Pete Seeger Was A Movement Musician


If Pete Seeger were still with us, how would he be celebrating his 100th birthday?  Probably by chopping wood.

On May 3rd, 1919, Pete Seeger was born. Many people in the more musical regions of my social circles are currently celebrating his life, for the occasion of what would have been his 100th birthday, had he lived past the age of 94. Among people I know, so much has already been said about Pete, that I’m hesitant to say any more. But on fairly obsessive reflection around the subject of Pete Seeger myself in recent days, I realize I do have thoughts that might be worth sharing, despite the quantity of verbiage already cluttering the web.

So much has been said and written about him over the course of the past 83 years or so, it’s very easy to blend fact with fiction. This is perhaps especially true for people who knew him, but only a little. Does reading a book and having a short conversation with the author give you much more insight into the subject of the book than you would have had without that conversation? Probably not. But it’s been six years since Pete died, and I’m six years older. And I’ll just say up front here that it’s not my deeply intimate familiarity with Pete that makes me feel like I have something to say here — I barely knew the guy. But we had a lot of mutual friends and acquaintances, and most importantly, we shared the same profession — I am, and he was, a musician, among other things, but specifically a musician with deep social movement roots. He was a fish swimming in a sea of social movements throughout his life, and he navigated the waters as best he could, to be a helpful, musical part of those movements.

Anyone who visited him at his home mentions the wood-splitting right away. I never visited him at home or split wood with him, though I did sweep a floor with him once. I know how the wood-splitting thing can be, though, having grown up not far away from Beacon, New York, myself, in a wood-heated home in Connecticut, very close to another river that had, like the Hudson, long ago also been poisoned by industry — the Housatonic. You split a lot of wood to keep a wood stove hot through a northeastern winter. Or up in the hills, through the spring and fall, as well. Pete was reputed to live a very simple life, to the extent that he could manage it, as a relatively famous, at times chart-topping musician.

As far as I know, he never resented the fact that he did well enough as a musician to tour the world and feed his family. But Pete talked on so many occasions in so many ways about how profoundly uncomfortable he was with all the attention. When I was younger I assumed this was just him being humble — that secretly, he really enjoyed the fame and wealth. But later, on reflection, it’s very clear to me that he meant what he said — and pretty much everything he did in his life as a musician and organizer reinforced his words.

Pete certainly believed in the power of music, and surely wished music, including his music, would be used in many different circumstances — for the love of music, and for movement-building and community-building of all kinds. But throughout his life, though the spotlight repeatedly kept turning to him, among others, he was working for the movement.

By no means am I suggesting that Pete was anything less than a great musician, musical interpreter, and songwriter — he was all three. But his desire to just be an effective, musical part of a social movement, and not to be a shining star floating somewhere above the movement, was real.

When Pete Seeger was conceived, millions of people were slaughtering each other in Europe in the First World War. When Pete was a baby, the radical labor movement in the form of the IWW was being brutally destroyed in a concerted national campaign of arson, lynchings, arrests and deportations of union activists, carried out by the federal government. By the time Pete was a preteen, the Great Depression was in full swing, and the heir to the IWW, the Congress of Industrial Organizations, was organizing the working class, this time with much greater success than the IWW had had, partially because the federal authorities under FDR were sympathetic to unions. The CIO was led in no small part by Communist Party members. At that time, when people talked about the labor movement, the term was as inclusive as the term “the movement” later became in the Sixties. It was certainly meant to include the farmers and the unemployed, and many others.

By the time he was 17, with the Great Depression still raging, Pete was playing his banjo for the movement, back in the Thirties. Pete and I had a mutual friend named Bob Steck. Bob used to tell me about the movement in the 1930’s that he was an active part of, being a few years older than Pete (and also long dead). The Communist Party of the day focused a lot of energy on culture, what Bob called “the culture department.” He talked about how while organizing workers into unions was a major emphasis for Party organizers and sympathizers, of similar emphasis was the importance of communication — and using music and theater and other forms of culture to do that.

