This is a short, nicely written book about Pete Seeger, a brilliant, dedicated singer and composer of songs in the folk genre. He is little known in the current young generation but is the sort of artist whose works get reprised every few years as someone “discovers” him anew. Seeger himself has said that there are already too many words written about him. His career and much of his private life have been examined, praised and almost religiously enshrined in books such as David Dunaway’s
How Can I Keep from Singing: Pete Seeger. Alec Wilkinson began The Protest Singer in the pages of
The New Yorker. It promises, and delivers, a sense of the man behind the headlines, beyond the extensive listing on Wikipedia.
From descriptions of visits with Seeger, who tends to be reclusive and certainly does not seek publicity for himself and his family, we learn something of the home and family life of the iconic artist who first heard banjo music as a teenager and absorbed the folk idiom through listening to hundreds of field recordings of “race” (so-called) and “hillbilly” (so-called) music for the Library of Congress. Seeger sprang from the intelligentsia but rejected his inheritance by dropping out of Harvard and taking up the cause of the downtrodden, singing out for a more equitable distribution of America’s wealth and the blessings of her prosperity. He was a member of the Communist Party for a time and as a result was called to testify before the infamous House Un-American Activities Committee in 1955. He suffered many attacks and deprivations because of his political stances but was also celebrated and cosseted by the Left as a major spokesperson for liberal causes.
He wrote or co-wrote such legendary folk-genre favorites as “Where Have All the Flowers Gone,” and he popularized for all the world and all times the black protest song “We Shall Overcome.” He was there in the marches and he was there in the White House. In a long life spanning many presidential terms, he was a bee in the bonnet of Franklin Roosevelt, condemning the universal draft and the concept of the rich man’s war, poor man’s fight. However, he
did serve in the military (Wilkinson’s book skims over his service as a machinist and then as an entertainer in World War II, a conflict Seeger approved of for its avowed purpose of defeating Hitler, the fascist enemy of Stalinist Russia).
In the late 1980s, I apprenticed with Peggy Seeger, Pete’s half sister. The two have much in common: curiously aloof “persons of the people,” practical and home-oriented yet possessed of prodigious intellect, the Seegers, despite their world travels, are American as apple pie. Their purpose is to improve their country by serving as gadflies through their considerable artistic talents, and each has carved out his or her piece of the struggle. Undeniably distant from the folk whose lives they uphold in song, they are nonetheless capable of making themselves heard and adored by those folk when they choose to step into the limelight.
Wilkinson has done a fine job of ferreting out this paradox in Pete Seeger’s life and work, highlighting his political ideals and activism against a backdrop of almost monk-like protection of privacy.