At Selma and Around the World, Pete Seeger Brought Us Closer Together

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At Selma and Around the World, Pete Seeger Brought Us Closer Together

The Freedom Singers and Pete Seeger (far right) at the Newport Folk Festival in 1963. (Credit: DGI Photography)

One of the few missing ingredients in the wonderful new film Selma is the centrality of music during the Selma-to-Montgomery, Alabama march. A tiny snippet of field recordings from the march can be heard at the very end of the movie's credits, but otherwise the movie ignores the constant singing that emboldened the marchers during the four-day, 54- mile trek.

Not surprisingly, Pete Seeger -- who died a year ago at age 94 -- was there to help lift the marchers' spirits, as he did for every progressive crusade during his lifetime.

Rev. Martin Luther King invited Seeger to join the March 1965 event that helped draw national attention to the horrors of Jim Crow segregation and the denial of voting rights and which led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act later that year. Other singers -- including Odetta, Nina Simone, Joan Baez, Harry Belafonte, Leon Bibb, Ella Fitzgerald, and Peter, Paul and Mary -- joined the march, too.

But the marchers didn't need celebrities to get them to sing. Throughout the civil rights movement, activists used songs -- at church meetings, rallies, and protests, on buses during Freedom Rides, and even in jail -- to boost their morale. They often revised Negro spirituals to fit specific occasions.

Seeger was not at march to entertain, but to help empower the protesters through their collective voice and to show his solidarity with the civil rights struggle, as he'd done for years. During the march, amid the tension and heat, Pete joined with others in song. When they stopped at night, pitching tents along the roadside, Seeger went from campfire to campfire, listening to the exhausted marchers sing, encouraging them, and jotting down the words so he could spread their message. With Len Chandler and the Freedom Voices, Seeger compiled a collection of songs that were sung during the march or were inspired by that fateful protest, including "Do What the Spirits Say Do," "Oh, Wallace," "Which Side Are You On?" "Aint Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me 'Round," and "Keep Your Eyes on the Prize." Folkways Records released the album, WNEW's Story of Selma, a few months later. It is still available.

Seeger played an important but little-known role in the civil rights movement. He and folksinger Guy Carawan had heard the song "We Shall Overcome" at the Highlander Folk School, a training center for civil rights and labor activists in Tennessee. They rewrote the words and music to make it more singable. They introduced it to activists at civil rights rallies and meetings, and it soon became the movement's anthem. But it didn't stop there. Human rights activists around the world adopted "We Shall Overcome" as their own theme song. In that way, and in many other ways, Seeger brought the world closer together with his music.

Every day, every minute, someone in the world is singing a Pete Seeger song. For over six decades, he introduced Americans to songs from other cultures, like "Wimowe" ("The Lion Sleeps Tonight") from Africa, "Tzena, Tzena" from Israel (which reached #2 on the pop charts), and "Guantanemera" from Cuba, inspiring what is now called "world music."

The songs he wrote, including the antiwar tunes, "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?", "If I Had a Hammer," and "Turn, Turn, Turn," and those he popularized, including "This Land Is Your Land" and "We Shall Overcome," have been recorded by hundreds of artists in many languages and have become global anthems for people fighting for freedom. His songs are sung by people in cities and villages around the world, promoting the basic idea that the hopes that unite us are greater than the fears that divide us.

Seeger was a much-acclaimed and innovative guitarist and banjoist, a globe-trotting minstrel and song collector, and the author of many songbooks and musical how-to manuals. In addition to being a World War 2 veteran, he was on the front lines of every key progressive crusade during his lifetime -- labor unions and migrant workers in the 1930s and 1940s, the banning of nuclear weapons and opposition to the Cold War in the 1950s, civil rights and the anti-Vietnam War movement in the 1960s, environmental responsibility and opposition to South African apartheid in the 1970s, and, always, human rights throughout the world.

Pete kept coming out of semi-retirement to do one more concert, give one more interview, write one more book, record one more album. His remarkable spirit, energy, and optimism kept him going through triumphs and tragedies, but he outlived all his enemies and remained one of the greatest American heroes of this or any other era.

