Pete Seeger died in January aged 94. His life was dedicated to making music for left wing progressive movements. He was a principled brave musician who always stood by his beliefs, whatever the cost.
Seeger composed famous protest songs like “If I Had a Hammer” and helped make “We Shall Overcome” an anthem of the civil rights movement. He sang at the 2012 Occupy Wall Street protest just like he had at anti Vietnam War and civil rights rallies.
When he was 17, Seeger went with his Communist father to hear Bascom Lamar Lunsford play the 5-string banjo at a folk festival. From that point on he adopted the instrument. He spent more time playing the banjo than studying and he joined the Young Communist League, dropping out of Harvard University.
His musical activism started in 1939 when he joined the Vagabond Puppeteers’ tour of upstate New York. They performed at picket lines of the Dairy Farmers’ Union who were striking for better prices from milk wholesalers.
A defining moment in Seeger’s life came in 1940 when he played a “Grapes of Wrath” benefit concert in New York for Californian migrant workers. Also on the bill was Woody Guthrie and before long Seeger was travelling west with Guthrie, singing at strike rallies and learning his music craft.
Seeger learned fast and by 1941 he had set up the Almanac Singers, which Guthrie joined later. It was a musical collective, where they attempted to build the movement in the spirit of John L Lewis, leader of the United Mineworkers, who said “A singing army is a winning army”.
Their first album, “Songs for John Doe”, was anti-war at a time when the Communist Party was anti-war because of the Stalin-Hitler pact. Their second, “Talking Union”, supported the industrial struggle. When Hitler invaded the Soviet Union they rapidly reversed their positions, becoming pro-war and anti-strikes. But despite this U-turn the Almanacs were blacklisted because of their earlier positions.
For the following 25 years Seeger was a victim of the anti-Communist witch-hunt whipped up in the US. His next band, The Weavers, disbanded in 1952 (after selling 4 million records in 1950) because they were blacklisted and hounded by FBI agents. Their recording of “Rock Island Line” was even investigated for sedition by the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee.
The witch-hunt peaked in September 1949 when racist gangs attacked a Paul Robeson concert at Peekskill, near New York. At the concert Seeger gave one of the earliest performances of “If I Had a Hammer”. As he drove home with his family the police diverted all traffic down a narrow high-sided road into a violent ambush by a racist mob. The Seegers’ car windows were smashed by rocks.
Seeger was called in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1955. He refused to answer any questions. He was held in contempt but it was another six years before he was sentenced to a year’s imprisonment. The sentence was later overturned on appeal. Throughout those years his freedom of movement was restricted.
He was blacklisted from TV until 1967 when he was invited onto the nationally networked Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. Even then CBS edited out his anti Vietnam War song.
State repression did not stop his activism. He helped transform “We Shall Overcome” from a union song into one that Martin Luther King described as a “song that haunts you”. It became for a time the anthem of the civil rights movement.
But Seeger’s music was also criticised from the left. Malcolm X said, “I’m not one who goes for ‘We Shall Overcome’… If you’re going to get yourself a .45 and start singing ‘We Shall Overcome’, I’m with you.” Writer Lillian Hellman called it “namby-pamby, wishy-washy”. By comparison to the political toughness of Dylan’s “Times They Are A’ Changing” album, much of Seeger’s music appeared soft and liberal.
Similar criticisms had been raised of Seeger since the time of The Weavers. They had performed at a segregated club in Detroit, they dressed formally and their music had lost its rough edges. Seeger’s 1960s hit “Little Boxes” was a tame attack on conformity. Performing in Israel in 1967 he even tried to bring Palestinian refugees together with Israeli kibbutzniks at his concert, with predictably disastrous results.
Yet Seeger’s significance is that he continued through very tough times to put his beliefs into song, and to use song to bring people together into activity. His father Charles argued that making music as a group activity was “the essential thing” and his son put that belief into practice throughout his life.