Pete Seeger: the man who brought politics to music

One of Pete Seeger’s greatest achievements was incorporating political activism into music, and realising that liberation struggles need a soundtrack

Dorian Lynskey,

Pete Seeger was a good man. There aren’t many musicians you can say that about without seeming simplistic. Music is often progressed by flawed, volatile, glamorous egotists, and thank God for them. But Seeger carved out his place in history with a quieter, rarer set of qualities: nobility, generosity, humility and, when things got rough, breathtaking courage. Perhaps uniquely, he became one of the most important singers in America without ever being a star, because he believed in the song rather than the singer.

Seeger was born into privilege but not convention. His father Charles, an Ivy League professor and composer, was a pacifist and founding member of the leftwing Composers’ Collective, and he came to embrace the radical potential of folk music. Pete was an intense, idealistic Harvard dropout when, in 1940, the folklorist Alan Lomax introduced him to Woody Guthrie. Said Lomax: “You can date the renaissance of American folk song from that night.”

This impassioned trio brought folk music to the cities and the airwaves. Lomax was the song collector and facilitator, Guthrie the charismatic Dust Bowl poet, and Seeger the man who got America singing. He didn’t have a remarkable voice but it was clear and strong and it never got in the way of the material, which was the point. A great believer in the power of communal singing, he saw himself as just a catalyst: a means to an end. He crafted songs – both his own compositions (If I Had a Hammer, Where Have All the Flowers Gone?) and existing ones that he adapted – so that anyone could sing them. Describing We Shall Overcome, which he adapted and popularised, he said: “It’s the genius of simplicity. Any damn fool can get complicated.”

Even if he had wanted to be a star, America’s politics were against him. His first group, the Almanac Singers, collapsed during the second world war when their previous role as entertainers at Communist meetings was exposed. Returning to America after serving in the Pacific, Seeger saw two cherished projects fail: his organisation People’s Songs, an organisation to “get America singing”, and the presidential campaign of the Progressive Party’s Henry Wallace. He was hounded, sometimes violently, by the right. His new band, the Weavers, briefly became sensations, but the Red Scare ripped them apart in 1952. And there was worse to come.

Go to story on The Guardian

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