Pete was the subject of several biographies (including David King Dunaway's How Can I Keep from Singing? The Ballad of Pete Seeger, Alec Wilkinson's The Protest Singer: An Intimate Portrait of Pete Seeger and Alan Winkler's To Everything There Is a Season ) as well as Jim Brown's inspiring documentary film, Pete Seeger: The Power of Song. Last year, Ronald Cohen and James Capaldi edited a wonderful collection of articles, The Pete Seeger Reader, that trace his long and storied career, focusing on his work as not only a singer, but also on his substantial contributions as an educator, songwriter, organizer, publisher, and journalist.

But Pete, who was modest and self-effacing, never wrote a full-length autobiography. Three years ago, however, he published a collection of his own writings, Pete Seeger In His Own Words. The book presents Pete in his own voice. With Pete's cooperation, Rob Rosenthal (a sociology professor at Wesleyan University) and Sam Rosenthal (a musician and writer) dug through Pete's extensive writings -- letters stored for decades in his family barn, notes to himself, published articles, rough drafts, stories, books, poems, and songs -- to chronicle and illuminate Pete's incredible life as America's troubadour for social justice.

The son of musicologists Charles and Ruth Seeger, Pete spent two years at Harvard, where he got involved in radical politics and helped start a student newspaper, the Harvard Progressive, but he quit in 1938 in order to try his own hand at changing society by making music. He worked at the Library of Congress's Archive of American Folk Song (where he learned many of the songs he would sing throughout his career), traveled around with Woody Guthrie singing at migrant labor camps and union halls, and perfected his guitar- and banjo-playing skills.

In 1941, at age 22, Seeger formed the Almanac Singers with Lee Hays and Millard Lampell, later joined by Guthrie, Bess Lomax (daughter of musicologist John Lomax), and several others who rotated in and out of the group. The Almanacs drew on traditional songs and wrote their own songs to advance the cause of progressive groups, the Communist Party, the Congress of Industrial Organizations unions, the New Deal, and, later, the United States and its allies (including the Soviet Union) in the fight against fascism. The Almanacs were part of a broader upsurge of popular progressive culture during the New Deal, fostered in part by programs like the federal theater and writers' projects. Even so, the group was hounded by the FBI, got few bookings, and was dropped by its agent, the William Morris Agency. After Seeger and Guthrie joined the military, the group disbanded in 1943.

The Almanacs cultivated an image of being unpolished amateurs. Guthrie once said that the Almanacs "rehearsed on stage." Among them, however, Seeger was the most gifted and disciplined musician, with a remarkable repertoire of traditional songs. He carefully crafted a stage persona that inspired audiences to join him, a performing style that he perfected when he began working as a soloist. Every Seeger concert involved a lot of group singing.

Immediately after World War II, American radicals and liberals sought to resume popular support for progressive unions, civil rights, and internationalism. The left's folk-music wing hoped to build on its modest successes before and during the war. In 1946 Seeger led the effort to create People's Songs (an organization of progressive songwriters and performers, dominated by but not confined to folk musicians) and People's Artists (a booking agency to help the members of People's Songs get concert gigs and recording contracts). They compiled The People's Song Book (which included protest songs from around the world), sponsored a number of successful concerts, and organized chapters in several cities and on college campuses.

When Henry Wallace ran for president on the Progressive Party ticket in 1948, his campaign relied heavily on folk music. Seeger traveled with Wallace during the campaign, distributing song sheets at every meeting or rally so that sing-alongs, led by Seeger, could alternate with Wallace's speeches.

By 1949 folk music had become increasingly popular, with performers like Burl Ives, Josh White, and others gaining a foothold in popular culture, but the folk music of this period had lost much of its political edge.

For a brief period, as a member of the Weavers folk quartet, Seeger achieved commercial success, performing several chart-topping songs that reflected his eclectic repertoire. The group was formed in 1948 by Seeger and Hays (both former Almanacs), along with Ronnie Gilbert and Fred Hellerman. They exposed audiences to their repertoire of songs from around the world as well as to American folk traditions, but without the overt advocacy of left-wing political causes. Decca Records signed the Weavers to a recording contract and added orchestral arrangements and instruments to their music, a commercial expediency that rankled Seeger but delighted Hays. The Weavers performed in the nation's most prestigious nightclubs and appeared on network television shows.

