raising my children. I remember walking along the edge of a cliff with my son and not watching him closely. Because I could watch myself, I took it for granted that he could." He shrugged. "Anyway, my daughter's fifty-seven now."
He said that the bulk of the wood in the house was oak, but that he had also used maple and hickory. He hadn't expected ever to have enough money for electricity, so he made no allowance for the wires to enter the foundation. Three years later, to install them, he had to dig underneath it. Off the kitchen was a second room, where there was a bed and a rocking chair, some books, and another stone fireplace. "The first stonework was terrible," Seeger said, thrusting his chin toward the fireplace. "It didn't have any form or design. I made lots of mistakes. After that, I went around sketching all the old farmhouses in Westchester for their stonework, and I learned that the old masons would set their best stones at the corners and run a line between them, then build up the courses."
Several inches above the fireplace and toward one side were two stones that were smaller than the stones around them. One was about the size of a grapefruit, and the other had paving tar around it and gravel embedded like shrapnel in the tar. "They came into the car during the riot and didn't go out," Seeger said. "I thought that if I put them there I would never forget what had happened."
We closed the door on the cabin and walked over to the main house. Toshi was leaving to run errands in town. Everything we needed to make soup and salad for lunch was in the refrigerator, she said. She told Seeger that she was putting a pear tart in the toaster oven for dessert. "This is practice for Pete," she told me. "I want to be sure, in case I go join my ancestors, that he can take care of himself. I don't want to have to lower baskets of food from the heavens." Before she left, she took the phone off the hook. "It's been ringing all morning," she said.
We sat down to eat at a table by a window, with the river at our backs. Seeger began talking about his father, Charles, who was also a musician. "My father was a big influence on me," he said. Somewhat mournfully, he added, "He was overenthusiastic all his life. First about this, then about that." Seeger s older brother John told Dunaway, "The biggest danger for Peter was whether he'd be swallowed up in father's dreams."
As a teen-ager, Charles became an accomplished pianist. He liked to go to symphony concerts, and he could look at complicated scores and know what the music should sound like. "He thought the great symphonies would save the human race," Seeger said. "He thought they had something to teach us that couldn't be expressed in words." He went to Harvard, then he spent a year in Germany, and for a while he was a conductor in Cologne. While he was there, he realized that he could no longer hear the flutes and the piccolos, and that he was going deaf. He decided that he would become a composer instead. He returned to New York, where he met Seeger s mother, Constance de Clyver Edson, a violinist. Her grandfather was the headmaster of a fancy school in New York, and she had been brought up partly in Paris and Tunisia. The two of them performed together at society parties, "a soiree here, a soiree there," Seeger said.
They were married in 1911. Charles was hired to establish the music department at the University of California at Berkeley. A friend took him to the lettuce fields east of San Francisco where, Seeger said, "he saw children the same age as his own being worked to the bone," and he was never the same. When the First World War broke out, he made speeches denouncing it as an imperialist war. His wife asked him not to, but he persisted. Eventually, the university gave him an extended sabbatical, with the understanding that he wouldn't return.
"He bought a Ford Tin Lizzie," Seeger said, "a Model T, and he drove his family east. It was slow going, and on the way he got this grand scheme. He said to my mother, 'Rather than save our music for the rich people in the city, why not take it out and play it for people in the small towns?' He was going to be a one-family Chautauqua, bringing music to the workers."
Beginning in the winter of 1918, on his parents' new property in Patterson, New York, about sixty miles northeast of Manhattan, Charles carefully built a trailer to haul behind his car. It took a year and a half. Seeger turned in his chair and showed me on the wall, among a collection of family pictures, a small, shiny black-and-white photograph. Charles and his wife and the children—Seeger has two brothers—are standing on a sidewalk beside the black Model T. Behind the car is a portion of what looks a little like a covered wagon. The trailer's tires were made of solid rubber. Underneath it was a platform that could slide out to become a stage. His mother played the violin, and his father played a small organ, the kind that chaplains used in the First World War. The family slept in beds in the trailer. They left New York and drove slowly south, intending to reach Florida eventually. In Richmond, Virginia, Dunaway writes, the pavement was so hot that their tires sank into it. "The trip was a disaster," Seeger says. At night, his mother did the family's laundry in a pot of water over a fire. The night she pulled Peter, a year and a half old, from the embers was the night, he told me, she called it off.
