The Life and Times of Pete Seeger (1919–2014)

We lost a spirited voice of the oppressed and exploited January 27, as Pete Seeger drew his last breath. Having reached the age of 94, Seeger had lived, fought, and sung through several tumultuous periods of ebb and flow of the class struggle over many decades.

As a youth in the years of the rise of the industrial unions in the 1930s, he was part of the generation of radicalized youth drawn to the ideas of Marxism and socialism. In the period of political reaction following World War II, he stood up to the anti-communist witch hunt, never wavering in his devotion to the interests of the working class and struggles against racist oppression.

Known for his always-present banjo, and his singular ability to get everyone singing, he was a much-beloved figure in concert as well as on the picket line.

That’s where I met Pete, on a picket line of striking packinghouse workers in Cudahy WI, in the autumn of 1987. He cheered the pickets and their supporters by leading us in the singing of a few rousing songs from the history of the labor and civil rights movements.

Later that night, I had the pleasure of attending his concert in a packed ballroom at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Student Union. He sang songs that ran the gamut of his folk singing career, from the Underground Railroad ballad “Follow the Drinking Gourd,” through the martyred Joe Hill’s labor classics; from Woody Guthrie’s “Union Maid” to the South African “Wimoweh,” as well as children’s favorites and humorous songs of everyday life.

He penned a number of memorable songs, such as the antiwar “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” and the retelling of the Bible’s Book of Ecclesiastes, “Turn, Turn, Turn,” later turned into a rock hit by the Byrds. Pete’s recasting of the spiritual “We Shall Overcome” was adopted as an anthem of the US civil rights movement.

Pete’s half-sister Peggy—who survives him—and his half-brother Mike also became prominent folk artists.

Pete Seeger came of age at a time when popular music was gaining influence in a commodified form, as recording companies began to assert their dominance over popular culture. He played a central role in assuring that the experiences, hopes, and dreams of generations of working-class people were preserved and spread through the new mass media. He also actively fought in the conflict between the nurturing of the authentic content of folk art in its new forms, and its capture by the capitalist market and subsequent transformation into a business relationship and a cynical conduit of bourgeois values and morality to an essentially passive audience.

Early Years

Born May 3, 1919 into the relative comfort of a middle-class family, Seeger was able to attend private boarding schools, and then Harvard University as a journalism student. Politics and music took him away from serious study, though, and he quit after two years.

2yearoldpeteseegerHis father, Charles Seeger, had been a classically trained musician, but had also been drawn to the recordings of folk and popular songs and chants just becoming available in the early part of the 20th century. He was also drawn to the Communist movement in the 1930s, and began writing articles on music and culture for left-wing magazines.

Charles started working closely with another left-wing musicologist, Alan Lomax, who had traveled the South with his father, John Lomax, pioneering the capture of live field recordings of the songs written and sung predominantly by black farmers and workers—both in and out of prison. The Lomaxes arranged for the release of one such convict, Huddie Ledbetter, who had been nicknamed “Lead Belly” by his fellow prisoners. Leadbelly would go on to become a fixture in the New York folk scene and to make a living from his music, gaining an especially warm welcome from communists and other leftists. His “Goodnight Irene” won wide popularity, and Pete Seeger would often lead crowds in its singing.

At first, these folk field recordings were of interest only to anthropologists and musicologists. They were looked down upon in music circles as novelties. But in the mid-1930s, as the Communist Party turned away from its “Third Period” ultraleft binge and toward its “Popular Front” search for broader connections, leading elements in the CP began promoting black and labor folk music as “proletarian” and distinctly American art forms deserving of as much attention and respect as the fine art from Europe that was patronized by the rich.

Suddenly, not only black blues musicians from the Mississippi Delta, but also activists from labor battles in the Appalachian coal fields and the Southern textile mills began touring through Northern cities to sing their songs. People like Aunt Molly Jackson and Florence Reese, who wrote the famous “Which Side Are You On?”, became celebrated folk artists.

Steeped in this new and growing political and cultural milieu, Pete had learned to play the ukulele at boarding school. But when he was 16, he accompanied his father to a North Carolina festival—and there fell in love with the banjo.