In 1950 their recording of an Israeli song, "Tzena Tzena," reached number two on the pop charts, and their version of Lead Belly's "Goodnight, Irene," reached number one and stayed on the charts for half a year. Several of their recordings -- "On Top of Old Smokey," "Kisses Sweeter Than Wine," the African song "Wimoweh," and "Midnight Special" -- also made the charts. Their 1951 recording of Guthrie's song "So Long It's Been Good to Know You," reached number four.

But the Weavers' commercial success was short-lived. As soon as they began to be widely noticed in 1950, they were targeted by both private and government witch-hunters. The FBI and Congress escalated their investigations. Seeger and the Weavers were mentioned in Red Channels and Counterattack, the semiofficial private guidebooks for the blacklist. A few performers, notably Josh White and Burl Ives, agreed to cooperate with the investigators and were able to resume their careers; others refused to do so, and some were blacklisted. The Weavers survived for another year with bookings and even TV shows, but finally the escalating Red Scare caught up with them. Their contract for a summer television show was canceled. They could no longer get bookings in the top nightclubs. Radio stations stopped playing their songs, and their records stopped selling. They never had another major hit record.

Seeger left the Weavers to pursue a solo career, but he was blacklisted from the early 1950s through the mid-1960s. In 1955 he was convicted of contempt of Congress for refusing to discuss his political affiliations at a hearing called by the House Committee on Un-American Activities, although he never spent time in jail. (The conviction was overturned on appeal in May 1962). Many colleges and concert halls refused to book Seeger. He was kept off network television. In 1963 ABC refused to allow Seeger to appear on Hootenanny, which owed its existence to the folk music revival Seeger had helped inspire.

During the blacklist years, Seeger scratched out a living by giving guitar and banjo lessons and singing at the small number of summer camps, churches, high schools and colleges, and union halls that were courageous enough to invite the controversial balladeer. In 1966, on New York City's nonprofit educational television station, he hosted a low-budget folk music program, Rainbow Quest, that gave exposure to many little-known country, bluegrass, and folk singers. The station had a limited viewership at the time, but fortunately the programs were taped and are now available on YouTube.

Eventually, however, Seeger's audience grew. In the 1960s he sang with civil rights workers at rallies and churches throughout the South. Alabama. In a letter to Seeger, Martin Luther King thanked him for his "moral support and Christian generosity."

In 1967 Tom and Dick Smothers defiantly invited Seeger onto their popular CBS television variety show, the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. True to his principles, Seeger insisted on singing a controversial antiwar song, "Waist Deep in the Big Muddy." CBS censors refused to air the song, but public outrage forced the network to relent and allow him to perform the song on the show a few months later.

Seeger helped catalyze the folk music revival of the 1960s, encouraging young performers, helping start the Newport Folk Festival, and promoting the folk song magazine Sing Out! that he had helped launch. His book How to Play the 5-String Banjo taught thousands of baby boomers how to play this largely forgotten instrument. On stage, he always taught his audiences songs from around the world, often sung in their original languages, such as "Wimoweh" and "Guantanamera."

Many prominent musicians, including Bob Dylan, Bono, Joan Baez, the Byrds, Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks, Bonnie Raitt, Tom Morello, and Bruce Springsteen consider Seeger a role model and trace their musical roots to his influence. Many of his 80 albums -- which include children's songs, labor and protest songs, traditional American folk songs, international songs, and Christmas songs -- have reached wide audiences. His travels around the world -- collecting songs and performing in many languages -- inspired today's world music movement. Among performers around the globe, Seeger became a symbol of a principled artist deeply engaged in the world.

