The Legacy of Pete Seeger

Douglas Wolk

By Douglas Wolk

on 01.29.14 in Spotlights

Pete Seeger’s contributions to American music were so titanic that it’s easy to overlook them, or to assume they’ve always been there. To many, the folk singer, who died January 28 at the age of 94, was simply the old man of American music, the frail, earnest gentleman who turned up to one progressive gathering after another, blessing it with his presence and perhaps leading a sing-along. He also had a habit of pointing the spotlight away from himself and onto his audience. As he often put it, he wanted “to put a song on people’s lips, instead of just in their ears.”

What we now think of as “folk music” — the songs we learn before we start caring about where they come from — is pretty much entirely Seeger’s conception. The “folk” sound of the ’40s and ’50s and ’60s came from a comparatively small group of people, and Seeger was one of the masterminds who turned it into pop. (The five-string banjo became the quintessential folk instrument because Seeger liked it and popularized it, in America and elsewhere. He also wrote the standard instruction book, How to Play the 5-String Banjo.) He conceived of folk very specifically as a political vehicle, one that could unite groups of people behind ideals by bringing their voices together.

In 1940, Seeger and Woody Guthrie formed the Almanac Singers, an explicitly political folk ensemble. (Their 1941 album Songs for John Doe urges non-intervention in World War II; their 1942 album Dear Mr. President featured pro-war songs like “Round and Round Hitler’s Grave.”) During the group’s brief existence, the Almanac Singers also included Sonny Terry, Brownie McGhee, Tom Glazer, Josh White and Burl Ives, all of whom went on to be beloved folkies.

Seeger’s next major group was the Weavers, formed in 1948, who turned folk music into an explicitly commercial proposition. (Lead Belly was the genius behind “Goodnight, Irene,” but the Weavers were the geniuses who figured out how to make it a No. 1 hit for three months.) If you’ve ever sung “Kisses Sweeter than Wine” or “On Top of Old Smoky” or “Sloop John B.” or “The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” you almost certainly learned them through a path that went through the Weavers.

From the Weavers years onward, Seeger always had an ear for songs that would fit well on people’s lips. He tweaked the union hymn “We Will Overcome” to “We Shall Overcome” — to make it more singable, he explained. He co-wrote “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” and “If I Had a Hammer,” and adapted “Turn! Turn! Turn” and “The Bells of Rhymney” into songs. Interrogated by the House of Un-American Activities Committee in 1955, he refused to answer most of their questions, but tried to get them to let him talk about “If I Had a Hammer”: “I am sorry you are not interested in the song. It is a good song…I know many beautiful songs from your home county.”

By the time Bruce Springsteen recorded We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions in 2006 — an album consisting of songs that were part of Seeger’s repertoire, rather than songs by him — the days of HUAC and the blacklist were just a matter of history. Seeger’s political victories were hard-fought, but his musical victories were so easy that there scarcely seemed to have been any struggle associated with them. Think of “Little Boxes” serving as the theme song to Weeds, or Wyclef Jean rewriting “Guantanamera,” or Kermit the Frog sitting on a log, playing “The Rainbow Connection” on his banjo. Those don’t seem like homages to Seeger, and indeed none of them are songs he wrote. But none of those moments would have happened without him.