The Seegers returned to Charles's parents' house in Patterson. For the summer, they lived in the barn. The kids would throw tennis balls against the wall and call it barn squash. At four, Seeger was sent to boarding school, he said, but he came home a year and a half later. His father had been appalled to leam that his son had had scarlet fever, and no one had told him. Charles and
Constance had in the meantime moved to Nyack, on the west bank of the Hudson. Constance wanted Seeger trained as a classical musician, but Seeger didn't care to be. When she insisted that he learn to read music, he said that he just wanted to have fun. She worried that he would grow up to be a musical illiterate. She left instruments around the house for him to find, and, by the time he was five or six, he could play songs on the organ, the marimba, the piano, and the squeezebox. 'Years later, I asked my father, "When do you think people should learn to read music?'" Seeger said. "And he told me, 'When they know what kind of music they want to play.' He said, You don't learn to read before you speak, and you don't learn to dance before you walk.'"
The librarian in Nyack gave Seeger novels by Ernest Thompson Seton, who helped start the Boy Scouts. "Camping and woodcraft," Seeger said. "The first one I really liked was called "Rolf in the Woods.' Rolf was fifteen years old in 1810. He was being beaten by his uncle, and his mother dies. He runs away and finds in the woods a wigwam with an old Indian living in it, trapping animals and exchanging their skins at the hardware store for tools and nails. The boy asks if he can stay with him, and the Indian points to a corner, and the boy falls asleep. The uncle comes along later and says, "I see you're with the Indian, I'll go get my gun," so Rolf and the Indian run off together, and they end up in the Adirondacks. Anyway, you can see how it goes."
Seeger's brother John joined the Boy Scouts, "but I thought it was for the birds," Seeger says, "saluting the flag." He bought a length of muslin and took it to a neighbor and had her sew it into a shape he could use to make a teepee. Among the photographs on the wall is one of him as a scrawny little boy, without a shirt, and holding a bow and arrow. "That's me pretending to be an Indian," he said.
When Seeger was eight, in 1927, his parents separated. His father eventually married a modernist composer named Ruth Crawford. They moved to Maryland, and began working in Washington. In 1932, Seeger was enrolled, on a scholarship, at Avon Old Farms, a boys' school in Connecticut. Briefly, to make money, he shined the other boys' shoes. He acted in the school plays: "Saint Joan," by George Bernard Shaw, and "Hamlet." "At thirteen, I played the female parts, with my hair curled and falsies," he said. He also worked on the woods crew. "There was a nice French Canadian in charge of teaching us how to sharpen the axe with a file, and how to chop without hurting ourselves. He'd go through a piece of forest and blaze trees that had to come down—a weeding process—and we'd cut them." Seeger also had his own newspaper, which he mimeographed and handed out. The playwright and poet Edna St. Vincent Millay visited the school to see a production of one other plays. "They told me that, with my newspaper, I should interview her," Seeger said. "I had never interviewed anyone famous. I didn't know what to ask. Finally I blurted out, 'What do you think of Shakespeare?' I don't remember anything else of the interview."
After three years at Avon Old Farms, Seeger went to Harvard on a scholarship. "I roomed right above the Harvard Union, which was a big dining hall, and I made a little bit of money as a waiter," he said. "Then I went to a place where I could get free meals if I washed pots." Visiting his father in the summers, he had heard rural American music and become captivated by the banjo.
As a sophomore, he failed one of his winter exams and lost his scholarship. "I wasn't sorry to leave Harvard," he said. "I was disgusted by what I considered the cynicism displayed by one of my professors. He would say, 'Every society has a spring, a winter, a summer, and a fall,' and scoff at us trying to stop Hitler. He said, 'All you can do is accommodate.' I was young and idealistic." Crossing the campus shortly before he departed, he passed one of his classmates, John F. Kennedy. "He was walking with someone who was carrying papers for him, I think, and saying something about being very annoyed at not having been able to reach someone on the phone."
