Pete Seeger: the Last Popular Front Singer

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Pete Seeger was, without a doubt, the most influential member of a group of artists and organizers who created folk music as we know it today in North America and a good deal of the rest of the world. Like many members of generations and movements, he came to be the iconic standard bearer for a great number of lesser known, less fortunate and lesser active, perhaps lesser talented, contemporaries. Yet Pete cannot be looked at apart from them and their common purpose. Simply put, but not simply explained, Pete was just about the last artist standing who can trace their formation, convictions and ideals to the mid 1930s and the Popular Front. It is in that particular and peculiar time and attitude that we can see Pete’s embrace of both American nativist culture and proletarian internationalism. It was a heady mixture back then, and it laid the way for much of what we think of as the best in American history today – from the sit-in strikes that built the industrial unions, to the heroism of the ‘Okie’s’ migration as told in The Grapes of Wrath, to the Lincoln Battalion – the ‘premature anti-fascists’ who fought to defend the Spanish Republic from 1936 to 1939. Its less appetizing features – the defence of the Moscow Trials, the abandonment of the socialist project, no-strike pledge, etc. are shrouded in the mists of time and we won’t deal with them here either. 

The Popular Front refers to the strategy outlined at the Seventh Congress of the Communist International which met in the summer of 1935. Here the strategy of class against class was abandoned in favour of a broad anti-fascist alliance which would bring together both the forces of the left and ‘progressive’ forces of the centre and right who were prepared to fight against the rise of fascism and for ‘democracy’ in its bourgeois form. An American literary critic, Daniel Aaron, described this period as one where “Now you could be for every kind of social reform, for the Soviet Union, for the Communist Party, for Proletarian literature – for everything and anything that was at one time radical, rebellious, subversive, revolutionary and downright quixotic – and in doing so you were on the side of all the political angels of the day; you were on the side of the Roosevelt administration, on the side of Labor, the Negroes, the middle classes; on the side of all of Hitler’s victims, on the side of all the oppressed colonial peoples in the world.” Pete Seeger was 17 when the strategy of the Popular Front was declared. 

His father, Charles, and step-mother, Ruth, were very much involved in the musical left. They were in the orbit of the Communist movement. Part of the new orientation called for embracing folk music, which had been previously seen as backward and primitive. Charles got a job with the New Deal investigating folk music in the south and took his son with him. Pete discovered the five string banjo and Appalachian music and never lost his passion for them. 

Living in New York in the late thirties Pete hung out with a crowd of artists and activists. One of them was a young Japanese/American named Toshi. They would spend the next 70 or so years together as lovers and partners. Premature hippies in their way, this group of young people shared communal houses, played music for anyone who would listen, and took the name of The Almanac Singers after Benjamin Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanac – the predictor of weather for farmers. Among the Almanacs and their friends were Woody Guthrie, Lee Hays, Josh White, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, Cisco Houston, Burl Ives, Sis Cunningham and a dozen other names which would become important in the history of American folk music. 

They played a combination of traditional songs, mainly rooted in Appalachia and other southern climes, and songs in the southern tradition that they had written themselves. Perhaps their greatest performing triumph was a concert for 20,000 striking transit workers at New York’s Madison Square Garden in May of 1941. They recorded four sets of 78rpm records that year. Taken together, the  records offer a sense of what folk was starting to be defined as. The first was Songs For John Doe, which was to be a contentious affair as it was mainly anti-war songs. The Communist Party, following the policy of the Comintern set in Moscow, characterized the Second World War as an imperialist war, and wanted no involvement by the United States. The second release was Talking Union, which is still in print and was the first mass-distributed recording of labour songs including Which Side are You On? The next two releases were traditional folk songs – first Sea Chanteys and Whaling Songs, which included Blow The Man Down and then Sod Buster Ballads with a version of House of The Rising Sun. A connected group later recorded the Songs of the Lincoln Brigade and popularized the anti-fascist songs of the Spanish Civil War, including Viva La Quince Brigada, which Pete sang all his life. Prominent on all these recordings is the banjo and soaring tenor voice of Pete Seeger. This seemingly contradictory grouping of political and folk songs laid the foundation for what became and remains the ‘folk’ repertoire. 

When the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union, on June 22, 1941, the anti-war songs went. On December 7, 1941, the Japanese air force attacked Pearl Harbour naval base in Hawaii and the United States entered the war. In 1942 The Almanac Singers released Dear Mr. President, an album of ‘win the war’ songs including ‘Round and ‘Round Hitler’s Grave, set to the old dance tune Old Joe Clark. After that, the group basically disbanded as they entered the war in the army, merchant marine and office jobs in Washington. Pete went off to serve in the Pacific. Back home at the end of 1945, Pete and many of the others reassembled and wanted to carry on what they had begun. They were still basking in the glow of victory over fascism and the cooperation between the United States and the Soviet Union. Although the cold war was already taking shape, the group that gathered in December 1945 felt that there was a whole bunch of singing to do and a new popular culture to be built. 

Author Richard Reuss describes their perspectives in American Folklore and Left Wing Politics: “People’s Songs was started with the idea of broadening the foundations of a “people’s” culture begun by the Almanac Singers and others in the pre-war years and during World War II itself.” On December 31, 1945 “approximately thirty left-wing folksingers, chorus directors, union education officials and others” came together, contributed a total of $135 and launched a new organization. In February 1946, Vol. 1 Number 1 of People’s Songs emerged. The mission statement was simple – “to create, promote and distribute songs of labor and the American people.” The masthead lists one Peter Seeger as executive secretary. 

