Pete Seeger was born into a musical family on May 3, 1919 in the French Hospital in New York. Pete was the son of a prominent musicologist, composer and ethnomusicologist, Charles Seeger. His mother, Constance Edson Seeger, was concert violinist and teacher.
Seeger never planned on becoming a musician, despite knowing how to play a few instruments by the age of five. He attended Avon Old Farmers Boarding School in Connecticut during his primary years, and went to Harvard, majoring in journalism. He ultimately dropped out in 1938 to hitchhike around the country, riding freight trains and gathering folk songs and developing a virtuosity on the banjo.
Early Influences and the Seeger Banjo
Seeger heard the five-string banjo for the first time at the Mountain Dance and Folk Festival in Asheville, NC in 1936. He was deeply affected by Appalachain music after experiencing it firsthand and spent the next 4 years trying to master the 5-string banjo. It became his signature instrument, always with him in performance with its well-known inscription, “This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender.”
Seeger wrote the first version the classic How to Play the Five-String Banjo in 1948 and went on to invent the Long Neck or “Seeger banjo”, an instrument three frets longer than a typical banjo and tuned a minor third lower than the normal 5-string banjo. Pete’s championing of the banjo gained it status and recognition as the premiere American folk instrument.
Seeger met Woody Guthrie in New York at a benefit supporting California farm workers. They became close friends and musical collaborators and, along with Leadbelly, Burl Ives, Sonny Terry, Brownie McGhee, Josh White, Lee Hays and others, founded The Alamanc Singers in 1940, one of the first major folk music groups to organize and popularize protest music. In 1948, with Lee Hays, Ronnie Gilbert, and Fred Hellerman, he formed the Weavers, a best selling musical group in the 1950s before being blacklisted.
During the McCarthy Era of the 1940’s and early 1950’s, many musicians were subpoenaed to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). Seeger refused to testify on the basis of the First Amendment and was blacklisted. Because Seeger was among those listed in the entertainment industry blacklist publication, Red Channels, all of the Weavers were placed under FBI surveillance and not allowed to perform on television or radio during the McCarthy era.
American Folk Revival and Activism
Despite being banned from performing on TV and radio, Seeger re-emerged on the public scene in the 1960s as a solo artist performing protest music in support of international disarmament, civil rights, and environmental causes. Seeger was very influential in the American folk music revival. Seeger went on to influence the Folk Song Revival of the 1960′s, inspiring artists like Bob Dylan, Peter, Paul and Mary, Joan Baez, and the Kingston Trio.
In the mid-1960s he hosted his own TV show and made appearances on the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, where he performed “Waist-Deep in the Big Muddy”, an anti-Vietnam War song that he had written. Seeger’s activism through the years took on a wide variety of forms including participating in the Freedom Marches with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Now in his 90s, Seeger continues to be involved in activist causes, making appearances and performing. In 2009, he performed with Bruce Springsteen and grandson Tao Rodríguez-Seeger at President Obama’s Inaugural concert.
More recently, Seeger has been active in protests against hydrofracking in New York State, to joining in an Occupy Wall Street march to Columbus Circle in New York City in October of 2011.
Building a Boat to Save the River
In 1966, in despair over the pollution of his beloved Hudson River, Seeger announced plans to “build a boat to save the river.” At the time, the Hudson was rank with raw sewage, toxic chemicals and oil pollution. Seeger, along with many other concerned individuals, believed a majestic replica of the sloops that sailed the Hudson in the 18th and 19th centuries would bring people to the river where they could experience its beauty and be moved to preserve it.
Seeger and friends played riverside concerts, passing the banjo case for donations to raise funds to build the sloop. As an awareness of Seeger’s vision grew, so did the crowds. In 1969, the 106-foot sloop Clearwater, America’s Environmental Flagship ,was launched at Harvey Gamage shipyard in South Bristol, Maine. She sailed to South Street Seaport in New York City, and then ultimately made her home on the Hudson River. Thus the non-profit environmental organziation, Hudson River Sloop Clearwater, Inc. was founded.
Clearwater’s sails are a common sight on the river in the warmer months, as she travels between New York City and Albany and the organziation’s unique approach to public outreach has made the sloop a symbol of grassroots action through hands-on learning, music, and celebration.
The Clean Water Act
Seeger and Hudson River Sloop Clearwater played an important role in the passage of laws to clean up the nation’s waters. In 1972 Seeger and the Clearwater crew sailed the sloop to Washington, DC while Congress was debating the Clean Water Act. Seeger personally delivered a petition with hundreds of thousands of signatures to Congress and then proceeded to hold a spontaneous concert in the halls of Congress. A few weeks later the Clean Water Act passed.
Hudson River Sloop Clearwater, Inc. continues to work to bring justice to the river, its environment, and to the people living along it. General Electric’s dredging to clean up 30 years of deposited PCB’s from the river is a direct result of Clearwater activism. The organization is also active in the battle to pass moratoriums on hydrofracking in the region and outspoken on the many safety issues associated with the problematic Indian Point nuclear power plant in Buchanan, NY.
Pete Seeger Today
People still gather down to the river each summer for the Great Hudson River Revival, the enviromental and music festival that has naturally evolved from those early riverside concerts Seeger put on with friends, passing the banjo case to raise funds to build the sloop Clearwater. Seeger, now in his 90s, continues to appear at the Clearwater Festival, the country’s oldest music and environmental festival. The festival attracts celebrated musicians who perform in support of the Clearwater mission and take place every June at Croton Point Park, in Westchester County, NY.
Ultimately, Seeger has inspired generations of musicians including Bob Dylan, Judy Collins, Bruce Springsteen, Ben Harper, Billy Bragg, Jeff Tweedy, and many more.
Seeger has recorded and performed tirelessly throughout his career, honoring the folksingers’ timeless commitment to spread the word and involve an audience. “My ability lies in being able to get a crowd to sing along with me,” he said in an interview. “When I get upon a stage, I look on my job as trying to tell a story. I use songs to illustrate my story and dialogue between songs to carry the story forward. And hopefully it gets people to care, and then act.”
For more on the life of Pete Seeger, you may want to visit the following websites:
“Pete Seeger: How Can I Keep From Singing?” Website by Seeger biographer David Dunaway
How Can I Keep From Singing?: A Seeger Family Tribute, Library of Congress, American Folklife Center. Online presentation of the March 2007 symposium and concert. All events are available as webcasts via the site. Retrieved August 25, 2009.
“We Shall Overcome: An Hour With Legendary Folk Singer & Activist Pete Seeger” on Democracy Now!, September 2006 (video, audio, and print transcript)
“Legendary Folk Singer & Activist Pete Seeger Turns 90, Thousands Turn Out for All-Star Tribute Featuring Bruce Springsteen, Joan Baez, Bernice Johnson Reagon and Dozens More” on Democracy Now!, May 2009 (video, audio, and print transcript)