The CIO and the Communist Party were building on ideas and tactics that were well-worn, used with fairly spectacular success by the IWW, with its most well-known cultural import from Sweden, Joe Hill. When Pete Seeger was taking the subway around New York City singing for multiple labor and Communist Party events per day back when he was a teenager, Joe Hill had only been executed a little more than twenty years earlier. A typical day in the city Pete lived in at that time involved hundreds of thousands of people in the streets, protesting against capitalism, often being savagely beaten by police. When Pete was a teenager, many of his friends — including the aforementioned Bob Steck — went off to Spain, volunteering to fight alongside the anarchists there against fascism. Many of Pete’s friends never returned home. Many more would die in the far bigger, global war that occupied much of Pete’s twenties.

In the sea that Pete swam in, he was already feeling very lucky to be alive by the time he was a young adult. A child of privilege, but not living in what you might call a privileged time or a privileged position in it, partially by choice, but in any case, long before many other people would be thinking of mortality, Pete’s friends were dying, fighting for a cause they, and he, passionately believed in. Call it what you will, Pete disliked labels for his politics as much as he disliked labels for his music. But something involving egalitarianism, liberty, dignity, where everybody has a place to live, enough food, health care, clean water, etc. — that sort of thing.

He would see the lives of many of his friends and colleagues ruined by McCarthy’s anti-communist witch hunt, but Pete was, it seems to me, emotionally well-disposed to weather that storm, since he hadn’t been looking for the stardom he had just then been experiencing with his first big hits in the early 1950’s. He was blacklisted from TV and from lots of other venues, but he could still get gigs on the college campuses. Back during the blacklist, my mom was a student at Oberlin College, which is where she first heard a Pete Seeger concert.

As the Civil Rights movement got off the ground, Pete was there, naturally, going where the movement was. Same for the movement against the war in Vietnam, the movement against nuclear weapons and nuclear power, the environmental movement more broadly, the movement against intervention in Latin America, against invading Iraq, and, not long before he died, even Occupy Wall Street.

But it was natural for Pete to do these things, not because he was such a special guy with a heart of gold or whatever else — though he surely was — but because that’s what you do when you’re in the movement and you’re a musician. Pete was just a person. He was born into one of the greatest periods of social upheaval in the history of civilization — the 1930’s in New York City. He stood on the shoulders of the IWW, along with everyone else in the movement at the time, and he swam in the waters of the CPUSA, the CIO, and the social movement more broadly that these organizations were also just part of. Pete learned during that incredibly exciting, incredibly deadly period of history what the struggle was all about, what it meant to be a movement musician, and the role that music played in building and maintaining social movements.

What Pete learned from people like Bob back in the 1930’s was wisdom from a social movement that he spent the rest of his life sharing in so many ways. So did millions of other people who had the great privilege, or the curse, to be young American communists in New York City during the Great Depression and the world-historic social movement that it helped to bring into existence. Millions of lives were profoundly impacted by that thriving social movement, about which so much has been said, about which so much more needs to be said.

Bob Steck got home from Spain, after serving 16 months in one of Franco’s concentration camps. He became Director of Activities for Camp Unity, where he spent a lot of time hanging out with Pete Seeger, Leadbelly, Clifford Odets, Paul Robeson and other musicians and playwrights, who spent summers there along with lots of leftwing families from the New York region, performing, doing workshops, writing songs, skits and plays. In addition to his work at Camp Unity, Bob taught history in the New York public schools for thirty years.

I mention Bob only because I think that people like him, who were the people on the streets of New York who were largely responsible for imbuing Pete with his awareness of the world and his place in it, were serving the movement with the same sort of humble spirit that Pete gave to the movement. For Bob this meant running a summer camp and teaching history to poor kids in New York for most of his working life. For Pete it meant making a lot of music and doing a lot of organizing over the course of his life — which only coincidentally put him in the spotlight a hell of a lot more than any high school history teacher is ever likely to be in.

Both Bob and Pete were raised by progressives, so they likely would have been progressive anyway, had history unfolded differently than it did. But they were fundamentally shaped by the 1930’s and the social movements of the period. If you knew many other leftwingers from Pete’s generation, the signs of a movement organizer are obvious.

What I think confuses people to some extent is that, for one thing, we live in a society where the cult of the individual is a dominant force. But also, the movements and organizations that existed when he was young have changed over time, and in most cases don’t exist anymore. The character of movements change, too, in different times and places — there are a lot of notable differences between, say, the labor movement of the 1930’s and the environmental movement of the 1970’s, as well as a lot of similarities that could be easily overlooked.

