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Pete Seeger Biography


Home > Music > S > Seeger, Pete > Biography


Born: 1919/05/03
Birth Place: French Hospital, Manhattan, New York, New York, USA
Years Active: 1939–present
Genres: Folk


Pete Seeger (May 3, 1919 – January 27, 2014) was an American folk singer. Seeger was born at the French Hospital, Midtown Manhattan in New York City.

As a self-described “split tenor” (between an alto and a tenor), Seeger was a founding member of two highly influential folk groups: The Almanac Singers and the Weavers.

The Almanac Singers, which Seeger co-founded in 1941 with Millard Lampell and Arkansas singer and activist Lee Hays, was a topical group, designed to function as a singing newspaper promoting the industrial unionization movement, racial and religious inclusion, and other progressive causes. Its personnel included, at various times: Woody Guthrie, Bess Lomax Hawes, Sis Cunningham, Josh White, and Sam Gary. As a controversial Almanac singer, the 21-year-old Seeger performed under the stage name "Pete Bowers" to avoid compromising his father's government career.

In 1943, Seeger married Toshi-Aline Ōta, whom he credited with being the support that helped make the rest of his life possible. The couple remained married until Toshi's death in July 2013.

In 1950, the Almanacs were reconstituted as the Weavers, named after the title of an 1892 play by Gerhart Hauptmann about a workers' strike. Members of the Weavers included charter Almanac member Lee Hays, Ronnie Gilbert and Fred Hellerman and later Frank Hamilton, Erik Darling and Bernie Krause serially took Seeger's place. In the atmosphere of the 1950s red scare, the Weavers' repertoire had to be less overtly topical than that of the Almanacs had been, and its progressive message was couched in indirect language.

The Weavers' string of major hits began with “On Top of Old Smoky” and an arrangement of Lead Belly's signature waltz, “Goodnight, Irene,” which topped the charts for 13 weeks in 1950 and was covered by many other pop singers. Other Weaver hits included “Dusty Old Dust (So Long It's Been Good to Know You)" by Woody Guthrie, “Kisses Sweeter Than Wine” (by Hays, Seeger, and Lead Belly) and the South African Zulu song by Solomon Linda, “Wimoweh,” among others.

The Weavers' performing career was abruptly derailed in 1953 at the peak of their popularity when blacklisting prompted radio stations to refuse to play their records and all their bookings were canceled. They briefly returned to the stage, however, at a sold-out reunion at Carnegie Hall in 1955 and in a subsequent reunion tour, which produced a hit version of Merle Travis's “Sixteen Tons” as well as LPs of their concert performances. “Kumbaya,” a Gullah black spiritual dating from slavery days, was also introduced to wide audiences by Pete Seeger and the Weavers in 1959, becoming a staple of Boy and Girl Scout campfires. In the documentary film “Pete Seeger: The Power of Song,” Seeger states that he resigned from the Weavers when the three other band members agreed to perform a jingle for a cigarette commercial.

In the 1950s and, indeed, consistently throughout his life, Seeger continued his support of civil and labor rights, racial equality, international understanding, and anti-militarism (all of which had characterized the Wallace campaign) and he continued to believe that songs could help people achieve these goals.

In August 1955, Seeger was subpoenaed to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). Alone among the many witnesses after the 1950 conviction and imprisonment of the Hollywood Ten for contempt of Congress, Seeger refused to plead the Fifth Amendment and instead (as the Hollywood Ten had done) refused to name personal and political associations on the grounds that this would violate his First Amendment rights. Seeger's refusal to testify led to a March 1957 indictment for contempt of Congress. For some years, he had to keep the federal government apprised of where he was going any time he left the Southern District of New York. He was convicted in a jury trial of contempt of Congress in March 1961, and sentenced to 10 years in jail (to be served simultaneously), but in May 1962 an appeals court ruled the indictment to be flawed and overturned his conviction.

