Pete Seeger in New York City: Outsider and Insider to The American Folk Revival

By Lily Taylor

Pete Seeger and his banjo. (debsquickpicks.com)

Pete Seeger and his banjo. (debsquickpicks.com)

 

Pete Seeger, born to two highly musical parents, grew up in a house full of instruments, so deciding which one to play was not easy. When Pete asked for advice on this matter, his father decided to plan a trip to take Pete to Asheville, North Carolina to see a folk musician named Lunsford play the five-string banjo.[1] “The Seegers “loaded up their big blue Chevy and headed South to meet “the folk.”[2] Seeger, a kid who went to boarding schools in New England for his entire childhood, was in awe of the vitality and authenticity of both folk music and culture, especially in comparison with the cheesy pop music he was used to in the northeast.[3] Lunsford lent Pete his five-string banjo, and over the course of Pete’s career, that seemingly exotic kind of banjo would become nearly synonymous with the name Pete Seeger.

Seeger is referred to as “the most important American folksinger of the 20th century,”[4] but he was actually an outsider to the original forms of American folk music. He was a “folk stylist,” who “took on the voice of folk” rather than a “folk promoter” or “folk bureaucrat” who merely “popularized other people’s cultures as “folk.”[5] Although Seeger was an outsider to folk, he got his start as a folk musician in New York City during the 1940s, which helped him become an insider. The city at this time was a place of progressive ideals, made up of people from around the world. This was the ideal environment for Pete Seeger to succeed in promoting folk music as an outsider to the genre. Seeger’s start as an outsider to folk music in New York City actually allowed him to become an insider, setting the foundation for him as a paradoxical figure. As outsider and insider, educator and common man, ideological and apolitical, Seeger was able to maintain a wide-appeal and have continuing success throughout the 20th century.

 

The standard folk musician is hard to define, but the folk revivalists of the early 20th century were mostly collecting songs created by the working class in rural areas in the southeastern part of America.[6] During the 1930’s, just before the first wave of the American folk revival hit, Alan Lomax, John’s son, befriended Charles Seeger, Pete’s father, and they wanted to use “folk songs as a tool to ‘liberate’ the American working class.”[7] Pete Seeger, born into a family of scholars in the northeast, did not fit the description of the original backcountry folk singer. He and his family were highly educated, he grew up in the northeast and associated with New England values, and he did not share the struggle of the working class. Firstly, his family was made up of scholars. At University of California, Berkeley, Pete’s father was the head of the music department, his mother was a violinist, and in 1921 both of Pete’s parents started to teach at the Institute of Musical Art, now known as Julliard in New York City.[8] Pete Seeger attended boarding school in the northeast starting at age five, and he remained at private schools away from home until attended Harvard, the most elite college in New England. He didn’t graduate from Harvard, because he was getting too involved in political organizations, but he received nearly the best institutional education possible. The creators of folk songs in southeastern America were generally literate, but many of them were working on farms and fighting for fair labor unions rather than attending highly ranked universities.[9]

Pete Seeger's father, Charles and his pitch-analyzing machine (international.ucla.edu)

Pete Seeger’s father, Charles, and his pitch-analyzing machine (international.ucla.edu)

In When We Were Good, Robert Cantwell discusses Seeger’s outsider status as in the world of folk music. Cantwell writes, “Seeger delivered it [his music] not with the affected drawl of later folk revivalists, but in the honest accents of New England gentility, with its dignified, rotund vowels, every word articulate, and the raised voice of a scholar at the podium… as if out of a Latin primer.”[10] The typical “drawl” of folk singers suggests laziness and lack of eloquence, but as a highly educated outsider to folk music, Seeger’s performances sound more didactic than entertaining; he is closer to a professor than a folk singer.

In addition to scholarly parents and education making Seeger an outsider to the working class folk, his New England values also made him alien to the southern United States culture that is connected to original folk. In a selection by Pete Seeger from Hard Travelin’: The Life and Legacy of Woody Guthrie, Seeger writes that in comparison to Guthrie, he “was a very naïve, puritanical New Englander.”[11] Seeger sees himself as having traditional, moral, and even old-fashioned religious values that are specific to New England culture. He also compares himself to Johnny Appleseed, a mendicant from Massachusetts who epitomized religious New England values.[12] Seeger self-identifies as a New Englander rather than just an American, and in that sense alienates himself from the values of other regions of the United States.