Some movement organizers in the 1930’s were on the payroll of organizations that later ceased to exist, or from which they were purged, or from which they developed political differences. For some, that’s when the organizing ended. But for many others, their movement orientation wasn’t tied up with the Communist Party, the IWW, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, or any other organization, celebrity or political figure. They were movement organizers, movement musicians, and if the movement didn’t find them, they kept doing their thing as best they could until the next wave came along, trying in various ways to poke the water and make it happen. That was Pete’s orientation, quite clearly.

Most of what I’ve written so far are conclusions I could have reached from reading Pete’s Wikipedia entry. But my own personal experiences bear out these sorts of impressions very clearly, of Pete as popular educator, organizer and promoter of things bigger than himself. The best way I can think of to summarize my personal experience of Pete Seeger, which also confirms all of my suspicions about the man, is that I essentially met him for the first time on at least three different occasions. Each time we met, it had been long enough since the last time that he clearly wasn’t making the association, or had forgotten about the last time. Each time was an entirely different context, and each time his response was consistent — to use his knowledge and position to promote the movement, to promote good communication, and to promote other artists.

Pete was only in his seventies when we first met. He looked old — white people who spend a lot of time outdoors are especially prone to wrinkling — but he was still very energetic. I sent the lyrics to a song I had just written, back in 1995, about the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma. His response was to call me at my mother’s house and invite me to perform at the Clearwater Festival. Years later I sent him another lyric, and his response was to send me back sheet music for it which he had just written, for me to use if I wanted to. But then, during the course of what many of us were calling the Global Justice movement, when I was getting a lot of interesting gigs in the late Nineties, I had a show with Pete Seeger at the Grassroots Radio Conference. When we met again there in Jefferson, New York, it was evident that Pete had heard of me before, but didn’t realize we had already met several times. (Not that I asked, but it was clear that he thought we were meeting for the first time.) Once again, years later, a check arrived in the mail for $100 and a note indicating he had just discovered my music, and requesting that I send him all the CDs I had ever recorded.

Without, I hope, appearing to brag, the point is that Pete had his finger on the pulse of social movement activity. The reason why we saw each other and had other forms of contact on so many occasions in the late Nineties and early Naughties was specifically because those were the years when I was very much plugged in to two different overlapping social movements active around that time, which we could roughly characterize as the Global Justice movement and the Antiwar movement. He was hearing about me because he was plugged into those movements, too, just as he had been with previous movements. There are many other artists who can share similar stories about Pete.

I believe the last time I saw him in person was on February 15th, 2003. I guess he would have been 83. He was with his wife, Toshi, who I had briefly met before at the Beacon Sloop Club and maybe elsewhere. We were behind the stage at the antiwar rally which the antiwar coalition, United for Peace and Justice, had organized. We were waiting to do our bits, each of us were to do one song. It was way, way below freezing, with a harsh wind whipping between the skyscrapers of Manhattan. My friend Brad Simpson was rushing around — he was one of the organizers, at the time working for the War Resistors League. His former employer, Amy Goodman, was there, along with former South African Archbishop and anti-apartheid organizer Desmond Tutu and a bunch of other folks, including my singing partner at the time, Allie Rosenblatt.

Loads of mainstream media were there, too, but without exception, they were all glued to every word and every facial movement of Danny Glover, who was there, too, looking magnificent and impervious to the cold, unlike the rest of us shivering mortals. (In retrospect, those camera lights may have been very warm, and he may not be superhuman after all, but who knows.) Pete and Toshi were sensibly dressed in warm winter jackets, but I was concerned about the very red bits of exposed skin on his face, as he sat on an uncomfortable little chair in this very cold, dimly-lit tent.

I don’t remember what we talked about. I’m sure I was trying to be cool, and not slobber. I was just glad that Pete wasn’t currently in the limelight enough to warrant the cameras of the TV stations when Danny Glover was standing five feet away, and we could just chill, if you will, and be anonymous together. Bruce Springsteen’s album, the Seeger Sessions, would come out three years later. Pete was reportedly annoyed by Mr Springsteen’s choice for the title.

David Rovics is a singer-songwriter who tours regularly throughout North America, Europe, and occasionally elsewhere. Read other articles by David, or visit David's website.