In the late 1940s Pete was as much an organizer as a singer. He participated as a bit of both in the first Hootenanny organized in Canada – in Toronto in December of 1946 – sponsored by the National Federation of Labour Youth (NFLY). However, by a trick of fate, the next chapter in Pete’s career would be quite different. 

In 1948 People’s Songs threw everything they had into the ‘third party’ campaign of Henry Wallace – a social democratic presidential campaign. It was a failure and just about bankrupted People’s Songs. At roughly the same time, and perhaps because of the crisis in People’s Songs, Pete helped form a ‘professional’ singing group who called themselves The Weavers after a 19th century German radical play. To their amazement, within a year or so, they had a record contract with a major label and were radio and concert stars. Many of the songs – not the political ones – that the Almanacs had sung were now on the lips, and in the ears, of millions of Americans. There were songs written by Leadbelly (Good Night Irene) and Woody (So Long It’s Been Good To Know You) and more. In 1951 The Weavers were the biggest selling band in the U.S. 

Timing is everything, they say, and their timing was terrible. Within two years, by 1953, The Weavers had been blacklisted by the McCarthyite red baiters for their left wing views and connections. 

The next decade or so was both Pete Seeger’s years in the desert and, perhaps, the time of his most influential work. While keeping Sing Out! – The Folk Song Magazine (the legacy of People’s Songs) alive, and supporting his family, Pete was on the road singing for mainly left wing groups and summer camps, and the few other places that would hire him. Thanks to Toshi, Harold Leaventhal, his manager, and Moe Asch at Folkways Records, Pete had a small team. 

Just about everywhere he went he also gave workshops. He taught thousands of young people how to play the banjo, how to sing and what to sing. He left behind the first recruits to what would be called the ‘folk revival.’ He toured Canada for the NFLY and left his mark on dozens of folks who would found groups and start careers. The Travellers, Canada’s first folk group with a profile, owed much to Pete. A concert organizer in Winnipeg recalls a Seeger concert in the early sixties where a kid sat on the floor up at the front, immersed in the music. That kid was Neil Young. Through Sing Out!, his touring and his song writing, Pete Seeger laid the groundwork for just about everything in folk music that has come since. It is clear that without Pete, North American popular culture would not be what it is. And throughout it all, Pete never abandoned the basic beliefs and repertoire that he had learned in the late thirties. A brief look at a handful of his songs – ones he created, often in collaboration with others, just like in the days of the Almanacs – tells some of the tale. 

There are too many songs to do justice to here but a list of a baker’s dozen serves to make the point of how encompassing was Pete’s embrace of creating and arranging. For more, take a look at peteseeger.net/wp/?page_id=630 

Turn Turn Turn was a co-write with God, given that the lyrics come from the biblical Book of Ecclesiastes. We Shall Overcome, which Pete had a hand in, came from the Highlander Folk School for community and union organizers in Tennessee. It has become an anthem. Waist Deep in the Big Muddy is legendary. Pete’s song about Vietnam, set in World War Two, created a scandal when The Smothers Brothers let him sing it on nationwide television. Sacco’s Letter to His Son is a rarely heard setting of the Italian/American anarchist’s tender advice to his child before Nicola Sacco and Bartolommeo Vanzetti were framed and executed in 1927. If I Had A Hammer, which Pete and long time associate Lee Hays, wrote at a meeting, passing the words back and forth, has been recorded by everyone. I Come and Stand at Every Door brought the story of a little girl at Hiroshima and the poetry of Turkish poet Nazim Hikmet to millions when The Byrds recorded it. The Housewife Terrorists is another rare one chronicling the sabotage on American war planes by a group of ‘ordinary’ women. The Foolish Frog is an epic American folk ballad Pete wrote with his father. He arranged and popularized Guantanamera and Wimoweh and both are indelibly etched in popular memory. Maple Syrup Time is an ode to the woods of New York State where Pete and Toshi lived for many decades. Kisses Sweeter Than Wine is a love song composed by The Weavers, which became one of their hits. Finally there is Pete’s Song, the only one that bears his name – written when he was in his eighties and therefore can be taken as autobiography – a singing testament: 

There are three things

Most beautiful

In all the world we know

Nay, there are four

So wonderful

For mortal eyes to behold.

 

A bird on the wing

A snake on the rock

And a man and a maid in love

One more thing, yes, one more thing

And a ship under sail plowing the waves.

 

We’ll never know all the how’s and why’s

But we know that we’re here

And if we believe God gave us gifts

He’d want us to use them now

Today, this year.

 

To build a world where all can share

The big and small, the low and high

We’ll never know if we will succeed

But I believe that we must try

This isn’t the whole story by any means. The civil rights movement, the solidarity campaign with Cuba, the anti-war movement – the whole ‘sixties’ put Pete very much back in public view and back on a major label. His work with Arlo Guthrie, the reformation of The Weavers, The Hudson River Revival and much more, testify to his enormous breadth of activities, but all of it was pretty much in place when he started in the late thirties. Pete was remarkably consistent in his beliefs – never abandoning his radical vision, his internationalism or his cultural patriotism – the three key components of the cultural popular front – ‘everything and anything that was at one time radical, rebellious, subversive, revolutionary and downright quixotic.’ He remained, at his death, very much what he had always been, and the last of the Popular Front songsters. 

by Gary Cristall