Like thousands of fellow Americans, I have spent the last week listening to Pete Seeger’s recordings, poring over his many obits, and inhaling Alec Wilkinson’s wonderful short biography, The Protest Singer: An Intimate Portrait of Pete Seeger. With this work behind me, I offer seven lessons that those of us committed to working-class justice and working-class studies can glean from Seeger’s extraordinary life.
Scholars of working-class culture have a lot to offer working-class movements. Some of Seeger’s first paid work was for the legendary folk music authority, John Lomax. As Wilkinson notes in his bio of Seeger, each week Seeger listened to hundreds of records at the Library of Congress—“English and Scotch Irish ballads kept alive in the South, rural blues, farmer songs, widow’s laments, millworker songs, soldier songs, sea shanties, slave songs, tramp songs, and coal miner songs.” By the end of Seeger’s time in the archive, he had flagged a collection of protest songs that he wanted to make into a book, but “his father thought it too controversial.”But soon enough Seeger found someone like himself, Lee Hays, who had “compiled a book of union songs.” Hays and his roommate, Mill Lampell, along with Woody Guthrie, became the nucleus of Seeger’s first band: The Almanacs.
Embrace the relationship between music and social movements. Seeger believed that if you could get a crowd to join in a song, you could get a crowd to join in a movement. Like his father, Charles Seeger, who argued that “to make music is the essential thing—to listen to it is an accessory,” Pete Seeger believed that song brought the individual out of the self and into something larger: “I’ve never sung anywhere without giving the people listening to me a chance to join in—as a kid, as a lefty, as a man touring the U.S.A. and the world, as an oldster. I guess it’s kind of a religion with me. Participation. That’s what’s going to save the human race.” Of course, Seeger could have chosen other vehicles for participation, but he believed that there was something special about songs. “Songs,” he explained, “are a way of binding people to a cause.”
It’s OK to be middle class. Seeger came from a family of “doctors, shopkeepers, and intellectuals.” His parents were also classically trained musicians who divorced when he was young. But even Seeger’s step-mother encouraged him, noticing that he had a special talent for “song leading.” Seeger went to a boarding school in Connecticut, and, later, Harvard, which he did not like. After Harvard, Seeger made the transition from scholar of working-class culture to maker/participant. The Almanacs were so named because every working-class home had two books: a bible for the next life and an almanac for this one. Seeger’s next band, The Weavers, was named for a play by German author Gerhart Hauptmann about a group of Silesian (now Poland) weavers who rebelled against the mechanization of their craft in the 1840s. Seeger, who was not from a working-class family, was a champion of workers, workers’ folk traditions, unions, the labor movement, and the dignity of work. Moreover, he was embraced by workers wherever he went, from the CIO struggles in Pittsburgh and Detroit in the 1940s, to the postal workers organizing against the hiring of non-union workers in 2014.
Make stuff with your own hands. On the other hand, perhaps, Seeger might have been a voluntary member of the working class. In the 1940s, he bought a piece of land next to the Hudson River for $1700.There he built his own log cabin. It took him several tries to get the giant stone fireplace right, but as he was finishing it he placed a few of the rocks thrown at him in the infamous Paul Robeson/Peekskill riots in the structure as a reminder. To build furniture for the house, Wilkinson writes, Seeger scavenged the wood from abandoned packing crates in New York City on his way home from singing gigs. By mastering the world with his hands, Seeger was able to connect the future of the human race to the future of the planet: “If it can’t be reduced, reused, repaired, rebuilt, refurbished, refinished, resold, recycled or composted, then it should be restricted, redesigned or removed from production.”
You have to choose sides, but you can have as many causes as you like. Seeger embraced every progressive American cause, from the labor struggles of the 1930s and 1940s, to the Civil Rights struggles of the 1950s and 1960s, to environmentalism, the anti-war movement, the AIDs epidemic, and even the 2011 Occupy Movement. There were songs that explained how to negotiate and use a union to improve your life on the job (Talking Union Blues) and songs about union towns, their smog and their devotion to the CIO (Pittsburgh). There were songs about how to build stuff with your own hands (If I had a Hammer) and songs about how to keep hope in the face of racial oppression (We Shall Overcome). There were songs about heroic and legendary black workers (John Henry) and songs about women union organizers (Union Maid) and songs about how America belongs to all of us (This Land is Our Land). There were songs about the Hudson river, which he was instrumental in cleaning up (Sailing Up my Dirty Stream), and songs about the Vietnam war (Waist Deep in the Big Muddy), and even songs condemning Stalin (Big Joe Blues).
You can have a long, productive life if you do not define your success according to the market. Seeger famously testified in front of HUAC in 1955, refusing to answer any questions that violated his right to religion, free speech, and association. He has jokingly called this moment a “relief,” because the fame he was experiencing with The Weavers was overwhelming him. By contrast, for most blacklisted artists, the 1950s were a nightmare. Some betrayed their former friends and comrades, others died from the stress. Some left the country, some wrote under false names, and many languished without a steady livelihood for years. Seeger was undaunted by more than a decades’ worth of rebuff from HUAC, anti-communists who canceled his performance contracts and picketed his concerts, and TV executives who refused to let him perform on television. Seeger simply kept singing, accepting invitations from any group that would have him, year after year, until mainstream American culture finally accepted Seeger’s unique sound.
Think small. Perhaps you are a union organizer, trying to get a little more justice for your members. Perhaps you are a graduate student writing about worker struggles, or worker culture. Perhaps you have a bit of talent on an instrument, and you perform for money or just gather with friends to raise your voices in unison. Whatever you are doing, no matter how small it might seem, it matters. Seeger tells us: “Too many things can go wrong when they get big.” Instead, he insists, “The world will be solved by millions of small things.”
Kathy M. Newman