We Shall Overcome: The Music of Pete Seeger
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We Shall Overcome: The Music of Pete Seeger

Pete Seeger is a legendary figure within American folk music. As a singer, musician and songwriter he played a central role in the Folk Revival of the 1950s and 60s and became a prominent singer of protest music in support of the Civil Rights movement. He is renowned for songs of hope and struggle, freedom and protest.

Pete Seeger is a legendary figure within American folk music. As a singer, musician and songwriter he played a central role in the Folk Revival of the 1950s and 60s and became a prominent singer of protest music in support of the Civil Rights movement. He is renowned for songs of hope and struggle, freedom and protest. Collecting songs from throughout the United States, he has committed the soul of America to record. Seeger was one of the folksingers who popularised the spiritual ‘We Shall Overcome’, a song that became the anthem of the American Civil Rights Movement.

Seeger was born in French Hospital, Midtown Manhattan, the son of Charles Louis Seeger Jr., a composer and ethnomusicologist, and Constance de Clyver Edson, a classical violinist and teacher. Although Seeger's parents were professional musicians, they did not press him to play an instrument. Nevertheless, Seeger became adept at playing the ukulele. He first encountered the five-string banjo in 1936 at the Mountain Dance and Folk Festival in Asheville, North Carolina, while travelling with his father. This event transformed his life.

Seeger enrolled at Harvard, attending one of the same classes as future President John F. Kennedy. However, Seeger’s radical left-wing politics and his increasing involvement with the folk music scene caused his grades to suffer. Eventually he lost his scholarship. After dropping out of college in 1938, Seeger began a career as a folk singer. His first gig was leading students in folk singing at the Dalton School, where his aunt was principal. He developed his performance skills by touring New York State with a group called the Vagabond Puppeteers. Famously, the performances of this group were reported in the Daily Worker.

Seeger took a job with the Archive of American Folk Song at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.. Here he assisted the folk musicologist Alan Lomax sift through ‘race’ and ‘hillbilly’ recordings and select music that represented American folk traditions. Meanwhile, Lomax encouraged Seeger's vocation and allowed him to appear on Lomax’s weekly Columbia Broadcasting show Back Where I Come From (1940–41) alongside Seeger’s friends Leadbelly and Woody Guthrie.

In 1941, Seeger co-founded the Almanac Singers with Millard Lampell and Lee Hays. This was a topical group that promoted progressive causes such as unionization and racial and religious tolerance. Woody Guthrie became involved as a singer and songwriter. After the outbreak of the Second World War, the Almanac Singers recorded anti-war songs urging America to stay out of the war. They later retracted these views when it became apparent that the rise of Nazism was a threat to the world, not just to Europe.

In 1950, the Almanacs were reconstituted as The Weavers, ostensibly a more commercial group who performed in tuxedos and used elaborate harmonies and orchestration on their records. A hint of their radical politics was apparent in their name, however, which was a quotation from the title of a 1892 play by Gerhart Hauptmann about a workers' strike. Members of the Weavers included Lee Hays, Ronnie Gilbert and Fred Hellerman.

The Weavers' hits included ‘On top of Old Smokey’ (actually a hybrid combining the lyrics of ‘On top of Old Smokey’ with the tune of ‘Little Mohee’). They recorded an arrangement of Leadbelly's signature song, ‘Goodnight, Irene’. Other Weaver hits included Woody Guthrie’s ‘So Long It's Been Good to Know You’ and the South African Zulu song, ‘Wimoweh’.

In the atmosphere of the 1950s Red Scare, the Weavers' repertoire was less overtly topical than that of the Almanacs had been, and its progressive message was couched in indirect language. The Weavers's performing career was abruptly halted in 1953 at the peak of their popularity when blacklisting prompted radio stations to refuse to play their records and all their bookings were cancelled.

In 1948, Seeger wrote the first version of his now-classic How to Play the Five-String Banjo, a book that many banjo players credit with starting them off on the instrument. From the late 1950s on, Seeger also accompanied himself on the 12-string guitar, an instrument of Mexican origin that had been associated with Leadbelly.

Seeger was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) on August 18, 1955. Seeger refused to name personal and political associations on the grounds that this would violate his First Amendment rights:

'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. I think these are very improper questions for any American to be asked, especially under such compulsion as this.' Seeger's was indicted for contempt of Congress on 26 March 1957. He was convicted in a jury trial of contempt of court in March 1961, and sentenced to 10 years in jail, but in May 1962 an appeals court ruled the indictment to be flawed and overturned his conviction.

Folk Revival

Seeger recorded many albums for Moses Asch's Folkways Records label. Seeger's anti-war songs, such as, ‘Where Have All the Flowers Gone?’, ‘Turn, Turn, Turn’, adapted from the Book of Ecclesiastes, and ‘The Bells of Rhymney’ by the Welsh poet Idris Davies (1957), gained wide currency.

Seeger was closely associated with the 1960s Civil Rights movement and in 1963 helped organize a landmark Carnegie Hall Concert, featuring the youthful Freedom Singers, as a benefit for the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee. This event and Martin Luther King's March on Washington in August of that year, in which Seeger participated, brought the Civil Rights anthem "We Shall Overcome" to wide audiences. By this time Seeger was a senior figure in the 1960s folk revival centred in Greenwich Village.

Seeger was an early supporter of Bob Dylan and recorded many of his songs. However, while serving on the board of directors of the Newport Folk Festival, Seeger was upset by the raucous electric sound that Dylan brought to the 1965 Festival. There are many versions of what happened during Dylan's performance and some claimed that Pete Seeger tried to disconnect the equipment.

On January 18, 2009, Seeger led the crowd in singing Woody Guthrie’s song ‘This Land Is Your Land’ in the finale of Barack Obama's Inaugural concert in Washington, D.C. The performance was noteworthy for the inclusion of two verses not often included in the song, one about a "private property" sign the narrator cheerfully ignores, and the other making a passing reference to a Depression-era relief office.

Selected discography

1954 How to Play a 5-String Banjo (instruction)

1957 American Ballads

1962 12-String Guitar as Played by Lead Belly

1964 Songs of Struggle and Protest, 1930-50

1966 Dangerous Songs!?

1968 Wimoweh and Other Songs of Freedom and Protest

1990 American Folk Songs for Children

1992 American Industrial Ballads

1993 Darling Corey/Goofing-Off Suite

1998 If I Had a Hammer: Songs of Hope and Struggle

Reading

Dunaway, David K. How Can I Keep from Singing: The Ballad of Pete Seeger. [McGraw Hill (1981)

Seeger, Pete. How to Play the Five-String Banjo, New York : People’s Songs, 1948.

Wilkinson, Alec. "The Protest Singer: Pete Seeger and American folk music," The New Yorker, April 17, 2006, pp. 44–53.

Winkler, Allan M. (2009). To everything there is a season: Pete Seeger and the power of song. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

 

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Comments (10)

It is the true musican who can sing accapella and accomplish it as smoothly as Seeger has done.I appreciated your well composed article.

Ranked #4 in Music & Musicians

Thanks, Roberta.

Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger – two giants in the field.

This is a good look at a fascinating person!

Interesting music

A true folk musician and activist..great article, thank you for bringing him back to memory..voted

Brilliant work.

I like both Seeger and Dylan. Superb work Michael.

Ranked #4 in Music & Musicians

Thanks, Ron. So do I. Thanks for reading, everyone.

Phenomenal. Do you know we have our own version of We shall overcome in Hindi, the same tune and all but lyrics in Hindi which mean much the same, Hum Honge Kamyab

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