To earn money during the blacklist period of the late 1950s and early 1960s, Seeger had gigs as a music teacher in schools and summer camps and traveled the college campus circuit. He also recorded as many as five albums a year for Moe Asch's Folkways Records label. As the nuclear disarmament movement picked up steam in the late 1950s and early 1960s, Seeger's anti-war songs, such as, “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?,” "Turn, Turn, Turn,” and “The Bells of Rhymney” gained wide currency. Seeger also 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 brought the Civil Rights anthem “We Shall Overcome” to wide audiences.

By this time Seeger was a senior figure in the 1960s folk revival centered in Greenwich Village, as a longtime columnist in “Sing Out!,” and as a founder of the topical “Broadside” magazine. To describe the new crop of politically committed folk singers, he coined the phrase “Woody's children,” alluding to his associate and traveling companion, Woody Guthrie, who by this time had become a legendary figure. This urban folk-revival movement, a continuation of the activist tradition of the 1930s and 1940s and of People's Songs, used adaptations of traditional tunes and lyrics to effect social change, a practice that goes back to the Industrial Workers of the World or Wobblies' “Little Red Song Book,” compiled by Swedish-born union organizer Joe Hill.

The long television blacklist of Seeger began to end in the mid-1960s when he hosted a regionally broadcast, educational folk-music television show, “Rainbow Quest.” Among his guests were Johnny Cash, June Carter, Reverend Gary Davis, Mississippi John Hurt, Doc Watson, the Stanley Brothers, Elizabeth Cotten, Patrick Sky, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Tom Paxton, Judy Collins, Donovan, Richard Fariña and Mimi Fariña, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, Mamou Cajun Band, Bernice Johnson Reagon, The Beers Family, Roscoe Holcomb, Malvina Reynolds, and Shawn Phillips. Thirty-nine hour-long programs were recorded at WNJU's Newark studios in 1965 and 1966, produced by Seeger and his wife Toshi, with Sholom Rubinstein. The Smothers Brothers ended Seeger's national blacklisting by broadcasting him singing “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy” on their CBS variety show in February 1968, after his similar performance in September 1967 was censored by CBS.

In November 1976 Seeger wrote and recorded the anti-death penalty song “Delbert Tibbs” about then death-row inmate Delbert Tibbs, who was later exonerated. Seeger wrote the music and selected the words from poems written by Tibbs.

In 1982 Seeger performed at a benefit concert for Poland's Solidarity resistance movement. His biographer David Dunaway considers this the first public manifestation of Seeger's decades-long personal dislike of communism in its Soviet form. In the late 1980s Seeger also expressed disapproval of violent revolutions, remarking to an interviewer that he was really in favor of incremental change. In a 1995 interview, however, he insisted that "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.”

In September 2008, Appleseed Recordings released “At 89,” Seeger's first studio album in 12 years. On January 18, 2009, Seeger joined Bruce Springsteen, grandson Tao Rodríguez-Seeger, and the crowd in singing the Woody Guthrie song “This Land Is Your Land” in the finale of Barack Obama's Inaugural concert in Washington, D.C. In 2010, still active at the age of 91, Seeger co-wrote and performed the song “God's Counting on Me, God's Counting on You” with Lorre Wyatt, commenting on the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

In October 2011, at age 92, Seeger was part of a solidarity march with Occupy Wall Street to Columbus Circle in New York City. The march began with Seeger and fellow musicians exiting Symphony Space (95th and Broadway), where they had performed as part of a benefit for Seeger's Clearwater organization. Seeger performed with his grandson, Tao Rodriguez-Seeger, Arlo Guthrie, David Amram, and other celebrated musicians.

He contributed a spoken version of “Forever Young” to the 2012 album “Chimes of Freedom: Songs of Bob Dylan Honoring 50 Years of Amnesty International.” He recorded the song with community children's chorus, Rivertown Kids, who were previously featured on Tomorrows' Children.

Seeger earned a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1993 and in 1994 the National Medal of Arts from the National Endowment for the Arts and a Kennedy Center Honor. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996 and won the Grammy Award for Best Traditional Folk Album of 1996 for his record “Pete.” He won the Grammy Award for Best Traditional Album in 2008 for “89” and the Grammy Award for Best Children’s Album of 2010 for his “Tomorrow's Children, Pete Seeger and the Rivertown Kids and Friends” record. Seeger died January 27, 2014 at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital.





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