Pete Seeger's star has probably lost some of its luster in recent years; he still has his noble causes, his impossible dreams, but they are not as dramatic as they used to be during the incredible decades that began with his confrontation with the House Un-American Activities Committee and climaxed with the massive anti-war protests of the Johnson and Nixon years. Compared with such drama -- compared with the early postwar years when this Communist-affiliated pacifist was literally stoned by veterans' organizations and the Ku Klux Klan -- a campaign to clean up the Hudson River seems lacking in punch. But whether he makes headlines or not, Seeger has become a large and permanent part of our demotic musical history.
His roots stretch back to the folks and folklorists of the '30s -- Alan Lomax (who once gave him a job at the Library of Congress); Leadbelly and Woody Guthrie, who were colleagues; the union organizers who borrowed the art of political song from the Wobblies, the people who stood in bread lines or picketed or harvested fruits and vegetables for starvation wages. More than any other living figure, Seeger embodies all these traditions, and he handed them on, adding his own personal flavor, to the generation that marched against Jim Crow in the South, against war in Vietnam.
One of the most intriguing theories in Dunaway's fascinating biography-cum-critique is that Seeger was able to reach this audience -- the people who came of age in the '60s -- partly because he suffered from blacklisting in the '50s. Seeger and his folk group. The Weavers, were at the height of their popularity -- earning more money than Seeger found comfortable -- when he was listed as a Communist is the scurrilous publication "Red Channels," with 13 citations that placed him "somewhere between Aaron Copland and Lillian Hellman." The listing was not so much inaccurate as unfair, lumping Depression-era idealists with hard-core agitators and landing to sbsurd talk about "the left-wing folk-song conspiracy." Seeger found himself labeled as "Khrushchev's songbird," and suddenly he was no longer welcome on most stages. For years, his career went downhill, and he started performing mostly in schools and summer camps. One one job, Dunaway reports, "Seeger earned twenty-two dollars a week, and he was glad to get it." But the children he reached in those years were "an audience that would stick by him for decades, through Bo Diddley and the Beatles." In a wy, he was the Pied Piper of the Children's Crusade of the '60s and early '70s.
It was hard to predict that this would be his career until, unexpectedly, he found himself in the middle of it. Before settling down as a folk singer, he dreamed of being a journalist or a painter (watercolors, because oils were too expensive), and he dabbled in both trades. His family backgroun was intensely musical but traditionally classical, with a mother who was a violinist, a stepmother who was a distinguished composer and a father who pioneered the new discipline of musicology at Berkeley around the time of World War I. His father, Charles, also pioneered radical politics at Berkeley and ultimately found himself unemployed as a result. This assured the kind of formative years that would make Pete Seeger a national phenomenon nearly half a century later: a stern, New England background dating back to the Mayflower, affluence in the grandfather's generation and a hand-to-mouth existence in his own.
The Puritan ancestry has always shown through in his personal style, which is folk-oriented but not exactly folksy -- not in the way that Guthrie was. He is more like Cotton Mather with a banjo. Although Seeger is a genius at getting audiences to loosen up, he tends to be a bit stiff; he chooses his words and his actions with a kind of care that undermines true spontaneity. Compared to a hard-living character like his friend Leadbelly, Seeger comes one more like a minister -- a very liberal minister who always says exactly the right things but does it with a studied air.
Although he has spent much of his time singing in nightclubs, he has an aversion to alcohol, and the effect can be traumatic if fans are too insistent in offering him a drink. "They just didn't know how serious I feel about liquor," Seeger once said, recalling a particular incident. "I don't like to be forced to drink. If I don't want to drink, I don't want to drink! I'm not a very sociable person anyway." That episode ended with Seeger smashing his banjo to show how intensely he felt. On another occasion, the outcome was even worse; he ended an argument by smashing a colleague's mandolin.
His feelings about money are equally negative and intense; he tries not to think about it, and when he is forced to, he becomes uneasy. Once, when his payment was given to him by mistake, rather than to his manager, he took one quick look in the envelope and told his manager to reduce his fee. During an engagement in Reno, when The Weavers were one of the hottest groups in the country and some of them were spending a lot of time gambling, the Cotton Mather streak came out in full force: "He had a silver dollar in his hand and said, "I don't mind wasting my money,' and tossed the dollar into the pool."
In a life that has seen extremes of obscurity and success, Seeger has never seemed quite comfortabled with either -- though, on the whole, he probably prefers having to struggle against obstacles. "My son and daughters," he once wrote in a poem, "if I had three million dollars, I would not will them to you, for I would not want you to be hated . . . by the determined poor people of this our world."
Ultimately, he was able to weather and even perhaps neutralize commercial success, though it was harrowing while it lasted: the feeling of incomplete control over his life, the reduced freedom in choice of repertoire, the nagging impression that most people in mass audiences didn't really understand him, the feeling that he was being used by people interested only in money. After a career with so many ups and downs, such criticism from both left and right, he talks about himself reluctantly, and his biographer had a hard assignment that he has done well. Fortunately, Seeger has hundreds of friends and acquantances who were willing to talk, and his life is also well documented not only in newspaper clippings but in the reports of congressional committees, in FBI files and even in the long series of recordings that are scrupulously listed in the book's discography. Any questions left unanswered are probably those that only Seeger alone could answer -- and prefers not to.