Scholars also specifically identify Seeger as a representative New Englander, making him an outsider to the folk music of southeastern America. Robert Cantwell, in When We Were Good, writes, “Seeger’s longing for the ‘morally consistent life’… was a venerable Yankee tradition.”[13] Seeger and his values embodied the traditional, “venerable” sense of the word “Yankee,” a person from the northeast of America. Rob Rosenthal, editor of Pete Seeger in His Own Words, also mentions “Seeger came from an old genteel Yankee family,” and labels the “old Yankee values” as “honor, duty fairness, self-reliance,” all of which are morals that Seeger tried to uphold.[14] (Interestingly, Rosenthal argues that because Seeger grew up in an elite family with Yankee values that were being forgotten during the 1930’s and 40’s in America, he was attracted to the folk movement’s alliance with the working class.[15]) Seeger was classified by himself, and by many critical authors who have analyzed his life, as upholding distinctly New England values. These values may have had some overlap with those of farmers in southeastern America, but they have still been identified as discrete, making Seeger even more of an outsider to the original southeastern folk music.

Seeger’s scholarly family, his own education, and he and his family’s New England morals make him an outsider to the folk music that he became interested in as a young man. Although it is implied by his abundance of education, it is important unto itself that Seeger was not actually a member of the working class and that he never had to be a member of a labor union himself. Seeger’s original forays into folk music did involve fighting for farmers, the working class, and labor unions, but he was not actually in a labor union.

Seeger’s outsider status becomes clear in the naming of his first somewhat formalized musical group, “The Almanac Singers.” Seeger recounts in a 1987 letter that when the group was picking a name, Lee Hays, a member, said “You know, back in Arkansas there were really two books that a poor farmer might know about: the Bible would help him get through the next world, but the Almanac would help him get through this world.”[16] Lee Hays, though he was highly educated, came from Arkansas and was a relative insider to the original folk music that inspired the revival. He knew the importance of almanacs to the working class, especially farmers, while Pete Seeger, an outsider to that culture, was not aware. Seeger grew up reading books in school libraries rather than reading farmer’s almanacs. 

(www.musicweb-international.com)

Recordings by Pete Seeger’s group, The Almanac Singers (www.musicweb-international.com)

 

Pete Seeger, an outsider to the original culture of folk music, got his start as a folk collector and singer in New York City in the 1940’s. The city at this time, a world of artists and progressives, was the ideal place for an outsider to flourish. People across America and around the world were flocking to New York. Part of the appeal of New York was that many people thriving there had come from somewhere else. Everyone was an outsider to the city or to their art form or to their political party, so to be an outsider was actually to be an insider. In this sense, Pete Seeger had a leg up in the folk music scene in New York City, simply because he was an outsider to the folk music genre. His outsider status, in New York City, made him more of an insider.

New York was a cultural hub, so artists from everywhere were especially determined to make it there to find success. In Which Side Are You On? Dick Weissman discusses the significance of the arts, especially music, in New York City at the time. He writes, “For many years New York City was the center for the production of American music. Anyone who wanted a recording contract would ultimately go there and it was also the key marketplace for the production of network radio shows.”[17] More specifically than that, Weissman explains that folk musicians, who most people would not have associated with urban centers, were also heading to New York to achieve success. He writes, “Within a few years of one another Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly, Josh White, Pete Seeger, Lee Hays, and many other folksingers gravitated to Manhattan.”[18] All of these folksingers were outsiders to the city and most of them were outsiders to the original culture surrounding American folk music, but they were all coming to Manhattan at the same time, forming a community of outsiders. This community of singers, like many other communities of artists in the city at the time, became insiders because they were all outsiders together.

New York City in the 1940’s was an artist’s dream, and it was also an epicenter for progressive and egalitarian groups like the Communist Party. Members of oppressed groups from all over the world were coming to the city in search of refuge. In a 1966 essay entitled, “Cents and Nonsense in the Urban Folksong Movement: 1930-66,” Scholar Ellen Stekert mentions that artists, in particular folksingers, were coming to the city from places where they had been subjugated.[19] The city represented a place where someone who had been oppressed could find a pro-equality community. Left wing groups like the Communist party, which promoted racial equality, supported labor unions, and fought for many other progressive causes, had a relatively significant role in the city, especially in communities of artists and intellectuals.

Weissman also discusses that many of the folksingers that were coming to New York City were associated with progressive groups throughout America; he writes, “Most of these singers had a radical background. Hays had learned his politics under radical preacher Claude Williams at Commonwealth College in Arkansas, Woody Guthrie had written a column for the West Coast communist daily People’s World.” [20] Not only were oppressed people coming to New York City, but also people who were already fighting for equality in other places were gathering in New York City to join forces. Naturally, there was a fair amount of crossover between the artists and the radicals coming to New York in the 1940’s; a lot of the folksingers coming to the city were both artists and radicals. The convergence of these groups in a small city became a perfect environment for these outsiders to feel like insiders, and oftentimes to find great success.

