Today is the birthday (1919) of Peter “Pete” Seeger. I’ll be quite up front about it: I dislike his music; I greatly admire his activism. He was also a really decent and friendly guy, despite all the fame. I’m going to focus here on his activism rather than his music even though they are entwined. In my mid-teens (1960’s) I was a genuine fan of the “folk scene;” all part of my nascent hippiedom. But it did not last long. My musical tastes drifted a good bit sideways to Tuvan throat singing and whatnot (still planning my first trip to Tuva when I can drum up the wherewithall to trek across Mongolia by yak). For now I content myself with old Chinese musicians playing ethereal melodies on one-string fiddles in the park on Sundays. My activist sentiments have not changed.
In 1936, at the age of 17, Pete Seeger joined the Young Communist League (YCL), then at the height of its popularity and influence. In 1942 he became a member of the Communist Party USA (CPUSA) itself, but left in 1949.
In the spring of 1941, the twenty-one-year-old Seeger performed as a member of the Almanac Singers along with Millard Lampell, Cisco Houston, Woody Guthrie, Butch and Bess Lomax Hawes, and Lee Hays. Seeger and the Almanacs cut several albums of 78s on Keynote and other labels, Songs for John Doe (recorded in late February or March and released in May 1941), the Talking Union, and an album each of sea shanties and pioneer songs. Written by Millard Lampell, Songs for John Doe was performed by Lampell, Seeger, and Hays, joined by Josh White and Sam Gary. It contained lines such as, “It wouldn’t be much thrill to die for Du Pont in Brazil,” that were sharply critical of Roosevelt’s unprecedented peacetime draft (enacted in September 1940). This anti-war/anti-draft tone reflected the Communist Party line after the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, which maintained the war was “phony” and a mere pretext for big American corporations to get Hitler to attack Soviet Russia. Seeger has said he believed this line of argument at the time—as did many fellow members of the Young Communist League. Though nominally members of the Popular Front, which was allied with Roosevelt and more moderate liberals, the YCL’s members still smarted from Roosevelt and Churchill’s arms embargo to Loyalist Spain (which Roosevelt later called a mistake), and the alliance frayed in the confusing welter of events.
At that point, the U.S. had not yet entered the war but was energetically re-arming. African Americans were barred from working in defense plants, a situation that greatly angered both African Americans and white progressives. Civil rights leader A. J. Muste and black union leaders A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin began planning a huge march on Washington to protest racial discrimination in war industries and to urge desegregation of the armed forces. The march, which many regard as the first manifestation of the Civil Rights Movement, was canceled after President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 8802 (The Fair Employment Act) of June 25, 1941, barring discrimination in hiring by companies holding federal contracts for defense work. This Presidential act defused black anger considerably, although the United States Army still refused to desegregate, declining to participate in what it considered social experimentation.
Seeger served in the U.S. Army in the Pacific. He was trained as an airplane mechanic, but was reassigned to entertain the American troops with music. Later, when people asked him what he did in the war, he always answered “I strummed my banjo.” After returning from service, Seeger and others established People’s Songs, conceived as a nationwide organization with branches on both coasts and designed to “Create, promote and distribute songs of labor and the American People.” With Pete Seeger as its director, People’s Songs worked for the 1948 presidential campaign of Roosevelt’s former Secretary of Agriculture and Vice President, Henry A. Wallace, who ran as a third-party candidate on the Progressive Party ticket. Despite having attracted enormous crowds nationwide, however, Wallace won only in New York City, and, in the red-baiting frenzy that followed, he was excoriated (as Roosevelt had not been) for accepting the help in his campaign of Communists and fellow travelers such as Seeger and singer Paul Robeson.
As a self-described “split tenor” (between an alto and a tenor), Pete Seeger was a founding member of two highly influential folk groups: The Almanac Singers and the Weavers. The Almanac Singers, which Seeger co-founded in 1941 with Millard Lampell and Arkansas singer and activist Lee Hays, was a topical group, designed to function as a singing newspaper promoting the industrial unionization movement, racial and religious inclusion, and other progressive causes. Its personnel included, at various times: Woody Guthrie, Bess Lomax Hawes, Sis Cunningham, Josh White, and Sam Gary. As a controversial Almanac singer, the 21-year-old Seeger performed under the stage name “Pete Bowers” to avoid compromising his father’s government career.
In the 1950s and, indeed, consistently throughout his life, Seeger continued his support of civil and labor rights, racial equality, international understanding, and anti-militarism (all of which had characterized the Wallace campaign) and he continued to believe that songs could help people achieve these goals. With the ever-growing revelations of Joseph Stalin’s atrocities and the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, however, he became increasingly disillusioned with Soviet Communism. He left the CPUSA in 1949 but remained friends with some who did not leave it, though he argued with them about it.
On August 18, 1955, Seeger was subpoenaed to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). Alone among the many witnesses after the 1950 conviction and imprisonment of the Hollywood Ten for contempt of Congress, Seeger refused to plead the Fifth Amendment (which would have asserted that his testimony might be self incriminating) and instead, as the Hollywood Ten had done, refused to name personal and political associations on the grounds that this would violate his First Amendment rights: “I am not going to answer any questions as to my association, my philosophical or religious beliefs or my political beliefs, or how I voted in any election, or any of these private affairs. I think these are very improper questions for any American to be asked, especially under such compulsion as this.” Seeger’s refusal to answer questions that violated his fundamental Constitutional rights led to a March 26, 1957, indictment for contempt of Congress; for some years, he had to keep the federal government apprised of where he was going any time he left the Southern District of New York. He was convicted in a jury trial of contempt of Congress in March 1961, and sentenced to ten 1-year terms in jail (to be served simultaneously), but in May 1962 an appeals court ruled the indictment to be flawed and overturned his conviction.