His father, he said, was part of a group of musicians and composers, including Aaron Copland, called the Composers' Collective. The Composers' Collective concerned itself with writing music for strikes and unemployment lines, and for the new world order, "The closest they all got to writing real songs was when they wrote rounds," Seeger said. "My father wanted to publish a book called 'Rounds About the Very Rich.' He was fond of one that was sung in three parts, like 'Row, Row Your Boat.' It went like this." Seeger put down his fork and, with his chin raised, began to sing, "Oh, joy upon this earth/ to live and see the day/when Rockefeller senior/shall up to me and say/ Comrade, can you spare a dime?'"
Charles liked Appalachian music—Seeger said that he may have inspired Copland to write "Appalachian Spring." In any case, he introduced his son to a woman from Kentucky who called herself Aunt Molly Jackson. "She sang, 'I am a union woman/ just as brave as I can be/I do not like the bosses/and the bosses don't like me,'" Seeger said. "And that was how I began to hear folk music."
Seeger s father believed that music's most important purpose was social. For a while, he worked in Washington for the W.P.A. music project. He wrote out what he called his ten purposes of music. Seeger went upstairs to a loft where he keeps his office to look for a copy. I heard him going through papers. "What did I do with that file?" he said. "What did I do? This is ridiculous. Absolutely ridiculous. Aah, here it is." He came downstairs and handed it to me. The first principle was "Music, as any art, is not an end in itself but is a means for achieving larger ends." Another was "Music as a group activity is more important than music as an individual accomplishment." He also wrote that the necessary question to ask was not" 'Is it good music?' but 'What is the music good for?'; and if it bids fair to aid in the welding of the people into more independent, capable and democratic action, it must be approved."
While I was reading, Seeger abruptly stood up and said, "I forgot the pear tart." He brought the tart to the table, then he went to the freezer and came back with a column of ice-cream containers—the Seegers had recently had a birthday party. While we ate the tart and the ice cream, we got to talking about the beautiful stone walls in the countryside around Beacon.
"In my mind's eye, there's two teenagers, and the father's saying, 'Boys, you get ten feet of wall built, or you don't get any supper,' " Seeger said. "And one of them says to the other, 'Next year I'll be fourteen, and I'm going to get a job at the factory—they pay you two dollars a week. He don't see that much money in a month.' The father says, What will I do without you? The farm will go back to forest.'"
He finished his tart and put his hands in his lap, like a penitent. "The opening of the American West meant the reforestation of the East," he said. "That's important." Then he began collecting the dishes.
Seeger's politics are of the most extravagantly conservative kind. He believes ardently in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. His interpretation of them is literal. In all his years of activism, through the movements for workers' rights and civil rights, the movement against the Vietnam War, and the ecological movement, in all of which he figured prominently, there is no conceit that he has more emphatically embraced than that all human beings are created equal. In the early and middle part of the twentieth century, such a conviction made a person not a patriot but a socialist. When Seeger moved to the country, he held a couple of meetings with a middle-aged couple, the only other Communists around, then quit the Party. "I thought it was pointless," he said. "I realized I could sing the same songs I sang whether I belonged to the Communist Party or not, and I never liked the idea anyway of belonging to a secret organization."
After lunch, we went out and looked at the river, and I could see where Seeger had been standing, in 1955, when a car arrived, and the man driving it asked if he was Pete Seeger. Then he handed Seeger an envelope and left. Seeger opened the envelope and called out to Toshi, "They've finally got around to me." He had been summoned to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee. He might have cited the Fifth Amendment, as many people did, but he didn't, because doing so suggested that he had something to hide. He decided to rely instead on the protection of the First Amendment.
"Mr. Seeger, prior to your entry in the service in 1942," he was asked, "were you engaged in the practice of your profession in the area of New York?"
