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Pete Seeger


Pete Seeger

There is probably no more influential and important name associated with the mid-20th century rise and discovery of folk music than Pete Seeger. Seeger was born in New York City in 1919, the son of Charles Seeger, a well-known musicologist who turned the Seeger children (Pete, Mike and Peggy) into practitioners of traditional folk music. His mother was a violin teacher. The Seeger children took up banjo but Mike and Peggy became proficient at a number of instruments while Pete is known primarily for banjo (and ukulele), moving from the four-string instrument to the five-string banjo that became his trademark. Barely out of his teens in the late ‘30s, Pete Seeger took an intense interest in traditional music and traveled in various parts of the country to learn music associated with workers and farmers. He hooked up with fellow folk artist Woody Guthrie and the two started the Almanac Singers, a politically-oriented group, with other like-minded players and singers. Their purpose was to entertain while raising support for unions and fighting the rising fascism of the '30s. Upon leaving the Army after World War II, Seeger returned to the music and ideals he loved, becoming involved in groups like People’s Songs and People’s Artists and in 1948 formed a major source of traditional-styled music, the Weavers. The quartet of singers recorded several major hits, including "Tzena, Tzena, Tzena," " Goodnight Irene," and "On Top of Old Smoky." But 1948 was also a crucial year for Seeger as he was blacklisted during the haunted and paranoid years of the communist witch-hunts orchestrated by Sen. Joe McCarthy. Seeger was called but refused to testify as the House Un-American Activities Committee raided the entertainment industry (movies, music, writers), devastating numerous careers of people who refused to testify and name others, or others who were named by testifiers as possibly having communist ties. The McCarthy Era was an eerie time that lasted into the mid-‘50s before coming to an end. Seeger was charged with contempt of Congress but finally won his case in 1962. Although refused venues in the United States, he was able to perform abroad, where he sold out concerts regularly and spoke out against civil rights violations and on environmental issues as these subjects were slowly putting pressure on Congress in the U.S. The Weavers had lost their recording contract during the above time, but Seeger eventually was able to return to recording. He had a number of albums with the Folkways and Vanguard labels. In 1961, Columbia Records signed him, releasing his work until 1970. He was also during that time becoming a major figure in the revival of folk music that was taking the East Coast by storm in the late ‘50s and well into the ‘60s. He was a major figure in the Newport Folk Festivals and helped develop the new rising talent. And he performed long concerts that included his own music and that of other folk artists such as Malvina Reynolds ("Little Boxes"). His shows would include "Guantanamera," "We Shall Overcome," "Where Have All the Flowers Gone," and his "Turn Turn Turn," which became a big hit for the Byrds, or any number of his own or traditional songs done Seeger-style. A major part of his performances had the audience singing along – successfully. Other artists took to his music. Besides the Byrds, his songs or his adaptations of songs were recorded by, among others, Trini Lopez and Peter, Paul & Mary ("If I Had a Hammer"). He also began working occasionally with Woody Guthrie’s son, Arlo, now becoming a star in his own right. Away from music, in 1969 Seeger launched the Clearwater Sloop Project on the Hudson River, which aimed to clean up the river. He continued to perform and record for many years while working at benefits that campaigned for civil rights, peace and equality. Before the '70s were over, he had recorded more than fifty albums of music and instructional sides for fledgling banjoists and songwriters. He also appeared on records by many other folk artists, both singing and playing. Several "greatest hits" albums of Pete Seeger have been recorded, including one in 1993, "Live At Newport," which has music of the folk festival between 1963-65. One of his most important releases came in 1963, when Columbia recorded his Carnegie Hall "We Shall Overcome" concert, a performance that saw his support of the now surging folk movement and its young performers, including his renditions of Bob Dylan music. Columbia as well as Folkway and Smithsonian have since released albums and his most recent appears to be "Pete," released in 1996.



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