(www.allmusic.com)

Pete Seeger’s group, The Weavers, becomes commercially successful (www.allmusic.com)

 

Both an outsider to folk and an urban environment with a left-wing subculture were crucial to the American folk revival. Historically outsiders to folk have promoted the genre, and the outsider can make the authentic folk song more palatable for a larger, more urban audience. Additionally New York City itself, and the community of leftists within it, allowed for the collaboration and creativity necessary for the promotion of folk music. Without the outsider to folk in New York City, like Pete Seeger (and many others including Alan Lomax) folk music may have remained on farms, hidden from the view of many Americans.

The outsider to folk has been key to the promotion of folk-like music throughout American history. Minstrel singers propagated African American music starting in the early 19th century, and singing cowboys popularized actual cowboy culture in the 1930’s.[21] Seeger, rather than being revolutionary, was actually following an old American tradition. If history is any indication, Seeger’s status as an outsider made him more likely to be able to promote folk music than if he grew up to a folk-singing family in Arkansas.

The outsider to folk is successful at promoting folk because he or she is more objective and able to help larger, more urban audiences appreciate it. Prior to the American folk revival, folk music had a very small following. Most Americans outside of the southern regions of the U.S. listened to popular music rather than folk.[22] These Americans were not interested in the authentic folk music that was being produced in the backcountry; they needed an outsider’s and an urbanite’s perspective and rendition of the music. Pete Seeger was able to perform this function. He writes about his role as an outsider to folk,

 

Perhaps the role of performers such as myself should best be thought of as that of an intermediary. We can introduce music to audiences to whom the straight stuff would seem too raw, crude, or unintelligible. We also have the advantage of being able to present a broader picture of folk music than any true folk musician could. A true folk musician may be a genius at his or her own kind of music—but that one kind is liable to be all he knows.[23]

 

Seeger points out that an outsider to folk is not only able to tone down authentic folk music to give it a wider-appeal, but he is also able to more objectively present different types of folk music.

Scholars use similar language to discuss Seeger’s position as an “intermediary.” Dick Weissman writes that the more authentic singers such as Aunt Molly Jackson and Leadbelly “were too raw for the average American;” Seeger “had a smoother and more polished sound and could appeal to the average American.”[24] Weissman, like Seeger, refers to the authentic folk music as “raw,” needing to be commercialized, making Seeger a crucial, though sometimes controversial, middleman figure.

Seeger as an outsider to folk music could not have been successful in promoting folk without having been located in a city. The urban setting, especially one with a leftwing subculture, was fertile grounds for people from all over the world to collaborate and produce art that can be appreciated by larger audiences. Pete Seeger touches on the community-building nature of New York City in the 1940’s, and on the ability for an outsider to be successful at that time and place. He writes:

 

Overall, there’s something that should be kept in mind, that this was Greenwich Village, New York City. It is no accident that some extraordinary art forms arise in cities where people meet each other. Jazz developed in New Orleans and not some small town in Louisiana. Detroit developed Motown. It took Nashville to develop the “country” field. In the case of the Almanacs, it was me coming down from New England, Lee coming up from Arkansas, Mill from New Jersey, Woody from Oklahoma… There in Greenwich Village we all met and bounced back ideas against each other.[25]

 

Seeger is pointing out that outsiders must come together in an urban area in order to create and promote art. Although smaller towns or rural areas may inspire that art, it cannot be realized there. New York City, like New Orleans, Nashville and Detroit, was a central location where art was being created. Artists would make their way to these cities and come together in their productivity. Therefore, an artist who was an outsider to a genre, like Seeger to folk, was able to meet with other outsiders and succeed in New York City. In this way, the outsiders became insiders.

