Pete Seeger, the preeminent American folk singer and political activist, passed away on Monday at 94 years old. Beyond his impact and continued involvement in the folk music world, Seeger was a persistent, positive presence in social movements from the 1940s onward.
John E. Andrus Professor of Sociology Rob Rosenthal became personally familiar with Seeger when writing two books, Playing for Change: Music and Musicians in the Service of Social Movements (2011) and Pete Seeger: In His Own Words (2012). The Argus spoke with Rosenthal about his experience with Seeger, the musician’s life, and his influence on the world.
The Argus: How did you come to know Pete Seeger?
Rob Rosenthal: I had met him when I interviewed him for a book I had done on how music is used in social movements called Playing for Change. And the publisher who published Playing for Change, Dean Birkenkamp, had talked to Seeger about coming out with a book that was just Seeger’s own words. He’s never written a strict autobiography, although there are autobiographical pieces in some of his books. The idea was that it was known, it was whispered, that he had incredible files on all the writings he had done over the years, in his house and barn, and this publisher asked him if there could be a book there, just his own words. He was interested, although he probably forgot about it 10 minutes after their conversation. Dean recruited me to go do it, and I recruited my son Sam to do it with me.
For two years, we went to Seeger’s house maybe twice a month and would spend all day going through the unbelievable amount of files he had, looking for stuff, and spent a year figuring out which stuff we wanted to use in the book, putting it together, and running it by him.
A: How did you shape the book from what you found?
RR: He’s very arguably the most important figure in folk music in the 20th century, and we knew we were interested in what he has to say. He’s written tons. He had a column, Johnny Appleseed, writing regularly. He’s written liner notes to many albums, written albums, a couple of books. He’s produced quite a bit of written material. And there were all these things that were not published, like his letters and lists that he had made and drafts of things and ideas, and we read everything. We figured out what’s interesting, what’s important historically, and we wanted to tell his life. The book is somewhat chronological; there’s a part on his early life and becoming Seeger, and parts on different movements, because he was involved in almost all of the major social movements of the 20th century in the United States. There’s a part on his thinking, because he was a very sophisticated thinker on music and the political use of music and questions of commercialization and authenticity, things that political musicians have to think about.
Once we had those categories, then we figured out, within each one, what was the most important thing to show people. We wanted to show how his thinking had evolved over the years as well.
A: Can you expand more on how Seeger’s thinking changed?
RR: To state the obvious, at one point he was a member of the Communist Party, and over the years he became less interested, not just in the Communist Party, but in mass parties in general. He described himself as a small-sea communist—he believed in people sharing things and didn’t think of capitalism as a good system—but he really moved into a much greater faith in small organizations and small groups. He had been involved in very large movements…but he tended to place much more faith in small groups in part because of the problems that developed with large groups. Large groups tend to get bureaucratic. I think he felt that had been a problem of the Communist Party; it was so large, it was hard for people to have a real say in what was going on after a while. And large groups tend to get out of touch with what’s going on on the ground. He was really a democrat, a [lower-case] “d” democrat, really interested in everyday people running their own lives and having more understanding of their lives. He shifted to a belief in small groups because they were closer to the ground level.
He was very involved in, for instance, the Clearwater, a boat that sails up and down the Hudson River. It’s very arguable that Pete did more to clean up the Hudson than anyone. I don’t even think it’s arguable; he did. When he first noticed the condition of the Hudson, it was just atrocious, and he and a couple of people got together and created this organization Clearwater, and what they did was they built this giant ship and sailed up and down the river and had festivals at different ports and educated people about what happened to the Hudson and what could be done in the Hudson. And that was tremendously successful. Those were the sorts of things he became more and more interested in.
A: How did he apply his music to the movements he was involved in over his life?
RR: I think it would be a mistake to think he was only important musically in the Civil Rights movement. He was important in the labor movement, the anti-war, anti-Vietnam movement, in the environmental movement. He used his music in three major ways: he did it in songs he wrote and performed; he did it most prominently through appearing in benefits for different groups, raising money and raising awareness; and he did it by serving as a model for other musicians. He told them, “The most important thing you can do is not become a star but work with others in movements and groups to make the world better.”
In that way, he mightily influenced the generation right after him: Bob Dylan and Joan Baez and Phil Ochs. And that’s echoed down in the generations after that. There are people who don’t even know the name Pete Seeger who think of themselves as activists, progressive musicians who are following the model of the activist musician that he was developing. That was a crucial legacy of his.
A: How do you think Seeger influenced the culture and community at Wesleyan?
RR: I don’t know if it’s that direct. Certainly, there are a lot of people who grew up listening to Seeger’s music. It’s sort of interesting; some people don’t even know that it was Pete’s music. He’s written some songs or popularized them, but people don’t know there’s an author to them. They think it’s old folk, like “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” or “If I Had a Hammer.” I think Wesleyan’s notions of engagement and civil responsibility and engaged arts. We have a lot of bands that have that ethos about them. Someone like Dar Williams ’89, who was a friend of Seeger’s, she carries on that tradition of engaged musicianship.
A: What about Seeger’s legacy do you hope people should most remember?
RR: I think his life is pretty well known, especially in the last couple of days. We spent a lot of time in his home looking through all these files, and the most striking thing was there were thousands and thousands of letters from people all over the world saying all sorts of things, but one message was the dominant message: “I’m off, wherever I am, I’m struggling in this political movement, I’m in jail, I’m fleeing my country, and your music is keeping me going.” And that’s an incredible legacy to have. “One of the reasons I can keep up my strength and do what I do is because of your music.” That’s as good of a legacy as I can imagine.