The Protest Singer
Henry L. Carrigan, Jr.
Pete Seeger turned ninety earlier this week, and by all accounts, the benefit concert at Madison Square Garden was a rousing success. The man who gave us such classics as “Turn, Turn, Turn,” “The Hammer Song (If I Had a Hammer),” and “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” is still going strong, and musicians like Emmylou Harris and Bruce Springsteen sang Seeger’s songs and his praises at the birthday concert on Sunday, May 3, 2009.
An activist all of his life, Seeger turned to music early in life as way of promoting the cause of civil rights, communism, and the environment. The Madison Square Garden concert benefited Seeger’s Clearwater Foundation, which has been working to clean up the waters of his beloved Hudson River. In the Sixties, he and other folk singers popularized the protest slogan, “which side are you on?” and he was one of the folk singers Seeger was one of the folksingers most credited with popularizing the spiritual “We Shall Overcome.”
As Pete Seeger himself once wrote—borrowing the words of the biblical book Ecclesiastes—to every thing, there is a season. Now, as Seeger turns 90 two new biographies celebrate the season of Seeger. Since the great folk singer’s life has been lived mostly in the public eye, and since the size of the archival materials is relatively small, these two books cover much of the same ground, repeating the same stories in almost exactly the same words. Both books chronicle Seeger’s life from his childhood ambitions to be an artist to his growing love of music, his dropping out of Harvard, his early years as a folk musician with the folk group, The Weavers, his support of the union movement, his testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee, his work with Civil Rights movement and the anti-Vietnam war movements of the 1960s, and his passionate commitment to the environmental movement of the 1970s.
An accomplished storyteller, New Yorker writer Alec Wilkinson draws on interviews with Seeger and others as he presents a seamless chronicle of Seeger’s life and music in The Protest Singer: An Intimate Portrait of Pete Seeger. Seeger’s passion for humanity, his love of the environment, his commitment to social justice, and his deep curiosity about music come alive in Wilkinson’s little book. While he passes lightly over the origin of some of Seeger’s songs, he nevertheless shows the ways that Seeger discovers that music can stem the tide of hatred, ignorance, prejudice and that such music can be a force for reconciliation. In his typical passionate but self-effacing manner, Seeger tells Wilkinson that he now spends his days trying to get people to realize that there may be no human race unless we can find ways to talk to people we deeply disagree with. Wilkinson’s book also includes two appendices: one containing Charles Seeger’s, Pete’s father, reflections on the purpose of music, and the other containing a transcript of Pete’s testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1955. Wilkinson’s book was published on Pete Seeger’s ninetieth birthday.
Historian Allan Winkler, whose book, “To Everything There is a Season”: Pete Seeger and the Power of Song, is part of an Oxford series called “New Narratives in American History,” covers the same ground as Wilkinson but in a more workmanlike and pedantic fashion. Using the titles of Seeger’s songs as framing devices, he peers into each chapter of Seeger’s life at modest length, providing some details about how a song came to be written or why such a song was written at a certain time. For example, Winkler’s chapter, “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy,” narrates Seeger’s opposition to the Vietnam War and the way in which that protest song captures Seeger’s feelings. As Winkler points out, the song was so controversial that CBS originally refused to play it; eventually, the Smothers Brothers invited Seeger onto their television show, where he played the full version. In an “Afterword,” Winkler reveals his adoration of Seeger by telling the stories of he and Seeger sitting down to play Seeger’s songs together.
Wilkinson’s lively portrait of America’s greatest poet and folk singer does for folk music and Seeger what his Big Sugar did for cane fields and the sugar industry. Winkler’s book is more academic, though it provides a useful overview of Seeger’s life and work. Together, they pay fitting tribute to an American icon.
Books mentioned in this column:
The Protest Singer: An Intimate Portrait of Pete Seeger by Alec Wilkinson (Knopf, 2009)
“To Everything There is a Season”: Pete Seeger and the Power of Song by Allan M. Winkler (Oxford University Press, 2009)
Henry Carrigan dreamed of being a rock ‘n roll star with a life of coast-to-coast tours and wild parties with Van Morrison and Joni Mitchell among others. But books intervened, and instead he went to Emory University to major in Religion and Literature. Later, teaching humanities in college, he took up writing about books—this time to avoid reading students’ papers. Henry soon became Library Journal's religion columnist, then religion book editor for Publishers Weekly. While working as editor-in-chief for Northwestern University Press and editing classic books for Paraclete Press, he still continues to write for LJ and PW, as well as the Washington Post Book World, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Cleveland Plain Dealer, the Charlotte Observer, ForeWord magazine—and now, BiblioBuffet. And he still enjoys playing his guitar. Contact Henry.