Becoming a Communist

By the time he was 20, Pete had already dropped out of Harvard and joined the communist movement. He had spent most of 1940 on front porches in the South, learning banjo licks and tricks from unsung master players. He joined forces with the predominant communist folk musician of that time, Woody Guthrie, taking a road trip through Appalachia and down into Oklahoma, getting a real feel for the lives and struggles of workers along the way. Pete had joined the Young Communist League in 1936, and the CP in 1942.

The Communist Party was born the same year as Pete Seeger, 1919, formed by those members of the left wing of the Socialist Party who had become inspired to emulate in the US the victorious Bolshevik-led revolution in Russia. The CP’s ability to advocate openly for a socialist US was severely curtailed from the outset by political repression. The capitalist government had been alarmed by the postwar labor upsurge around the country, and worried for its ability to maintain control. Ultraleft, sectarian, and conspiratorial tendencies within the newborn party were strengthened during this initial underground period, but weakened again during the 1920s as postwar prosperity settled in and working-class struggles subsided. The heavy repression eased off, and the CP slowly became an open political organization.

The CPUSA, like similar young parties in other countries, had the misfortune of being consolidated during the time its political mentors in the Soviet Union were degenerating politically. The isolation and backwardness of the Soviet Union had created the conditions for the ascension to power, as Lenin lay dying in 1923, of a bureaucratic layer of officials and directors largely inherited from tsarism, which found its point of political support within the ruling party in the person of Joseph Stalin. Stalin’s skillful maneuvering led to the eventual physical elimination of the entire Bolshevik leadership team from the October Revolution, and consolidated his own Bonapartist political dictatorship over the Soviet Union.

The leadership of the young CPUSA became heavily embroiled in these Moscow intrigues, robbing it of the ability to develop naturally a healthy leading cadre, educated in the Marxist method and wizened by its own experience. A hardened factionalism of power caucuses had poisoned the internal atmosphere of the party through the 20s, a factionalism that became useful to Stalin in his maneuvers within the international. Some of the most capable and self-sacrificing US communists found themselves expelled and shunned simply for failure to denounce a particular falling star within the Russian party in a timely manner.

Over time, a leadership that had lost touch with Marxist principles coalesced within the CP, one that lacked confidence in its own ability to think things through, and instead always looked over its shoulder to Moscow for its political direction. This early political deformation shunted the party away from its task of preparing the forces who could lead the socialist transformation of the US, and brought with it the seeds of the CP’s own later undoing.

Nonetheless, the CPUSA’s embrace of militancy within the labor movement, its initiative in organizing new unions and unemployed councils, and its open challenge to Jim Crow segregation, brought it massive growth and expansion during the 1930s. In a world mired in capitalist depression, the reflected glow of the spectacularly expanding economy of the Soviet Union—uniquely unafflicted with the stagnation and misery of the Great Depression—made the CP especially attractive to American workers struggling to survive. It won the support of the huge bulk of the most forward-thinking working-class fighters who came into activity during the rise of the CIO unions in the 1930s. As a result, CP members were in the thick of many of the most important labor and anti-racist struggles throughout the country during the Great Depression. The CP thus became the predominant organization of the advanced workers in the US.

Joining the CP carried Pete Seeger straight into the heart of the class struggle at an explosive time, connecting him intimately with the lives and struggles of workers and youth throughout the country and around the world—a connection that would hold him all his life.

Fusing Folk Music and Politics

Returning to New York following his year of banjo study, Pete resolved to devote his folk music to the cause of organizing workers. For Pete, music and politics were all of one piece, and he considered any compromise with commercial success to be a deviation from what he was all about.

Along with Lee Hays and Millard Lampell, Pete formed the first urban folk singing group in US history—the Almanac Singers—in early 1941. They made quite a splash, singing both traditional songs and newly written parody attacks on President Roosevelt’s preparations for US entry into WWII. They cut a couple of records, including an album called Talking Union, which featured Pete’s famous song of the same name. Lampell arranged for the CIO to help the Almanac Singers—including Woody Guthrie this time—do a national tour supporting union organizing efforts that year. More workers were on strike in 1941 than in any year since 1919.

The members and supporters of the CP felt strong pressure to fall into line behind its multiple, sudden shifts of policy, under threat of expulsion and effective isolation from the movement. The CP maintained a pacifist-sounding denunciation of Roosevelt’s war preparations—but only from the signing of the Stalin-Hitler Pact in August 1939, until Germany broke the treaty with its invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941. At that point, the CP leadership shifted to an all-out support of Roosevelt and the war efforts of US imperialism, in lock-step with Stalin’s opportunist approach.

peteseegerBoth political courses set aside the perspective promoted by the Bolsheviks during the First World War, of seeing, in the world political and military crisis of capitalism resulting from reaching the limits of capitalist production, the ripening opportunity for the workers in all the belligerent countries to prepare for winning power and beginning the socialist transformation of society.

