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Americans Who Tell the Truth :: Pete Seeger

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Robert Shetterly's portrait of Pete Seeger
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“Song, songs kept them going and going;
They didn't realize the millions of seeds they were sowing.
They were singing in marches, even singing in jail.
Songs gave them the courage to believe they would not fail.”
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Pete Seeger
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74 of 100
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Singer/Songwriter, Activist (1919— )

Music is synonymous with Pete Seeger, from his family heritage to his career and political activism. His parents, Charles and Constance, musicologist and musician respectively, both taught classical music at Juilliard. His stepmother Ruth Seeger was a composer. His half siblings Mike and Peggy are both musicians, and Pete has often performed with his grandson Tao, a member of the band The Mammals.

Seeger’s love affair with folk music and the banjo began at a Folk Festival he attended when he was sixteen. That love has informed his career and his activism. After two years of study at Harvard, he left to travel around the country, singing and mastering his craft. In 1940, Seeger met Woody Guthrie and they later formed the group the Almanac Singers. This group combined folk music with activism for the labor movement. In 1942, he entered the Army, but spent much of his service time entertaining the soldiers by playing and singing. Once discharged in 1945, Seeger founded People’s Song, a musicians’ union combining folk music with the labor movement. He even took to the campaign trail in 1948 with his music, traveling with Progressive Party Presidential candidate Henry Wallace.

That year he also founded The Weavers, a band which found a good deal of mainstream success until Seeger’s ties to the Communist Party (he was a member from 1942–1950) caused the group to be blacklisted. He was subpoenaed before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1955 for those affiliations. Instead of invoking the Fifth Amendment as many others had before him, Seeger took the unique stand of declaring that it was a violation of his First Amendment rights of free speech and associations to be asked these questions by the Committee. In 1961, he was cited for and found guilty of contempt, resulting in a prison sentence which was later overturned.

Seeger draws on diverse kinds of music to create his songs, from African melodies to spirituals, and even takes passages from the Bible for songs such as “Turn, Turn, Turn.” His words cover many subjects from supporting labor to protesting war and advocating peace. His seemingly simplistic folk music and ideas have touched the lives of people all over the world, garnering him a huge fan base and influencing many artists such as Bruce Springsteen, who in 2006 released a tribute album to Seeger called We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions. In 2007 a documentary of his life came out entitled Pete Seeger: The Power of Song.

Pete Seeger’s music and activism goes further than playing concerts and producing albums. He wrote a book, How to Play the Five-String Banjo, to teach others about his beloved instrument. He hosted a folk music show in the 1960’s called Rainbow Quest featuring other folk music singers. He founded Sing Out!, a magazine dedicated to folk music. He also launched a project in the 1960’s to call attention to the pollution in the Hudson River. He built the sloop Clearwater to sail the Hudson and work toward cleaning it up. The organization also hosts festivals to address environmental problems not only on the Hudson but elsewhere in the world.

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See the full set of Robert Shetterly's portraits at www.americanswhotellthetruth.org.

Tools for Teaching: see the acompanying curriculum materials with suggestions on how to use the portraits and biographies of these American truth-tellers in your classroom.

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:: INTERVIEW: spacerRead Sarah van Gelder’s exclusive interview with Pete.

Pete Seeger at home. Photo by Michael Bowman for YES! MagazineYES! Magazine interviews Pete Seeger.Image from the documentary Pete Seeger: The Power of Song
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YES! photo essay icon PHOTO ESSAY:
PETE AT HOME
YES! video icon VIDEO:
SEE INTERVIEW
YES! film icon FILM:
POWER OF SONG


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