Pete Seeger's career has spanned decades and influenced generations
, inspired and fueled the labor and civil rights movement, and carried with it some of the most timeless songs of community and empowerment. This biography by David King Dunaway is a tremendous account of the great folksinger's life and work, and by extension, of American history.
Pete Seeger's Life Story
comes from a long line of dissenters and patriots. His lineage can be traced back to the Mayflower, and his family has always stood up ardently for peace, justice, and their fellow man. That Seeger was Harvard-educated and borne of New England stock does not detract from the work he found himself gravitating toward.
Dunaway does an excellent job of framing Seeger's life story, focusing particularly on his father's side of the family. A great deal of attention is also paid to Seeger's internal struggle - the things one goes through when they decide to stand up for something greater than themselves. Dunaway attributes it to a certain old-fashioned sense of modesty, but the stories he tells about Seeger point to something much deeper and more provocative than that.
The Blacklist, Civil Rights, Peace, and the Hudson River Revival
Pete Seeger performing at the inauguration of President Barack Obama, 2009photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
Dunaway is not shy in supposing Seeger's blacklisting is what made his reputation what it is to this day. Indeed, the adversity Seeger faced during his debacle with the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) only solidified his strong sense that community and dissent are the most patriotic of things. A story which could otherwise seem a bit Pollyanna and naive, in Dunaway's hands, comes across as one which required a certain strength of character and dedication to something outside himself. It's because of the amount of detail Dunaway provides that this story is as clear and humanized as it is. Not the story of a reactionary activist, but that of a man caught between the truth of his own experiences and the things which mainstream culture at the time had distilled to right or wrong.
Dunaway follows that narrative to the point where Seeger's focus shifted from great sweeping justice to the more urgent, achievable quest of simply getting people to sing together. It's with this same spirit that he approached the anti-Vietnam-War movement and, eventually, his quest to clean up the Hudson River.
American history through one man's life
Dunaway retells one of Woody Guthrie
's favorite stories about a pair of rabbits running from wolves. They duck into a hollow log to wait out the chase. One rabbit says to the other, "What are we going to do now?" And the other says, "We're going to stay here until we outnumber 'em."
This sort of life-long determination is the thing which seems to have motivated much of Seeger's work, particularly since the original blacklisting of the Weavers. As a result, this story reads not only like the biography of a single man, or the story of a handful of folk songs which have influenced generations; but also another angle on the modern history of the American movement, while avoiding extreme academia or the typical stodginess of an historical volume. As such, it's an excellent read for anyone interested not only in Seeger's work, but also the legacy of American folk music and the history of the 20th Century.