A uniquely American mix of blueblood and bluegrass, Pete Seeger‚Äôs story is the story of the American left in the 20th century. It‚Äôs the story of the folk hero John Henry he still sings of: ‚ÄúAnd before you let that steam drill beat you down, die with that hammer in your hand.‚ÄĚ
Pete‚Äôs mother Constance was a classically trained violinist; his father Charles was a pioneering musicologist who became a member of the International Workers of the World and a staunch pacifist opposed to US involvement in the First World War. When he was forced out of academia for his radical politics, Pete‚Äôs parents decided to bring music to the masses, and traveled through Appalachia with their children staging free concerts. Pete first heard folk music when the audience returned the favor, breaking out fiddles and guitars and playing for the Seegers. He was two years old.
Pete spent much of his childhood in boarding school (he roomed for a time with Nation editor Frida Kirchwey‚Äôs son), and it was there that he took up the banjo. Classical music and formal concerts frustrated Pete; he felt ‚Äúthe audience should be a great chorus.‚ÄĚ Pete went on to Harvard, where he roomed with Arthur Kinoy (one of the eventual founders of the Center for Constitutional Rights) and crossed paths with the young John F. Kennedy. ‚ÄúIf JFK became the most famous graduate of the Class of ‚Äô40,‚ÄĚ Pete‚Äôs biographer wrote, ‚ÄúPete Seeger was surely its best-known dropout.‚ÄĚ
And drop out he did, moving to New York City and trying to make a living as a painter and then a journalist. On a dare, he tried busking on a street corner with his banjo, but attracted little attention, and even less money. Eventually he found work with legendary folklorist Alan Lomax (whose father was friends with Charles Seeger). It was Lomax who introduced Pete to Aunt Molly Jackson and Leadbelly, musicians who would have a huge influence on him; Leadbelly would become one of Pete‚Äôs most important teachers.
Lomax also introduced Pete to one of the other formative influences of his life: Woody Guthrie. The three then collaborated on a political songbook, Hard Hitting Songs for Hard Hit People. No publisher would touch it for twenty-six years.
Woody and Pete struck up a friendship and hit the road, playing music and composing songs like ‚Äú66 Highway Blues‚ÄĚ together. When he returned to New York, Pete met Lee Hays, and pretty soon they formed a loose group called the Almanac Singers. Woody, an occasional member, referred to them as ‚Äúthe only group that rehearses on stage.‚ÄĚ They played their first major concert before 20,000 striking members of the Transit Workers Union at Madison Square Garden in May, 1941, winning the crowd over with union songs and even some antiwar tunes.
In June, the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union. Pete and several of the other Almanacs were members of the Communist Party; now their repertoire was suddenly out of date. In December, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, and the Almanacs started cranking out anti-fascist tunes in earnest. They signed with the William Morris Agency. They played a gig at the Rainbow Room. Decca Records made them an offer. The Almanacs were the next big thing. That is, until an FBI red-baiting campaign undermined their commercial success and bookings soon withered away.
Soon after, Pete was drafted. He was taught to repair B-24s bombers, but arranged to be transferred to the ‚ÄėSpecial Services Division‚Äô (for performers), and served out the war in Saipan. It was in Saipan that he developed the idea for People‚Äôs Songs, an organization that would promote and circulate political folk music throughout the country; music anyone could sing, and songs that would draw people together. His goal was nothing less than to ‚Äúmake a singing labor movement.‚ÄĚ
After the war ended, Pete, once again joined by Lee Hays, had begun rehearsing with a group called the Weavers. They recorded a song called ‚ÄúIf I Had a Hammer,‚ÄĚ and a Leadbelly number called ‚ÄúGoodnight Irene‚ÄĚ (even if they toned the verses down, no one could mistake the statement made in 1950 by recording a song by a black ex-convict). Max Gordon took a liking to the group, and let them play at the Village Vanguard while they honed their act. Soon they were packing the club. Decca came calling again, and the Weavers‚Äô singles on the label tore up the charts.
Reaction followed quickly in the 1950s. The Weavers were singled out in the red-baiting magazine Counterattack and Pete was named in Red Channels: Communist Influence on Radio and Television (published by the same ex-FBI agents at Counterattack). These were the organs of the blacklist; those named in their pages could count on FBI harassment and a summons to appear before the House Committee on Un-American Activities to ‚Äėclear‚Äô their names. The Weavers started to suffer the same cancellations the Almanacs had. Senator Pat McCarran investigated the band for sedition. Testifying before HUAC, an informant (who later confessed to perjury) identified three of the Weavers as members of the Communist Party. Though they‚Äôd sold nearly 4 million records, they couldn‚Äôt find a place to play live. Only four years after they‚Äôd first begun playing together, the Weavers were finished.
In 1955, Pete himself received a subpoena to testify before HUAC. Already effectively banned from television and radio, Pete eked out a living playing for children, summer communities, public schools, and unions. When Pete finally went before the Committee, he was one of the first witnesses to decline to take the Fifth Amendment, calling the questions of his interrogators improper and standing on his First Amendment rights. He was cited for contempt of Congress.
