Eco Amplifier: Pete Seeger
A landmark folk musician from New York, USA, Pete Seeger continues to inspire the work of activists and artists around the world a decade after his death.
The Power of Art and Music
Like any art form, music has and continues to reflect the experience of living in our world through the lens of the artist making it.
Depending on the genre of music one listens to, the topics change, but lasting, timeless music is always compelling because we can hear ourselves and our lives in the words and melodies of others. This is the magic of art and music specifically.
In folk music, there has been a long tradition of social awareness and reflection of working-class struggles and joys. But most interestingly is the consistent and honest appreciation of nature and the battle with it becoming lost to industrialization and development.
The music of the “folk,” specifically in the United States, has a long history of connection with environmental causes and related causes. While many of these figures in folk music have come and gone, the legacy of one Pete Seeger remains outsized in the genre for his championing of the causes of labor rights, civil rights, and environmentalism.
Who Was Pete Seeger?
Born on May 3rd, 1919, in New York City, Pete Seeger was raised around music his entire life. His father was a musicologist who was blacklisted from teaching in his time due to his outspoken pacifist views in the light of World War I.
His mother was a gifted violinist and instructor at Juilliard. While both influences made their mark on him growing up, some think his uncle’s poems inspired Seeger in his songwriting.
In 1938, after two years at Harvard, Seeger decided to leave school and hitchhiked around the country. He collected country songs, folk ballads, and work songs as he developed his talent on the five-string banjo.
In 1940, with Woody Guthrie, he founded the Almanac Singers, a quartet that appeared at union halls, farmer’s meetings, or anywhere his populist left-leaning political sentiments would be heard.
On the topic of his politics, throughout his life, Pete Seeger was maligned and mistreated by the American mainstream for his outspoken belief in American Communism.
This came to a boiling point while he was touring with his new group, the Weavers, in which they could not book shows and gain appearances on TV.
The music industry had blacklisted Pete Seeger due to his unwavering conviction that the rights and dignity of everyday people and the environment should be prioritized. Seeger left the Weavers in 1958 and mainly worked alone for the remainder of his career.
But even as a solo performer, he couldn’t escape persecution based on his political beliefs. In 1961, he was convicted of contempt of Congress due to his refusal to answer questions in 1955 by the House Committee on Un-American Activities.
Despite the clear mistreatment in the context of the Second Red Scare, Pete Seger was still a beloved figure at folk festivals throughout the country.
He pioneered what would become known as the hootenanny, a form of performance that includes multiple performers and audience participation in an informal, more personal experience. He also collaborated significantly with younger folk artists, being credited with inspiring those who would participate in the folk revival movement.
His legacy resonates into the 21st century, as artists who have gone on to have their own profound legacies maintain that Seeger was a major inspiration—some of these artists include Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Arlo Guthrie, and Jackson Browne.
His Legacy Lives On
While Pete Seeger is no longer with us, his music lives on within us as the issues he addressed in his time are still just as important today, if not more so.
Labor rights have significantly declined since the 1940s, and the damage to our environment has been well-documented and is well-known among the general public.
While music alone can’t change the world, it certainly can inspire that change. In inspiring action through the reflection of one’s own feelings in the words of others, one can feel that they’re not alone; in that feeling, solidarity can be built.
With that solidarity, genuine hope can be felt, and there’s no doubt we need as much of that now more than ever.