"It is hard to call it a profession," Seeger said. "I kind of drifted into it and I never intended to be a musician, and I am glad I am one now, and it is a very honorable profession, but when I started out actually I wanted to be a newspaperman, and when I left school—"
"Will you answer the question, please?"
"I have to explain that it really wasn't my profession," Seeger said. "I picked up a little change in it."
"Did you practice your profession?"
"I sang for people, yes, before World War II, and I also did as early as 1925."
"And upon your return from the service in December of 1945, you continued in your profession?"
"I continued singing," Seeger said, "and I expect I always will."
Then he was asked whether he had appeared at an event that had been announced in the Daily Worker.
"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," he said. "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."
They didn't. What the committee members wanted was to have him say that he had been a Communist and to give them names of others who had been, and he wouldn't. Again and again, he said, "My answer is the same as before." Eventually, they gave up.
He left the hearing knowing that he was certain to be indicted for contempt of Congress, and, on March 26, 1957, he was, by a federal grand jury, on ten counts. The indictment meant that he couldn't leave the Southern District of New York without permission. Every time he went somewhere to work, he had to send a telegram saying where he was going and how he was getting there. At one night club, the announcer introduced him by saying, "Here's Pete Seeger, out on bail." In hotel rooms, he had to check the closets to be sure that he wasn't about to be set up. According to Dunaway, a group called Texans for America persuaded textbook publishers to remove any mention of him. A woman who had him sing at a barbecue in her back yard received a summons from HUAC. He was to play two nights in Nyack. The American Legion discovered, in time to prevent the second night's performance, that the theatre had an expired license. To renew it, the owner of the theatre had to pay a fee. The town offices closed before he could, and the mayor and the clerk left town.
Seeger's trial was not held until March of 1961. The jury took an hour and twenty minutes to decide that he was guilty. He was sentenced to a year in jail. In May of 1962, an appeals court ruled that the indictment was flawed and overturned the conviction. As we stood in the yard, he quoted a line from the decision: " 'We are not inclined to dismiss lightly claims of Constitutional stature because they are asserted by one who may appear unworthy of sympathy.' " He said again, " 'Unworthy of sympathy,'" and shook his head.
Before Seeger's confrontation with HUAC, people sometimes regarded his optimism as childish, and unrealistic, as a habit of mind inconsistent with the moral rigor of a serious person. Afterward, he became a figure of undeniable stature. He had stared down jail time. He had stood amid peril for his beliefs. He had typified the principles of all the brave people he had sung about.
Here is a story told to me lately by a man named John Cronin, who is the director of the Pace Academy for the Environment, at Pace University. Cronin has known Seeger for thirty years. "About two winters ago, on Route 9 outside Beacon, one winter day, it was freezing—rainy and slushy, a miserable winter day—the war in Iraq is just heating up and the country's in a poor mood," Cronin said. "I'm driving north, and on the other side of the road I see from the back a tall, slim figure in a hood and coat. I'm looking, and I can tell it's Pete, He's standing there all by himself, and he's holding up a big piece of cardboard that clearly has something written on it. Cars and trucks are going by him. He's getting wet. He's holding the homemade sign above his head—he's very tall, and his chin is raised the way he does when he sings—and he's turning the sign in a semicircle, so that the drivers can see it as they pass, and some people are honking and waving at him, and some people are giving him the finger. He's eighty-four years old. I know he's got some purpose, of course, but I don't know what it is. What struck me is that, whatever his intentions are, and obviously he wants people to notice what he's doing, he wants to make an impression—anyway, whatever they are, he doesn't call the newspapers and say, 'I'm Pete Seeger, here's what I'm going to do.' He doesn't cultivate publicity. That isn't what he does. He's far more modest than that. He would never make a fuss. He's just standing out there in the cold and the sleet like a scarecrow. I go a little bit down the road, so that I can turn and come back, and when I get him in view again, this solitary and elderly figure, I see that what he's written on the sign is 'Peace.'"
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