The Almanac Singers, at the outbreak of WWII, sang pacifist, antiwar, and anti-Roosevelt songs in line with the CP’s campaign against US war plans. In later years, Pete would express regret for what he considered “a mistake” in the writing and performance of such material.

But once the German army invaded the Soviet Union, it was not long before The Almanac Singers became transformed into red, white, and blue patriotic supporters of the US military. They really didn’t need much of a push, as they had felt more than a little social pressure against their anti-Roosevelt politics. This new support for American imperialism was anointed with the political veneer of “anti-fascism.” As much as Pete consciously and selflessly devoted himself to the cause of labor, he had been fundamentally miseducated as to what that really entailed.

It was during the war that Pete met and married his lifelong companion, Toshi, a filmmaker and producer, and a political activist herself.

He also recorded an album of songs from the Spanish Civil War in 1943. He would serve the US Air Force in the Pacific during the war, diverted from his technical training to become an entertainer of the troops.

CP WWII Patriotism

While US capitalists were raking in huge war profits, they took advantage of their wartime propaganda campaign to force through wage freezes, austerity, forced overtime, and other unpopular measures which would soon bring working-class resistance to bear.

Turning away from the example of the Bolsheviks during WWI, the CP actively campaigned as strikebreakers for capital during the war years. For example, the party denounced Mineworkers President John L. Lewis in the most lurid terms for his leadership of the 1943 coal strike. When blacks sought to take advantage of the “war for democracy” to press for their own democratic rights against Jim Crow segregation (the “Double V” Campaign—Victory at home and abroad), the CP opposed it—in the name of the war effort.

The full story of how the CP leadership’s conduct led to the demoralization and destruction of the entire generation of courageous and dedicated vanguard workers under its influence is beyond the scope of this article. Readers are directed to Art Preis’s excellent Labor’s Giant Step for a detailed description of this process.

Preis explains how this political service to “democratic” capitalism did the CP no good. As US imperialism found itself unchallenged within the postwar world market, it was able to buy social peace with the labor movement at home, and then move to gut the unions of its most radical elements. The anti-communist witch hunt of the McCarthy era brought the central role of the CP in the labor movement to a sudden end.

Fighting Through the Red Scare

By 1949, Pete had quit the CP. No small part of this decision was his disillusionment with Stalin. In 2007 he would write a song critical of Stalin, “Big Joe Blues.”

Seeger reformed the Almanac Singers as the Weavers in 1950. They covered many folk favorites, but in the witch-hunt environment it became increasingly difficult for Pete to maintain the marriage of music and politics. By 1953, entertainment industry political blacklists ended the Weavers. Their later revival was marred by Pete’s estrangement over the group’s decision to record a cigarette ad.

In 1955 Pete was called to testify before the HUAC witch hunt panel. His principled, courageous, and often humorous refusal to cooperate—in marked contrast to others who “declined to incriminate” themselves—has been captured in this snippet of testimony:

MR. SEEGER: 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. I would be very glad to tell you my life if you want to hear of it.

. . .

MR. SEEGER: I feel that in my whole life I have never done anything of any conspiratorial nature and I resent very much and very deeply the implication of being called before this Committee that in some way because my opinions may be different from yours, or yours, Mr. Willis, or yours, Mr. Scherer, that I am any less of an American than anybody else. I love my country very deeply, sir.

CHAIRMAN WALTER: Why don’t you make a little contribution toward preserving its institutions?

MR. SEEGER: I feel that my whole life is a contribution. That is why I would like to tell you about it.

CHAIRMAN WALTER: I don’t want to hear about it.

. . .

MR. TAVENNER: I hand you a photograph which was taken of the May Day parade in New York City in 1952, which shows the front rank of a group of individuals, and one is in a uniform with military cap and insignia, and carrying a placard entitled CENSORED. Will you examine it please and state whether or not that is a photograph of you?

(A document was handed to the witness.)

MR. SEEGER: It is like Jesus Christ when asked by Pontius Pilate, “Are you king of the Jews?”


