Pete Seeger (1919–)
Along with Woody Guthrie, singer-songwriter Pete Seeger is considered one of the pioneers of modern folk music. Seeger is synonymous with the folk boom of the late 1950s and early 1960s, and he helped transform folk from an orally transmitted body of traditional songs found mainly among rural dwellers to a mass-market form of entertainment, popular on college campuses and in New York coffeehouses.
Born in New York City, the son of Julliard musicologist Charles Seeger, one of the first researchers to investigate non-Western music, Pete Seeger was educated at a series of exclusive private schools, including Harvard, where he majored in sociology. He began playing banjo in his teens and developed an intense interest in folk music that only grew over time. In 1938, he shocked his parents by dropping out of college to hitchhike across the United States, meeting many legendary folk musicians along the way, including Leadbelly and Woody Guthrie.
When he returned to New York in 1940, Seeger formed the Almanac Singers, a rotating cast of folk singers (at times including Woody Guthrie) that merged politically progressive lyrics with folk tunes. They performed mainly at union rallies, strikes, and similar events. The Almanac Singers disbanded during World War II, when Seeger was drafted.
After serving in the military for several years, Seeger returned to New York in 1948 and formed the Weavers, the first mainstream American folk group. The Weavers scored several big hits in the late 1940s and early 1950s, including 1948's “Goodnight Irene,” which stayed at number one for weeks, setting a chart record not broken until the 1970s.
During the McCarthy-era Red Scare, the Weavers suffered boycotts because of their left-leaning views. This severely curtailed their success. However, in 1955, the group gave a legendary performance at Carnegie Hall, which set the stage for the urban folk boom of the late 1950s.
From 1958 onward, Seeger opted for a solo career, and he quickly became a star in his own right, known for songs such as “If I Had a Hammer” (a hit for Peter, Paul, and Mary), “Where Have All the Flowers Gone,” “Turn! Turn! Turn!” (later popularized by the Byrds), “Guantanamera,” and, most famous, “We Shall Overcome.” Seeger became a fixture at civil rights rallies, college campuses, labor strikes, and anti-war protests, where audiences would often sing along so loudly that Seeger himself could hardly be heard.
In 1961, Seeger signed with Columbia Records, and his popularity grew even further over the next few years. Toward the end of the 1960s, Seeger shifted away from typical American folk, embracing African music, Latin-American folksongs, and other forms of world music. He wrote several famous how-to books on acoustic guitar and banjo and became active in the nascent environmental movement, drawing attention to pollution of the Hudson River through boating trips. He later formed the activist group Clearwater, which teaches schoolchildren about water pollution.