Musician, singer, songwriter, folklorist, labor activist, environmentalist, peace advocate, and perhaps the most influential folk artist in American history, no person did more to preserve folk music than Pete Seeger (1919-2014). From his pop-folk successes with the Weavers in the late 1940s through the 1950s, when he was blacklisted by the government; through the 1960s, when he became a cultural hero due to his outspoken commitment to the antiwar and civil rights struggles; and even relatively recently, when he played at President Obama’s inauguration, his passion for liberal politics, the environment, and humanity have earned him both ardent fans and vociferous enemies.
A gifted storyteller and music historian, Seeger’s works, including “If I Had a Hammer,” “We Shall Overcome,” and “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” served as anthems in the anti-establishment protests of the late 1960s and have become classic standards in the folk music repertoire. He was instrumental in transforming the five-string banjo into a popular acoustical instrument and helped to make the instrument “mainstream” by singing and recording popular songs played on it.
In the January 1995 handwritten letter to me exhibited here, Seeger writes:
Dear Saul Singer – I’ve occasionally sung songs in Yiddish and Hebrew, but have not had time to go very deeply & now I have almost no voice left. I visited Kibbutz Hatzor in ’67.
Though Seeger did sometimes acknowledge the centuries of anti-Semitism experienced by the Jewish people, his outspoken anti-discrimination views did not translate into support for Israel. He first came to Israel in 1964 with his wife and children to visit several kibbutzim because they were characteristic of the collective communal projects he so admired. As he describes in our correspondence, he returned there before 1967 Six-Day War (he actually departed Israel on June 5, the day the war began) and engendered great controversy when he publicly declared his disgust at what he called “monstrous” Israeli military actions against Palestinians and when he announced in Tel Aviv that that he would donate the proceeds from his concert in Israel to “Palestinian refugees.” He refused to enter the Israeli section of Jerusalem and, in a Tel Aviv concert before 26,000 people, he declared “let’s dedicate this to all exiles, not only the exiles of 2,000 years, but also of 20 years, as I said last week at the University of Beirut” – even though he was warned during his trip to Lebanon not to ever mention that he had been in Israel.
In Pete Seeger: In His Own Words, he writes about the “militant Irgun” and about Deir Yassin, at least implying that the unfortunate massacre there was the general rule rather than a horrible exception. He characterized Moshe Dayan as an “authoritarian” who motivated the Arab world to take action against Israel. He even found a way to criticize Israel for executing Adolph Eichmann, citing a little girl in Tel Aviv who wrote to him: “Don’t kill him. Take him instead and show him our life in Israel.” None of this should have been surprising to those who knew him because he was always first and foremost an unrepentant communist who, despite his repeated assertions of standing for “peace and mutual cooperation,” was actually a great anti-Israel public figure.
For years, Seeger had sung Hey Zhankoye with a Yiddish group, a song that helped spread the monstrous fiction that Stalin’s USSR freed Russian Jews by establishing Jewish collective farms in the Crimea – at the very time that Stalin was actually planning the obliteration of Soviet Jewry. He spoke of the great “injustice” in the drive to reestablish a sovereign Jewish state where a million Arabs already lived. A few years before his death, he lent his name to efforts by the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign to pressure and sanction Israel through economic means.
Nonetheless, Seeger recorded and performed many Jewish and Israeli songs. He performed Israeli folk tunes with the Weavers in the late 1940s and 1950s as part of the larger folk revival he was helping to champion, and “Tzena, Tzena,” which he recorded with the Weavers in 1949, became one of his greatest early hits, quickly selling over two million copies.
“Tzena” is a buoyant call to join the celebration with people from every nation who will dance the hora until “dawn will find us laughing in the sunlight dancing in the city square.” Issachar Miron, a Polish emigrant to Eretz Yisrael, had composed the melody for Hebrew lyrics written by Yechiel Chagiz while serving in the Jewish Brigade in 1941. Gordon Jenkins arranged the song for Seeger and The Weavers, and it reached #2 on the Billboard charts. (The flip side, “Goodnight Irene,” reached #1).
According to Seeger, he knew nothing about Jewish culture until he began living in New York at age 20, where he met many Jewish musicians, from whom he initially heard “Tzena, Tzena.” He went on to record and perform many other Jewish songs, including “Dayenu” from the Passover Haggadah in the album “Folk Songs for Young People” (1959); “Hineh Ma Tov,” which he performed with Theodore Bikel and later with the Weavers in their “Reunion at Carnegie Hall” album (1963); “Tumbalalaika,” which he recorded on his album, “Jewish Songs and Games”; and, of course, he borrowed the lyrics of his famous “Turn, Turn, Turn” from chapter 3 of Kohelet (Ecclesiastes). He also recorded “Jewish Children’s Songs and Games” (1957) with Ruth Rubin, a preeminent authority on Yiddish folk songs, whom he accompanied on banjo.
After developing an interest in America’s folk-music legacy in his teens, Seeger learned banjo, ukulele, and guitar. After traveling around the country absorbing rural music, attending Harvard University, and serving in the U.S. army in World War II, he met Woody Guthrie (see my April 8, 2016 Jewish Press column “Woody Guthrie: Jewish Family, Jewish Music”) who became his mentor. In 1948 he formed the Weavers, an enormously popular folk quartet that popularized such folk chestnuts as “On Top of Old Smokey” and Lead Belly’s “Goodnight Irene.”
Seeger joined the Communist Party and his sympathies with humanitarian socialism led to his blacklisting by the House Un-American Activities Committee (1955) and to his receiving a prison sentence (later overturned) for refusing to testify before committee about his participation in the Communist Party. The Weavers became the first musicians in American history to be investigated for sedition.
A changing political and musical climate brought Seeger back into prominence in the mid-1960s, and he was one of the organizers of (and one of the most popular performers in) the prestigious Newport Folk Festival. He was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Grammy (1993); received the Presidential Medal of the Arts as well as a Kennedy Award (1994); was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as an early influence (1996); and won a Grammy (Best Traditional Folk Album) for “Pete” (1997).