Pete‚Äôs case slowly ground through Congress and then the courts; two years later he was indicted, and almost six years after he appeared before HUAC he finally went on trial. He was found guilty and sentenced to a year in prison. It was yet another year before Pete‚Äôs conviction was overturned on appeal, but he and the reunited Weavers continued to be blacklisted from TV and many live venues.
Later that same year, 1962, Pete was invited to Georgia to play for the new movement that was sweeping the South, the type of singing movement he‚Äôd always envisioned: the struggle for civil rights had begun in earnest. He‚Äôd made his first trip at the invitation of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1956, and would return in ‚Äô65, again at King‚Äôs personal invitation, to join the march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. Amid the tension and heat, Seeger went from campfire to campfire when the march stopped for the night, singing along with the new freedom songs.
He also joined protests against the war in Vietnam, recording ‚ÄúWaist Deep in the Big Muddy,‚ÄĚ the lyrics of which have renewed relevance today: ‚ÄúBut every time I read the papers/That old feeling comes on/We‚Äôre waist deep in the Big Muddy/And the big fool says push on.‚ÄĚ
With King‚Äôs assassination in 1968 both the civil rights and the anti-war movements took more militant turns. Black radicals instructed whites to organize in their own communities, and Pete turned his energies to his home of Beacon and the notoriously polluted Hudson River. Gathering together many of his friends and colleagues, he now picked up a literal hammer, this time to build the sort of sailing ship that hadn‚Äôt been seen on the river in decades. They named it the Clearwater, and plied the river staging concerts and raising people‚Äôs consciousness of environmental issues.
Today, people swim in the Hudson again. Pete‚Äôs music birthed a folk revival that yielded Joan Baez and Bob Dylan. And the music he championed is still sung on marches and picket lines across the country. In the words of Bertolt Brecht, ‚ÄúArt is not a mirror held up to reality, but a hammer with which to shape it.‚ÄĚ Today, at 89 years young, Pete Seeger still has that hammer in his hand.
Sustainable South Bronx
Majora Carter‚Äôs brother Lenny went to Vietnam and back only to be murdered a few blocks away from his family‚Äôs home in the South Bronx. When their father had bought the house in the late 1940‚Äôs, Hunts Point was a mostly white neighborhood. By the time Majora, the youngest of ten siblings, was born, the legendary/infamous planner Robert Moses had driven more than one expressway through what had been thriving neighborhoods, leaving fractured and fragmented communities in their wake. Majora grew up with a crackhouse across the street and watched buildings burn on a regular basis.
So after graduating from high school, Carter left the South Bronx for college with no intention of ever coming back. It was only when she decided to earn a Master‚Äôs in Fine Arts from NYU that she reluctantly returned home. She quickly got involved in supporting the work of local artists and the role of art in the community more generally; one of her projects was called Street Trees, in which artists produced sculptures from the found objects and scrap metal that littered the streets of Hunts Point, the work standing in for the trees enjoyed by more affluent neighborhoods. Eventually she became involved with a small organization called The Point, which encouraged art as a means of youth development and community revitalization.
In 1993, Rudolph Giuliani was elected Mayor of New York. Toward the end of his term he prososed a new waste handling center in Hunts Point. With more power plants, sewage-treatment facilities, diesel-truck traffic, and waste-transfer stations than any other neighborhood in the City, Hunts Point already handled far more than it‚Äôs fair share of the city‚Äôs commercial waste, and had the asthma rates to prove it. The new center would double its haul. It was a blatant and egregious violation of environmental justice: the equal distribution of environmental burdens (and benefits) among a community. The more Carter learned about the city‚Äôs waste management plan, the more she felt art alone was not enough.
Carter decided to found her own organization: Sustainable South Bronx (SSB). As she recalled later in an interview with Grist, she saw it ‚Äúnot as a moral crusade, but as an economic-development group that was about planning our future, not just reacting to environmental blight. I wanted to play offense, not defense.‚ÄĚ
One day she received a call from New York‚Äôs Parks Department; they had a $10,000 grant they were wondering if she‚Äôd be interested in. While it was barely a band-aid for the woes afflicting her home turf, she applied for the grant and won, and leveraged it over 300 times into the development of a $3 million park -- Hunts Point Riverside Park, which was the first waterside park built in the Bronx in 60 years.
If Carter has her way, it won‚Äôt be the last. SSB is now working on rounding up support for a South Bronx Greenway: a series of bicycle and pedestrian paths along the waterfront that would offer sorely needed public space, access to the river, and the potential for mixed-use economic development. SSB has already won a $1.25 million federal grant to produce a detailed study of the plan. It has already set its sights on another target: the Sheridan Expressway, one of the last of the roads Moses blasted and bulldozed through the South Bronx.
As Robert Moses once looked out at New York City and saw a network of roads allowing those who could afford cars to reach the beaches and mountains so close at hand, Carter looks out at the roads and sees paths to bring nature back into the city.