A longstanding opponent of the arms race and of the Vietnam War, Seeger satirically attacked then-President Lyndon Johnson with his 1966 recording, on the album Dangerous Songs!?, of Len Chandler’s children’s song, “Beans in My Ears”. Beyond Chandler’s lyrics, Seeger said that “Mrs. Jay’s little son Alby” had “beans in his ears,” which, as the lyrics imply, ensures that a person does not hear what is said to them. To those opposed to continuing the Vietnam War, the phrase implied that “Alby Jay”, a loose pronunciation of Johnson’s nickname “LBJ,” did not listen to anti-war protests as he too had “beans in his ears”.
During 1966 Seeger and Malvina Reynolds took part in environmental activism. The album God Bless the Grass was released on January of that year and became the first album in history wholly dedicated to songs about environmental issues. Their politics were informed by the same ideologies of nationalism, populism, and criticism of big business.
Seeger attracted wider attention starting in 1967 with his song “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy”, about a captain—referred to in the lyrics as “the big fool”—who drowned while leading a platoon on maneuvers in Louisiana during World War II. With its lyrics about a platoon being led into danger by an ignorant captain, the song’s anti-war message was obvious- the line “the big fool said to push on” is repeated several times. In the face of arguments with the management of CBS about whether the song’s political weight was in keeping with the usually light-hearted entertainment of the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, the final lines were “Every time I read the paper/those old feelings come on/We are waist deep in the Big Muddy and the big fool says to push on.”
In 1982, Seeger performed at a benefit concert for Poland’s Solidarity resistance movement. His biographer David Dunaway considers this the first public manifestation of Seeger’s decades-long personal dislike of communism in its Soviet form. In the late 1980s Seeger also expressed disapproval of violent revolutions, remarking to an interviewer that he was really in favor of incremental change and that “the most lasting revolutions are those that take place over a period of time.” In a 1995 interview he insisted, “I still call myself a communist, because communism is no more what Russia made of it than Christianity is what the churches make of it.”
Over the years he lent his fame to support numerous environmental organizations, including South Jersey’s Bayshore Center, the home of New Jersey’s tall ship, the oyster schooner A.J. Meerwald. Seeger’s benefit concerts helped raise funds for groups so they could continue to educate and spread environmental awareness.
On May 3, 2009, at the Clearwater Concert, dozens of musicians gathered in New York at Madison Square Garden to celebrate Seeger’s 90th birthday (which was later televised on PBS during the summer), ranging from Dave Matthews, John Mellencamp, Billy Bragg, Bruce Springsteen, Tom Morello, Eric Weissberg, Ani DiFranco and Roger McGuinn to Joan Baez, Richie Havens, Joanne Shenandoah, R. Carlos Nakai, Bill Miller, Joseph Fire Crow, Margo Thunderbird, Tom Paxton, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott and Arlo Guthrie. Cuban singer-songwriter Silvio Rodríguez was also invited to appear but his visa was not approved in time by the United States government. Consistent with Seeger’s long-time advocacy for environmental concerns, the proceeds from the event benefited the Hudson River Sloop Clearwater, a non-profit organization founded by Seeger in 1966, to defend and restore the Hudson River.
Seeger died at New York-Presbyterian Hospital,on January 27, 2014, at the age of 94. Response and reaction to Seeger’s death quickly poured in. President Barack Obama noted that Seeger had been called “America’s tuning fork” and that he believed in “the power of song” to bring social change, “Over the years, Pete used his voice and his hammer to strike blows for workers’ rights and civil rights; world peace and environmental conservation, and he always invited us to sing along. For reminding us where we come from and showing us where we need to go, we will always be grateful to Pete Seeger.” Folksinger Billy Bragg wrote that: “Pete believed that music could make a difference. Not change the world, he never claimed that – he once said that if music could change the world he’d only be making music – but he believed that while music didn’t have agency, it did have the power to make a difference.” Bruce Springsteen said of Seeger’s death, “I lost a great friend and a great hero last night, Pete Seeger”, before performing “We Shall Overcome” while on tour in South Africa.
Seeger lived on the Hudson River in Beacon, NY for many years, and, of course the Hudson River valley was one of his favorite spots. I lived a little south of him and would stop by once in a while (courtesy of an odd family connexion between him and my late wife). One of my fondest memories of the region is the pick-your-own apple orchards. Yearly outings with my son were a special treat for him (“Dad, when can we go pick apples?”). So, I’d say do something with apples in honor of Pete even though it is the wrong season. My local orchard sold unpasteurized cider which fermented into a fizzy drink within days. Delicious. I can’t tell you how many ways I cooked those apples, my favorite being apple crumble (see https://www.bookofdaystales.com/samuel-johnson/).
When I used to roast a Christmas goose I always stuffed it with sliced apples tossed in powdered cinnamon, allspice and cloves (sage and onion “stuffing” I roasted on the side to avoid the excessive fat inside the goose). As a side dish I made red cabbage and apples. We were a small family for Christmas dinner; Boxing Day was the big blowout. In consequence I made only a little (plenty of other side dishes).
© Red Cabbage and Apples.
Thinly slice ½ a red cabbage and toss it with thick slices of peeled apples. Let sit in a bowl covered in water acidulated with lemon juice. This stops the apples from browning and keeps the cabbage bright when cooking. After an hour or so, drain the apple-cabbage mixture and place in a stainless steel pan over medium heat. Add a knob of butter and a dusting of powdered cloves. Let cook gently for 10 to 15 minutes. You want the cabbage to retain some crunchiness. Serve in a heated bowl as a side dish for any fatty meat such as goose or pork.