Humanist Profile: Pete Seeger
“I’ve had preachers of the gospel, Presbyterians and Methodists, saying, ‘Pete, I feel that you are a very spiritual person.’ And maybe I am. I feel strongly that I’m trying to raise people’s spirits to get together.”
—Pete Seeger, interviewed in 2006 by Wendy Shuman for Beliefnet
Peter “Pete” Seeger was born on May 3, 1919, in New York City. He was the youngest of three sons born to Charles Louis Seeger, a Harvard-trained musicologist and pacifist, and Constance de Clyver, a concert violinist.
In his early years Seeger attended boarding schools and spent time in the company of his father and stepmother’s circle of artists, musicians, and intellectuals. He also learned to play the banjo as a teenager.
Seeger started college at Harvard but his interests in folk music and political activism overshadowed his studies and he dropped out in 1938. In the early 1940s he worked at the Archive of American Folk Song of the Library of Congress, performed music, and also met Woody Guthrie, with whom he traveled the country, hitchhiking and hopping freight trains.
In 1942 Seeger joined the Communist Party USA, and although he would later say he “drifted away” from it, his critics have always contended that Seeger didn’t do enough to condemn Joseph Stalin and distance himself from Soviet communism. In 1955 Seeger appeared before the House Un-American Activities Committee where he refused to answer questions he said violated his constitutional rights, and in 1961 he was convicted on ten counts of contempt of Congress. The convictions were later overturned, but suspicion of his communist past would linger for years. In 2007 he openly condemned Stalin in the song, “Big Joe Blues.”
As a songwriter, Seeger is most famous for penning the tunes, “If I Had a Hammer,” “Turn, Turn, Turn,” and “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” He also popularized the old spiritual “We Shall Overcome” into an anthem for the Civil Rights Movement. Bruce Springsteen once called Seeger “a living archive of America’s music and conscience,” affirmed in Seeger’s attention to the labor movement in the 1940s and ’50s, civil rights support and anti-war protest in the ’60s, and his attention to environmental and populist causes thereafter.
In a 2006 Beliefnet interview Seeger talked about the power of music and singing onstage with others in front of a large audience: “We all go to different churches or no churches, we have different favorite foods, different ways of making love, different ways of doing all sorts of things, but there we’re all singing together. Gives you hope.”
Seeger and his wife Toshi had a famously close marriage from 1943 to her death in July of 2013. Their first child died as an infant and they had three more children and six grandchildren. He and Toshi lived in the Hudson Valley where they co-founded the Hudson River Sloop Clearwater environmental group and hosted an annual music and environmental festival.
One of Seeger’s last public appearances was at the 2013 Farm Aid benefit concert, during which he sang, “This Land Is Your Land” with an anti-fracking verse added to the end. “Someone wanted to make ‘This Land Is Your Land’ the national anthem,” he recalled. “I said, ‘Please no—can’t you see the marines marching into the next little country singing ‘This land is your land, this land is my land?’”
Pete Seeger died January 27, 2014, at the age of ninety-four.