Professor Donald Elder: 50 Greatest Americans- Pete Seeger

Jul 30, 2015 by

Pete_Seeger2_-_6-16-07_Photo_by_Anthony_Pepitone

An Interview with Professor Donald Elder: 50 Greatest Americans- Pete Seeger

Michael F. Shaughnessy

  1. Professor Elder, one great American is known in several realms- music, protest, ecology, environmentalism, and that person is Pete Seeger. Where was he born, when was his born and what was his early childhood like?

Pete Seeger was born in New York City on May 3, 1919. Charles Seeger, Pete’s father, was a very well-known musician. He had studied music at Harvard, and was one of the creators of the American Musicological Society. Moreover, his mother was also a skilled musician. A one-time concert violinist, she would later serve on the faculty at the Julliard School. Unfortunately, their marriage was not a happy one, and they divorced when Pete was seven. His father’s second wife was also musically inclined, creating songs to accompany poems of Carl Sandberg. Although none of his parents pushed him to become a musician, it seems clear that the skills Seeger later demonstrated in that field had been inspired by their musical talents.

  1. His adolescence and early adulthood—where did he go to high school, and college and what were his interests at that time?

Put in a boarding school when he was four, Seeger returned to his parents two years later because he was suffering from scarlet fever. He then attended public school in Nyack, New York for two years. At that time he was sent to a boarding school in Ridgefield, Connecticut. When he was thirteen, Seeger began to attend the Avon Old Farms School in Avon, Connecticut. He graduated from that school in 1936. During the summer after his graduation, Seeger attended a summer camp that had been founded to help develop future world leaders. Known as Camp Rising Sun, this program helped to foster a growing political awareness in him. Following in his father’s footsteps, Seeger entered Harvard in the fall of 1936. Because of his twin interests in music and politics, Seeger did not devote a sufficient amount of time to his studies, and as a consequence his grades were not impressive. He therefore decided to drop out of college and concentrate on music, a career that he would pursue for the rest of his life.

  1. There is the old saying or question about what came first- the chicken or the egg- but in Seeger’s case- what came first- the music, or the performance or was it something else?

From all accounts, Seeger was initially shy in public settings. While attending boarding school in Ridgefield, however, music allowed Seeger to come out of his shell. Self-taught on the use of the ukulele, Seeger soon learned that he could entertain his fellow students with his musical talents. A stint leading songs at a progressive institute known as the Dalton School helped him hone that skill as well. From that time on, Seeger became adept at singing and performing in public. It thus seems that Seeger’s prowess as a musician and performer proceeded at an equal pace.

  1. He was undoubtedly the leader of a number of other individuals in music, and protest and environmentalism. Who were some of his colleagues and fellow musicians at the time?

Although his parents were classically trained musicians, Seeger became an aficionado of American Folk Music. This lead to his first important job involving music in 1940, when he became a performer on a CBS radio series called “Back Where I Come From.” Some of his fellow performers at that time were Lead Belly, Burl Ives, and Woodie Guthrie. In 1940, he and Guthrie became founding member of a recording group known as the Almanac Singers, and in 1950 he would help found the group The Weavers. Seeger helped advance the career of Bob Dylan by suggesting to an executive at Columbia that the company should produce Dylan’s first album. By the time of his death in 2014, Seeger would help many others get their start in Folk Music.

  1. Most difficult question- what were his greatest accomplishments or perhaps better stated, who did he impact the most?

While Seeger had a performing career that would span almost 75 years, he is undoubtedly best known for a span of five years in the early 1960s. During that time period, three of the most famous songs from the genre of Folk Music were recorded, all of them written by him. The first of these songs was “Where Have All the Flowers Gone,” which was recorded by The Kingston Trio in 1962. Later that year, Peter, Paul, and Mary released “If I Had a Hammer.”

Finally, in 1965 his song “Turn, Turn, Turn,” performed by The Byrds, was one of the biggest selling records of the year. In addition, although he did not write the song, Seeger helped associate the song “We Shall Overcome” with the Civil Rights movement when he sang in in 1965 during a march from Selma to Montgomery. There are many other songs that he had a hand in, but these songs clearly stand apart from all of his other efforts. Perhaps better than anything else, they can help people understand the idealism that drove many Americans during that crucial period of time.

  1. I know he lived a long productive life- what were his twilight years spent doing?

As previously noted, Seeger had a remarkably long and productive career. Indeed, in 2010 he wrote and recorded a song decrying the Deepwater Horizon oil spill—amazingly, at the age of 91. A year later, he performed a song as part of the Occupy Wall Street Movement, and in 2013 he joined Willie Nelson, Neil Young, John Mellencamp, and Dave Matthews to perform at a Farm Aid concert. There are few other American entertainers who can point to as long and illustrious as a career as Pete Seeger enjoyed.

  1. What have I neglected to ask?

While Seeger was well respected by the time of his death, it must be noted that during a large stretch of his life he was reviled by many of his countrymen. Troubled by the suffering he saw around him during the Great Depression, Seeger had become a critic of capitalism. For this reason, he joined the Young Communist League, and at the age of 23 he became a member of the U.S. Communist Party. Initially opposed to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s approach to foreign policy, he recorded an album that contained songs critical president’s efforts to prepare the nation for entry into the Second World War. Seeger later reversed course on these issues, serving in the U.S. Army during the Second World War and leaving the Communist Party in 1949, but questions about his loyalty remained.

Summoned to testify before the U.S. House of Representatives Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in 1955, Seeger refused to identify other Communists that he had once associated with. He was held in contempt by Congress, and was for all intents and purposes blacklisted as an entertainer for over a decade. This exile was only ended when Tom and Dick Smothers featured him as a guest on their CBS television program in January of 1968. Seeger was more fortunate than some in the entertainment industry; unlike him, they were never welcomed back after being shunned for their political views. He is therefore a cautionary tale—no matter how talented entertainers are, they run a significant risk when they become politically active.

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