The story of Pete Seeger is an inspiration to tell. Born May 3, 1919, Pete has not only spent his life blessing the world with music, he has dedicated his time to bettering it socially as well. His life has had a profound impact on many people and many causes.
Pete Seeger has always been surrounded by music. Born to musicologist Dr. Charles Seeger and concert violinist Constance Edson Seeger, Pete lived in a house full of it. He is the youngest of three boys, with brothers Charles and John, and also has three half-sisters, Penny (deceased), Peggy and Barbara, and one half-brother, Mike. Their maid was folk singer Libba Cotton. From this environment, he learned to play the banjo, guitar and ukelele, as well as a motley assortment of other instruments. Unhappily playing in the school jazz band and patently uninterested in the classical music that his parents taught at Julliard, he finally fell in love with folk music in particular around the age of sixteen. "…that summer I visited a square dance festival in Asheville, NC, and fell in love with the old fashioned five-string banjo, rippling out a rhythm to one fascinating song after another. I liked the melodies, time tested by generations of singers. Above all, I liked the words…they seemed frank, straightforward, honest."
Pete was educated at prep school, and went on to Harvard to study journalism and sociology. He abandoned his formal education in 1939 due to lack of interest. After leaving college, Pete toured around New England painting watercolors and formed a puppet troupe that toured New York. He became involved in concerts and rallies for the New York Milk Strike, a campaign conducted by the Dairy Farmers Union. This was his first foray into social reform, a passion that would drive him to this day.
It was in this time that he met Woody Guthrie in New York at a benefit supporting California farm workers. Pete abandoned his job as Alan Lomax’s assistant to travel with Woody across America.
By 1941, Pete had formed the Almanac Singers, a group dedicated to bringing social injustice to the awareness of others. It was a loosely knit group, consisting primarily of Seeger and Guthrie, and whoever else happened by. They used traditional folk music to express lyrics dealing with union ideals and contemporary issues. He formed a union with the Lomaxes and Cis Cunningham to start the Almanac People’s Music Library, a collection of songs dealing exclusively with union songs and the ‘music of the people.’
Seeger was drafted into the Army and sent to the Pacific Arena in 1942. He put together collections of soldier songs and sent them back to the States, to the People’s Music. (The name of the library was changed in 1946 to People’s Songs, Inc.) People’s Songs published songs, articles, reviews and information about concerts, festival and benefits. This organization led to Sing Out! The Folk Magazine, 1950, which combines folk music info with social criticism to boost the average man’s political awareness. It is still published today.
In 1948, Seeger and Lee Hays formed a unique group called The Weavers. In line with Seeger’s political ideals, the group wove an unusual mix of vocals and music with social and political commentary. Unfortunately, by the time the group was fully taking hold, the political climate of America had soured. McCarthyism held the union in a firm grasp of fear, and the Weavers were soon banned from television, radio and a number of concert halls. Despite this, Seeger continued to record, and by 1954 had played on over 29 albums. He was called before the House of Un-American activities in 1955 and questioned about his political associations. He refused to speak, citing his right to free speech under the First Amendment and was sentenced to a year in jail. He only served four days of it, but was blacklisted in the US and kept off radio and television for seventeen years.
In the sixties, while enjoying a goodly amount of success due to the folk revival, Seeger continued to travel, playing the campus circuit and benefits for civil rights, peace and labour movements. He was also in the forefront of the anti-Vietnam outcry, joining forces with young folksingers like Joan Baez to oppose US involvement in the conflict. This helped boost his popularity with the youth of America. During this time, he also turned his energies towards the environment, namely towards cleaning up the Hudson River which ran past his home. The river had become severely polluted due to the dumping of industrial wastes such as mercury and benzene. In 1969, he formed the Clearwater Organization, a group dedicated to environmental awareness. They offer educational programs, sailing instruction and festivals. This organization launched a 106-foot, 100-ton faithful recreation of the Dutch warships that once sailed the river in an effort to raise funds and environmental awareness. The Clearwater Organization has brought about legislation to protect the river and has made many improvements on it’s condition.
Pete has been married to his wife, Toshi, for fifty years. They live in a cabin in upstate New York.
In 1994, Pete received the Presidential Medal of the Arts and a Kennedy Center Award. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996 for his contribution to the development of rock. In April of the same year he received the Harvard Arts Medal. Finally, in February of 1997 he won a Grammy Award for Best Traditional Folk Album for his work, Pete.