Pete Seeger is unquestionably the foremost contemporary popularizer of American folk music. From his pop-folk successes with the Weavers in the late '40s, through the '50s, when he was blacklisted by the government, through the '60s, when he became a cultural hero through his outspoken commitment to the antiwar and civil rights struggles, until now, Seeger has remained an indomitable, resourceful, and charming performer. He wrote a number of folk standards-including "If I Had a Hammer" (with Lee Hays) and "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?"-and has preserved and given exposure to thousands of other songs.
Seeger's interest in music began early. His father, Charles Seeger, was a musicologist, and his mother a violin teacher; both were on the faculty of the Juilliard School of Music. He had learned banjo, ukulele, and guitar by his teens, when he developed an interest in America's folk-music legacy at age 16, after attending a folk festival in North Carolina. He began working with noted folk archivist and field recorder Alan Lomax before traveling around the country, absorbing rural music. He attended Harvard University and served in the army in World War II. In the '40s Seeger became a friend and singing associate of Woody Guthrie before forming the Weavers [see entry], an enormously popular folk quartet that popularized such folk chestnuts as "On Top of Old Smokey" and Lead Belly's "Goodnight Irene."
In the '50s Seeger's sympathies with humanitarian socialism led him to be blacklisted by the House UnAmerican Activities Committee; still Seeger continued to perform wherever he could. He recorded for Folkways and signed with John Hammond and Columbia Records in the early '60s. As always, Seeger did more than just perform. A gifted storyteller and music historian, he brought to his audiences not just the songs but the stories of the people who wrote and first sang them. In his 1993 autobiography, Where Have All the Flowers Gone, for example, Seeger writes of "Wimoweh": "Please don't sing it the way the American pop record had it: 'In the jungle . . . , etc.' This trivializes a song of great historical importance."
With the arrival of the Vietnam War protests, Seeger was rediscovered by a younger audience. In 1965 the Byrds had a #1 hit with Seeger's "Turn! Turn! Turn!," a Biblical passage set to music. From the mid '70s on, Seeger has worked regularly with Woody Guthrie's son Arlo. He has crusaded for ecology with the sloop Clearwater, giving concerts along the Hudson River. In 1994 he received the Presidential Medal of the Arts, as well as a Kennedy Award. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as an early influence in 1996. Pete, released later that year, was his first new studio album in 17 years. It featured everything from traditional ballads to gospel to a community chorus to an activist rap. Seeger has toured and sung around the world. His music instructional books and records inspired generations of self-taught musicians and folksingers (including Joni Mitchell).
Seeger's half sister, Peggy, is also an accomplished folk musician and songwriter. In addition to her feminist anthem "Gonna Be an Engineer," Peggy also wrote with her husband, Ewan MacColl. In the '50s she moved to England, where she joined a folk group called the Ramblers, with Alan Lomax, Shirley Collins, and MacColl (writer of "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face"). A British citizen, Peggy Seeger continues to tour and record. Half brother Mike Seeger, also a musician, was a member of the New Lost City Ramblers and an important part of the folk revival of the 1960s.
This biography originally appeared in The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (Simon & Schuster, 2001).
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