In 1969 Seeger launched the group Clearwater (near his home in Beacon, N.Y.) and an annual celebration dedicated to cleaning up the polluted Hudson River. The effort, at first written off as simplistic and naive, helped inspire the environmental movement. The Hudson, once filled with oil pollution, sewage and toxic chemicals, is now swimmable.

Through persistence and unrelenting optimism, Seeger endured and overcame the controversies triggered by his activism. In 1994, at age 75, he received the National Medal of Arts (the highest award given to artists and arts patrons by the U.S. government) as well as a Kennedy Center Honor, when President Bill Clinton called him "an inconvenient artist, who dared to sing things as he saw them." In 1996 he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame because of his influence on so many rock performers. In 1997 he won the Grammy Award for his 18-track compilation album, Pete.

In the 21st century, some of the nation's most prominent singers recorded albums honoring Seeger, including Springsteen's Seeger Sessions. In May 2009 more than 15,000 admirers filled New York City's Madison Square Garden for a concert honoring Seeger on his 90th birthday. The performers included Springsteen, Baez, Dave Matthews, Emmylou Harris, Billy Bragg, Rufus Wainwright, Bela Fleck, Taj Mahal, Roger McGuinn, Steve Earle, Ramblin' Jack Elliott, Dar Williams, Tom Morello, Ani DiFranco, and John Mellencamp.

In 2012 Pete released two new albums. A More Perfect Union featured 16 original songs written with singer-songwriter Lorre Wyatt and includes duets with Springsteen, Morello, Earle, Harris, and Williams. The two-CD Pete Remembers Woody honored his friend as part of the centennial celebration of Guthrie's birth. It includes reminiscences, songs, and anecdotes.

In the year before he died, Seeger released the music video and single of "God's Counting on Me, God's Counting on You," performed with Arlo Guthrie at Carnegie Hall, shared the stage at New York's Beacon Theater with Harry Belafonte, Jackson Brown and others to celebrate the life of Native American activist Leonard Peltier, and issued an audiobook entitled Peter Seeger: The Storm King, Stories, Narratives and Poems (which was nominated for a Grammy).

Toshi, his wife of 70 years who helped manage Pete's career, died in July 2014, just six months before him. Despite the enormous loss, Pete kept on singing. He sang "I Come and Stand at Every Door" on Democracy Now to commemorate the 68th anniversary of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombings. He sang "This Land is Your Land" (adding an anti-fracking verse) at the Farm Aid concert in Saratoga Springs (joined by Willie Nelson, Neil Young, John Mellencamp, and Dave Matthews). A month before he died he performed at a concert in Nyack to benefit the Fellowship of Reconciliation, a peace group.

Probably no song reflects Pete's indomitable spirit more than "Quite Early Morning," the song he sang on the Colbert Report in 2012.

Don't you know it's darkest before the dawn
And it's this thought keeps me moving on
If we could heed these early warnings
The time is now quite early morning
If we could heed these early warnings
The time is now quite early morning

Some say that humankind won't long endure
But what makes them so doggone sure?
I know that you who hear my singing
Could make those freedom bells go ringing
I know that you who hear my singing
Could make those freedom bells go ringing

And so keep on while we live
Until we have no, no more to give
And when these fingers can strum no longer
Hand the old banjo to young ones stronger
And when these fingers can strum no longer
Hand the old banjo to young ones stronger

So though it's darkest before the dawn
These thoughts keep us moving on
Through all this world of joy and sorrow
We still can have singing tomorrows
Through all this world of joy and sorrow
We still can have singing tomorrows

Pete's fingers can strum no longer, but, thanks to him, people around the world can have many "singing tomorrows."

Peter Dreier

Peter Dreier

Peter Dreier is E.P. Clapp Distinguished Professor of Politics, and chair of the Urban & Environmental Policy Department, at Occidental College. His most recent book is The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century: A Social Justice Hall of Fame (Nation Books, 2012). His other books include: Place Matters: Metropolitics for the 21st Century (University Press of Kansas, 3rd edition, 2014), and The Next Los Angeles: The Struggle for a Livable City (University of California Press, revised 2006). He writes regularly for the Los Angeles Times, Common Dreams, The Nation, and Huffington Post.

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