His conduct at this hearing led to his 1961 conviction for contempt of Congress, carrying ten one-year prison sentences. The conviction was overturned the following year.

Mentor to the 60s Folk Revival

In 1948, the first edition of Pete’s instructional book for banjo appeared, a book that helped many later banjo players get started with the instrument. He also became active in efforts to keep classic folk and labor songs in print in book form, and began writing a long-running column in Sing Out! Magazine.

In 1959 Pete helped found the Newport Folk Festival, which continues to this day. In this venue and others, he helped inspire and promote a new generation of folk singers, including people like Bob Dylan and Phil Ochs.

Legends abound concerning Bob Dylan being booed by the crowd at Newport in 1965 when he plugged in an electric guitar. It was claimed that Pete wanted to cut the power with an axe, he was so outraged. But in a 2001 interview, Seeger clarified the incident:

I couldn’t understand the words. I wanted to hear the words. It was a great song, “Maggie’s Farm,” and the sound was distorted. I ran over to the guy at the controls and shouted, “Fix the sound so you can hear the words.” He hollered back, “This is the way they want it.” I said “Damn it, if I had an axe, I’d cut the cable right now.” But I was at fault. I was the MC, and I could have said to the part of the crowd that booed Bob, “you didn’t boo Howlin’ Wolf yesterday. He was electric!” Though I still prefer to hear Dylan acoustic, some of his electric songs are absolutely great. Electric music is the vernacular of the second half of the twentieth century, to use my father’s old term.

Reactivating in the 60s

The 1960s civil rights movement found a strong supporter in Pete Seeger. His “We Shall Overcome,” as previously mentioned, became an anthem for the movement and was prominent at the 1963 March on Washington.

Pete’s blacklisting from national television was finally lifted in the late 60s, after he and Toshi had produced a NY/NJ television show, Rainbow Quest, on which he hosted many folk and popular artists of the day.

As the folk revival continued through the mid-60s, Pete wrote a song that scathingly attacked President Johnson’s conduct of the Vietnam War. “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy” described a foolish military leader who got all his troops killed. The song was banned briefly from television, but the ban was overturned and the song performed in 1968.

Seeger led 500,000 people at a 1969 antiwar march in Washington DC in singing John Lennon’s “Give Peace a Chance.” He appeared frequently at other antiwar events.

Later Years

In his later years, Pete devoted much of his time and attention to questions of ecology, especially in his home region of New York’s Hudson Valley.

He continued to inspire successive waves of folk and pop musicians in his last decades.

When capitalism was restored in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe in the 90s, a significant portion of the much-reduced CPUSA membership split away to join others in founding the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism, with a more pronounced social democratic political tone. Pete and Toshi both became supporters of this group from the outset.

Pete came under pressure from liberals to apologize for his communist leanings. In his 1993 autobiography, he wrote the following:

At any rate, today I’ll apologize for a number of things, such as thinking that Stalin was merely a “hard driver” and not a “supremely cruel misleader.” I guess anyone who calls himself a Christian should be prepared to apologize for the Inquisition, the burning of heretics by Protestants, the slaughter of Jews and Muslims by Crusaders. White people in the USA ought to apologize for stealing land from Native Americans and enslaving blacks. Europeans could apologize for worldwide conquests, Mongolians for Genghis Khan. And supporters of Roosevelt could apologize for his support of Somoza, of Southern White Democrats, of Franco Spain, for putting Japanese Americans in concentration camps. Who should my granddaughter Moraya apologize to? She’s part African, part European, part Chinese, part Japanese, part Native American. Let’s look ahead.

In a 1995 interview he maintained that he was still a communist, albeit with a “small ‘c’”:

I still call myself a communist, because communism is no more what Russia made of it than Christianity is what the churches make of it.

Marxism does not demand of musicians, artists, or writers that they adhere to any particular set of political ideas or school of thought. As the great Russian Marxist Leon Trotsky once wrote, “the struggle for revolutionary ideas in art must begin once again with the struggle for artistic truth, not in terms of any single school, but in terms of the immutable faith of the artist in his own inner self. Without this there is no art. ‘You shall not lie!’—that is the formula of salvation.”

Pete Seeger played a unique role in US politics and culture throughout his long life. He inspired several generations of folk musicians, and earned respect as a popular and beloved figure in many social movements. He was true to his own inner self, he made his mark, and he will be missed.

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