Pete Seeger and the West
by Peter Gough
Pete Seeger called me on the telephone one Sunday morning. “Peter,” he said, “this is Pete Seeger. You have some questions about my father?”
I had been working on a Ph.D. dissertation about the Federal Music Project in the West during the 1930s, of which Pete’s father Charles Seeger had been the deputy director for several years. Thinking Pete may have some insights, I sent a postcard to the famous folksinger and activist via Clearwater, an organization he founded to clean up the Hudson River.
I never expected to hear back from him. Yet, our telephone conversation that day lasted more than three hours, and we eventually spoke on four other occasions on the telephone. The time he spent talking to me about not only his father but music, politics, religion, and a host of other subjects was apparently not uncommon for him. Pete Seeger, who passed away in January at the age of 94, was a man of genuine humility whose commitment to and enthusiasm for people and the causes he embraced seemed to know no bounds. He is entirely deserving of all the accolades he has received since his death.
If Seeger is associated with a specific section of the country, it would usually be his New England family roots or his home-life in New York State. Pete was born in 1919 at the French Hospital in Midtown Manhattan, and his ancestry can be traced from old Puritan stock dating to the Mayflower. Later, Pete became an original member of the early-1940s New York City-based folksong group the Almanac Singers – which also included Woody Guthrie, Lee Hays, and a frequently changing lineup. Pete’s connection to New York continued after he returned from service in World War II. He married Toshi Aline Ohta in 1943, lived in Greenwich Village for several years, and in 1949 the Seegers and their growing family moved to a log cabin they built themselves along the Hudson River, sixty miles north of New York City.
Pete Seeger’s connection to the regional American West, however, should not be overlooked. His father Charles has been called the “Father of West Coast Music,” and his influence in Pete’s life was, of course, immeasurable. Born in Mexico City the son of a “Yankee businessman,” Charles Seeger graduated from Harvard and studied in Germany before become chair of the University of California, Berkeley music department in 1911 at the age of twenty-four. While there he modernized the curriculum and taught a number of students who would become accomplished musicians, including composer Henry Cowell. Charles Seeger’s early exposure to the Hispanic and indigenous music of Mexico influenced his later contributions to the Federal Music Project, and also influenced his son Pete.
“So you were born in California?” I asked him. “No,” he responded, “I was conceived in California.” While at Berkeley, the elder Seeger’s restless intellect introduced him to the wider intellectual community “and pretty soon he was a socialist and reading Marx and other books,” said Pete. Charles Seeger became an outspoken critic of US involvement in the European military conflict, and according to Pete, “…he was making speeches against imperialist war. And my mother said, ‘Can’t you keep your mouth shut? You’re not going to be drafted!’ But he said, ‘When something is wrong, you speak up about it.’ His grandfather had been an abolitionist in the 1850s. My father got fired … around 1918.” Thus, with his separation from Berkeley, Seeger moved his young family back east. Constance Edson Seeger – an extraordinarily gifted concert violinist in her own right – was expecting the couple’s third son Peter at the time.
Pete Seeger’s association with western music can also be traced to at least two other sources. In 1910 early folksong collector John Lomax published Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads with an introduction by Theodore Roosevelt. The publication had a seminal influence on the collection and performance of traditional folksongs for decades. Pete Seeger’s earliest repertoire included many of these songs of the Old West, such as “Jesse James”, “The Old Chisholm Trail,” “Sweet Betsy from Pike” and “The Buffalo Skinners.” Pete Seeger maintained a close relationship with both John Lomax and his son Alan, who was also an important folksong collector. In the late 1930s, Pete was invited by Alan Lomax to work at the Library of Congress Archive of American Folk Song,
It was around this time that Pete Seeger first met Woody Guthrie – the Dust Bowl refugee and balladeer/folk-poet from Oklahoma who had been lionized by New York City left-wing social circles as an authentic voice of “the people.” Having dropped out of Harvard after two years, Pete connected with the seven-year-older Guthrie, from whom he learned many of the ways of the world. Guthrie did not know quite what to make of the lanky, Ivy League-pedigreed Seeger when they first met. The younger man did not drink, smoke, or chase women – self-denials which mystified the free-spirited Guthrie. Woody introduced Seeger to the fine arts of hitchhiking, freight-train jumping, and busking for one’s supper. He also familiarized Pete with the western landscape and cowboy songs of his youth. Certainly, Guthrie’s gritty, hardscrabble life in the Southwest was as alien to Pete as Seeger’s eastern blue blood mannerisms were to Woody. Despite the incongruity of their backgrounds and temperaments, the two men forged a friendship that helped shape the development of American culture and music during the twentieth century.
As a member of the folksong quartet The Weavers, and also a solo performer, Pete Seeger sang songs he collected from all over the world. These included “Tzena, Tzena, Tzena,” from Israel and “Wimoweh,” a South African song of Zulu origin. Several other numbers which he either composed or performed, however, found their genesis along the West Coast. In 1962 activist and singer-songwriter Malvina Reynolds wrote the song “Little Boxes,” a biting social parody of middle-class conformity. The lyrics for the song came to Reynolds while driving south from San Francisco, seeing the new housing developments sprouting up in Daly City, California. Her good friend Pete Seeger, with whom “Little Boxes” is most often associated, recorded and had something of a hit with the song in 1963. Another West Coast connection for Pete Seeger would be the chart-topping hit “Turn, Turn, Turn,” by the folk-rock group The Byrds in 1965. Pete Seeger wrote the song in late 1950s with lyrics adapted from the Book of Ecclesiastes. The Byrds had formed in Los Angeles, and were influential in the development of a West Coast sound in pop music as well the burgeoning hippie movement in San Francisco. “Turn, Turn, Turn” reached #1 for the Byrds on the Hot 100 chart in December, 1965.
The last time I called Pete Seeger his wife Toshi answered the telephone. The Seegers were married for nearly seventy years, until Toshi’s death this past July. I heard her call for Pete, saying she thought it was the reporter from Newsweek magazine. “Is this Brian?” asked Pete when he got to the telephone. “No,” I said, “this is the grad student from Nevada you were talking to last month about your father.” “Oh, yes, Peter,” he replied, without missing a beat, “where were we….” I truly believe if I had said I was the president of the United States or a man on the street I would have received the same response. In the end, Pete Seeger was not a man of any particular city, section, or region. He was, in Carl Sandburg’s estimation, “America’s tuning-fork,” and with his recent passing this country has lost one of the most determined and courageous voices for freedom and justice it has yet produced.
Peggy Seeger has written a wonderful forward for my forthcoming book Sounds of the New Deal: The Federal Music Project in the West to be published by the University of Illinois Press. Last week, Peggy sent me this video she made for her beloved brother Pete.
“It’s Pete” by Peggy Seeger
Peter Gough is a Visiting Assistant Professor at University of Nebraska Kearney. His book Sounds of the New Deal: The Federal Music Project in the West is forthcoming from the University of Illinois Press in 2015.