October 1, 2014
Richard Flacks on Pete Seeger
Posted on Aug 7, 2009
I use the word project instead of career because Seeger himself resisted talking about his “career.” The word suggests that one is orienting one’s life toward personal success, climbing a ladder of accomplishment and fame. Seeger from the outset instead set out to channel his ambition toward social and cultural change and, more than most politically minded performers, to exorcise his strivings for personal recognition. The Almanacs in the early ’40s performed anonymously (and Seeger often used an assumed name in those years), emulating various European artistic collectives of that time. A number of politically committed young musicians were part of the Almanacs collective, but Seeger was the most disciplined—focused on enabling the group to stay together and achieve its shared purpose—which was to create new songs, rooted in vernacular music with lyrics that might mobilize political action.
The Almanacs’ most lasting songs were those, like Woody Guthrie’s “Union Maid,” that became anthems of the CIO organizing campaigns, or that spurred anti-Nazi sentiment to support the war effort (“The Sinking of the Reuben James”). Their performances were deliberately unpolished (Guthrie said that they “rehearsed on stage”). In the entertainment world, there was something new and attractively fresh about such public spontaneity, and about the fusion of folk music and contemporary urban topics. The middle-class Almanacs, especially Seeger, undoubtedly thought that their unprofessional style (they wore blue jeans or overalls) would help them forge connections to the working-class audiences they hoped to reach. That assumption has often been mocked; workers were much more likely to want the polished performances of Tommy Dorsey, Bing Crosby or the Andrew Sisters. But this criticism misses the deeper aims of Seeger’s project. It was not popularity or acceptance that he was trying to gain, but the making of space for a popular music that would be created not for the commercial market but for sustaining the “democratic action” envisioned by his father.
“To Everything There is a Season”: Pete Seeger and the Power of Song
By Allan M. Winkler
Oxford University Press, 256 pages
The Protest Singer: An Intimate Portrait of Pete Seeger
By Alec Wilkinson
Knopf, 176 pages
How Can I Keep from Singing?: The Ballad of Pete Seeger
By David King Dunaway
Villard, 544 pages
After the war, Seeger’s energies turned in a surprising direction—toward organizational entrepreneurship rather than merely performing. He sparked the formation of a national network of left-wing music makers (artists, songwriters, presenters, etc), People’s Artists (later called People’s Songs), to serve as a booking agency, a publisher of song-filled newsletters and books, and a support framework for advancing a popular music relevant to political action. In the immediate postwar period, leftists hoped that the dynamism of the ’30s labor movement would continue and that the social democratic logic of the New Deal would be followed by the post-FDR government. Seeger imagined that his people’s music network would be wedded to the unions and leftward social movements, but a profound split in the union movement and the left on the “communist” issue, in the context of the new Cold War, dashed such optimism. The People’s Songs project provided a soundtrack for the third-party Henry Wallace campaign in 1948, but the utter failure of that candidacy and the increasing tempo of the Red Scare thoroughly marginalized the network Seeger had worked so hard to build.
Still, Seeger’s penchant for organizational entrepreneurship was an important dimension of his work that deserves more attention than any of these biographies provide. He has continued to be an organizer since those postwar years. Major successes: the song magazines Sing Out! and Broadside, which published and publicized the politically conscious new songwriting of the ’60s; the Newport Folk Festivals in the late ’50s and ’60s, which brought together a new generation of troubadours with a vast array of traditional performers; a book (first edition mimeographed), “How to play the 5 string banjo,” which taught tens of thousands to play this largely forgotten instrument; the formation of the Freedom Singers by SNCC [Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee], which toured to raise awareness and money for the Southern struggle (with Toshi as their agent); the Clearwater Sloop, which involved the construction of a large sailing vessel that sparked the movement to clean up the Hudson River and became the center of an ongoing environmental education program. None of these efforts were single-handedly created by Seeger, of course. Indeed, his biographers suggest that he was not exactly a detail person. Toshi Seeger, Pete’s spouse of 67 years, early took on many of the managerial tasks his work required (while managing their household of three children in their log cabin). But he seems always to have had the ability to make the impossible seem plausible and thereby inspire and goad others to help fulfill various of his organizational visions. It’s a rare thing for an artist to be so preoccupied with the mundane tasks of concrete institution building. But he saw, from the start, that artistic efforts per se would not be enough to fulfill the overall project; cultural change is inextricably bound up with social organization.
Seeger’s passion for building alternative institutions was rooted in the cultural left’s longstanding ambivalence about the mainstream culture industry. Those like Charles Seeger and Alan Lomax who in the ’30s wanted to create a popular music rooted in American folk traditions thought that by so doing they would foster alternatives to a mass culture dominated by commercial media. Woody Guthrie frequently expressed disdain for commercial music, and his legend, dramatized in the fictionalized bio film “Bound for Glory,” celebrated his deliberate refusal to accept radio network contracts and nightclub dates. The Almanacs and the postwar People’s Artists thought they could create a noncorporate, social-movement-based apparatus to reach popular audiences, and those hopes were in some ways fulfilled (by a plethora of record labels, community radio stations and the like). On the other hand, the Almanacs, from the beginning, were not averse to commercial opportunity; they and Guthrie did land spots on network radio and in nightclubs. Yet each time such breakthroughs happened, press uproars about their commie politics soon followed, and such bookings declined.
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