The presence of leftist groups in New York City was especially catalytic for Seeger’s ability to promote folk music. In the leftist community, living communally, as Seeger and his fellow artists did, was acceptable.[26] This kind of shared living space helped establish connections and encouraged creativity. In additions, Seeger directly cites the Communist Party as having immensely facilitated his success and the revival of folk music. He is discussing the success and importance of his first musical group, “The Almanac Singers,” and he writes, “My guess is, though, little would have happened if it hadn’t been for the Communist Party.”[27]

Pete Seeger performing in New York City (en.wikipedia.org)

Pete Seeger performing in New York City (en.wikipedia.org)

 

Pete Seeger’s successful start as an outsider to folk in New York City in the 1940’s helped him become an insider to the city and to folk music. His life and work as paradox of insider and outsider kept him from alienating most people and allowed him to make it through the Red Scare, to have continuing success in promoting folk music, and to bridge the gap between the folk revival of the 1940’s and that of the 1960’s. Benjamin Filene mentions that he had the “ability to cross the outsider-insider barrier without pretending to dissolve it.”[28]

Seeger’s outsider-insider status is exemplified by his style of performance: he always wanted the audience to join in. By encouraging full participation, he was modeling the audience after his own outsider-insider persona—helping the outsiders, spectators, become the insiders, performers. Seeger says, “It all boils down to what I would most like to do as a musician. Put songs on people’s lips instead of just in their ears.”[29]For example, towards the end of Seeger’s recording of Leadbelly’s Song, “Alabama Bound,” Seeger sings,

 

I’m Ala—, I’m Ala—

And if the—train don’t stop and turn—

I’m Ala—, I’m Ala—[30]

 

Seeger figured that his listeners knew the relatively simple chorus by the end of the song, so he wanted them to sing it for themselves.

He also published instruction manuals for how to use instruments, such as his book, How to Play the Five-String Banjo. [31] This was another effort to embolden his audiences to make their own music. He did not copyright this book, because he wanted as many people as possible to be able to access it.[32] Seeger, aware of his ability to represent both the insider and outsider to folk music, was bringing other outsiders inside. Making audience participation his mission reinforced his own status as both interloper and insider.

(www.musicroom.com)

Pete Seeger’s instruction manual (www.musicroom.com)

Seeger’s ability to be both outsider and insider made his persona paradoxical in other, related ways. Robert Cantwell eloquently articulates his contradictory nature:

 

He emerged, then, as a system of paradoxes: masculine and feminine, patrician and proletarian, cosmopolitan and provincial, cultivated and uncultivated, educated and anti-intellectual, conservative and radical, hermetically private and gregariously public, a solitary wanderer and at the same time an entire movement, a richly heterogeneous cultural symbol.[33]

 

This persona of contradictions gave Seeger the complexity and wide-appeal that allowed him to thrive through the 20th century.

Firstly he was able to survive the Red Scare of the 1950’s, which ruined the careers and even lives of many of his leftist contemporaries. He didn’t fit into a specific category, and therefore avoided being pigeonholed as a veritable communist. He was indeed blacklisted for about twenty years, and he did suffer social and economic problems, but because of the many sides of his persona, this may have actually helped his career. Rosenthal writes that this “narrowing of commercial opportunities that compelled him to further develop the very grassroots democratic approach that was implicit in the worldview… came to be the epitome of what he stood for.”[34]

Seeger was able to utilize his blacklisting for his own good because he was not completely stuck in the role of political activist. As Cantwell writes, although Seeger “led the People’s Song movement in New York in the forties…these among many other Popular Front activities… he was not, strictly speaking, ideological”[35] Seeger’s overarching goal was to promote human equality,[36] and if a particular political group aligned with that at the time, he would generally support it.

Because he was both political and apolitical, and because he was able to survive the Red Scare, he was also to bridge the gap between the various folk revivals in America, unlike most of the folk singers of the 1940’s. Robert Cantwell writes,

 

Nothing was more tiresome, once the revival was in full swing, than to endure the contributions of some antediluvian communist songster with a bag of “banker and bosses” union songs, stirring as they must have been in their time, who imagined that the labor movement of the thirties had come back to life.[37]

 

Seeger was not one of these “antediluvians.” Rosenthal writes, “He has served as a bridge between eras, struggles, and peoples.”[38] Seeger’s career would have fallen apart after the 1940’s if he had been entirely political. He needed to be both political and apolitical, insider and outsider, in order to appeal to audiences during both the 1930’s revival and to the people of the 1960’s revival. And in order for Pete Seeger to develop his contradictory persona, and in order for him to bring folk music into the forefront of American culture, he needed to start in New York City in the 1940’s, where outsiders to folk could become insiders.

Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan (www.tvguide.com)

Bob Dylan and Pete Seeger (www.tvguide.com)

 

Seeger’s ability to span the different folk movements gave an important continuity to the genre folk music in America. His paradoxical nature meant that he didn’t alienate anyone, so he was able to maintain his status as a symbol for social change, and he represented moral values both personally and professionally. He brought the history and tradition of folk music to a generation that might not have known about its roots. Rosenthal writes, “As a bridge between movements for so long, Seeger has also spanned the generations, consciously mentoring younger generations of musicians and activists.”[39] Seeger was able to accept that as he says, “Folk traditions will changes as the folks who inhabit this earth change,”[40] so rather than holding back the ever-changing forms of folk revival, he was able to push them forward. Personally and professionally, Seeger modeled the ability to come to folk as an outsider for both his audiences and for people who wanted to perform folk music themselves. “His whole way of life became the prototype for thousands of other would-be “folk-singers.”[41]

 

(pinterest.com)

(pinterest.com)

 

Lily Taylor

New York City in the ‘40s

Wesleyan University

December 2014

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bibliography:

 

Boaz, David. “Stalin’s Songbird.” The Guardian. Last modified April 14, 2006. Accessed November 11, 2014. http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2006/apr/14/post33.

 

Cantwell, Robert, 1945. 1996. When we were good: The folk revival. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.

 

Filene, Benjamin. “Performing the Folk.” In Romancing the Folk: Public Memory and American Roots Music, 182-232. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2000.

 

Pete Seeger: The Power of Song. Directed by Jim Brown. Shangri-La Entertainment, 2007.

 

Stekert, Ellen J. “Cents and Nonsense in the Urban Folksong Movement: 1930-66.” 1966. In Transforming Tradition: Folk Music Revivals Examined, edited by Neil V. Rosenberg, 84-106. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1993.

 

Seeger, Pete, 1919-2014, Rob Rosenthal 1951, and Sam Rosenthal. 2012. Pete seeger: In his own words. Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers.

 

Weissman, Dick. Which Side Are You On? An Inside History of the Folk Music Revival in America. New York, NY: Continuum, 2005.

 

Wilkinson, Alec, 1952. 2009. The protest singer: An intimate portrait of Pete Seeger. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

 

[1] Benjamin Filene. “Performing the Folk.” In Romancing the Folk: Public Memory and American Roots Music, 182-232. (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2000), 188.

[2] Ibid.

[3]Ibid.

[4] Pete Seeger, 1919-2014, Rob Rosenthal 1951, and Sam Rosenthal. 2012. Pete seeger: In His Own Words. (Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers), xii.

[5] Filene. ” Romancing the Folk, 185-186.

[6] Dick Weisman, Which Side Are You On? An Inside History of the Folk Music Revival in America. (New York, NY: Continuum, 2005), 24.

[7] Weissman, Which Side Are You On?, 44.

[8] Seeger and Rosenthal, In His Own Words, 6-7.

[9] Weissman, Which Side Are You On?, 17.

[10] Cantwell, Robert Cantwell, 1945. 1996. When We Were good: The Folk Revival. (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press), 259.

[11] Seeger and Rosenthal, In His Own Words, 14.

[12] Cantwell, When We Were Good, 250.

[13] Ibid, 251.

[14] Seeger and Rosenthal, In His Own Words, xvi.

[15] Ibid, xvi.

[16] Ibid, 17.

[17] Weissman, Which Side Are You On?, 45.

[18] Ibid, 45.

[19] Ellen J. Stekert, “Cents and Nonsense in the Urban Folksong Movement: 1930-66.” 1966. In Transforming Tradition: Folk Music Revivals Examined, edited by Neil V. Rosenberg, 84-106. (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1993.)

[20] Weissman, Which Side Are You On?, 46.

[21] Filene. Romancing the Folk, 189.

[22] Weissman, Which Side Are You On, 44.

[23] Seeger and Rosenthal, In His Own Words, 42.

[24] Weissman, Which Side Are You On?, 44.

[25] Seeger and Rosenthal, In His Own Words, 26.

[26] Filene, Romancing the Folk, 190.

[27] Seeger and Rosenthal, In His Own Words, 26-27.

[28] Filene, Romancing the Folk, 201.

[29] Seeger and Rosenthal, In His Own Words, xiii.

[30] Filene, Romancing the Folk, 197.

[31] Ibid, 198.

[32] Ibid, 199.

[33] Cantwell, When We Were Good, 262.

[34] Rosenthal, xvii.

[35] Cantwell, 260.

[36] Wilkinson, The Protest Singer, 73.

[37] Cantwell, When We Were Good, 22.

[38] Seeger and Rosenthal, In His Own Words, xiii-xiv.

[39] Seeger and Rosenthal, In His Own Words, xiii-xiv.

[40] Filene, Romancing the Folk, 194-195.

[41] Ibid, 190.

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