Pete Seeger was born in Patterson, New York on May 3, 1919. His mother was a concert violinist, and his father was a musicologist who taught at UC Berkeley from 1912 until 1919, at which time he was fired because of his vocal opposition to America’s involvement in World War I. The elder Mr. Seeger was also a member of the Communist Party.
In 1932 Pete Seeger became a subscriber to the Communist Party USA‘s monthly publication, The New Masses. As a young teen he aspired to be a journalist, but by age seventeen he had decided to pursue a music career instead.
Seeger attended Harvard University, where he majored in sociology, founded a radical newspaper, and joined the Young Communist League. He dropped out at the end of his sophomore year in 1938 and moved to New York City. Soon thereafter he worked briefly as an assistant at the Library of Congress’ Archive of the American Folk Song, where he catalogued and transcribed music. Alan Lomax—who was a close friend of Seeger’s father—served as the assistant director of this Archive.
In the mid-to-late 1930s Seeger embraced the goals of the Popular Front, which were adopted by the Seventh Congress of the Communist International in 1935. As Manhattan Institute scholar Howard Husock writes:
“[T]he Popular Front tasked communists in the West with building ‘progressive’ coalitions with various institutions—including political parties and labor unions—that the party had previously denounced as bourgeois and corrupt…. Following this new strategy, the American Communist Party suddenly asserted that it wanted to build upon, not destroy, American institutions…. The Popular Front sought to enlist Western artists and intellectuals, some of them not party members but ‘fellow travelers,’ to use art, literature, and music to insinuate the Marxist worldview into the broader culture.”
Specifically, explains Husock, the aim was to take the music of poor rural Southerners—which was eventually called “folk” music—and use it as a framework through which to introduce the Marxist cultural vernacular of proletarian revolutionaries into the everyday American lexicon. Thus, Seeger and Alan Lomax enthusiastically set out to create a new, previously nonexistent tradition of social protest in American folk music.
By 1940, Seeger was an accomplished musician who sang at many leftist political events. That year, through Lomax, he met the singer-songwriter Woody Guthrie at a New York “Grapes of Wrath” benefit concert held on behalf of California migrant workers. “Made to order for the Popular Front,” writes Howard Husock, “Guthrie was a middle-class Oklahoman with a calculated aw-shucks cowboy manner, who just happened to be a Communist Party sympathizer and had written for communist newspapers.” “Go back to that night when Pete first met Woody Guthrie,” Lomax would later say. “You can date the renaissance of American folk song from that night.”
Soon after the “Grapes of Wrath” concert, Seeger and Guthrie—along with such performers as Lee Hays, Millard Lampell, Sis Cunningham, Sonny Terry, Brownie McGhee, Burl Ives, and a few others—formed the Almanac Singers, one of the first folk music groups organized for mainly political purposes. During their brief time together (only about a year), they recorded some three-dozen songs, many of which dealt with such themes as pacifism, labor unions, and the alleged mistreatment of workers by employers and the U.S. government alike. The group performed at many union meetings and fundraising events for Communist Party front groups.
The Almanac Singers’ songs were replete with anti-war, pro-union propaganda that was wholly consistent with the views of the Communist Party. According to the Los Angeles Times, “Singing for union causes became almost a religion for Seeger, who … helped bring folk music from the country into the big cities, mixed with a heavy dose of politics.”
The Almanac Singers’ anti-war songs stopped, however, when Germany violated the German-Soviet non-aggression pact in June 1941 and invaded the Soviet Union. As historian Ron Radosh puts it: “During the Nazi-Soviet Pact (1939-41), Seeger sang antiwar songs that, in effect, called for the support of Hitler. When the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union, he withdrew the songs he had just recorded and suddenly supported the ‘antifascist alliance’ between the United States and the Soviets.”
A staunch defender of the Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, Seeger formally joined the CPUSA in 1942. Author Kenneth Lloyd Billingsley writes that Seeger saw himself as “one of the Communist Party’s ‘artists in uniform,’ who believed that ‘songs are weapons.’” Indeed, in the 30s and 40s Seeger adopted for himself the slogan that “art is a weapon.”
After WWII ended in 1945, Seeger helped establish the magazine Sing Out! That same year, he became the national director of People’s Songs, Inc, an organization designed to “create, promote and distribute songs of labor and the American People.” Within a few years, the California Senate Fact-finding Committee reported that: “People’s Songs is a vital Communist front … one which has spawned a horde of lesser fronts in the fields of music, stage entertainment, choral singing, folk dancing, recording, radio transcriptions and similar fields. It especially is important to Communist proselytizing and propaganda work because of its emphasis on appeal to youth, and because of its organization and technique to provide entertainment for organizations and groups as a smooth opening wedge for Marxist-Leninist-Stalinist propaganda.”
In the mid-1940s Seeger began his nightclub career, performing at the Village Vanguard in Greenwich Village, New York.
In 1948 Seeger and Paul Robeson toured with the presidential campaign of Henry Wallace, the Progressive Party candidate in that year’s election. Also in the late Forties, Seeger invested $1,700 in 17 acres of land overlooking the Hudson River in Beacon, New York, where he would reside for the rest of his life.
In 1949, Seeger, Lee Hays, Ronnie Gilbert, and Fred Hellerman began working together as the Weavers. As City Journal notes, “The Almanacs/Weavers … dressed the part of authentic jes’ plain folks, sporting farmer’s overalls on stage,” and they enjoyed a moderate degree of commercial success.
The group produced several albums of standard folk songs in the early 1950s, and also recorded a number of original songs such as If I Had a Hammer (1949) and Kisses Sweeter Than Wine (1950). The former, notes Howard Husock, “pulled off, with great aplomb, the old Popular Front goal of linking the American revolutionary past with the communist revolutionary future, joining the Liberty Bell with the hammer and sickle, and extolling freedom and justice while implying that these quintessentially American qualities were the very virtues that American society lacked.”
Seeger parted ways with the Communist Party in 1950 and eventually renounced strict Stalinism, in favor of socialism and pro-labor activism. “I realized,” Seeger would say in an interview many years later, “I could sing the same songs I sang whether I belonged to the Communist Party or not, and I never liked the idea anyway of belonging to a secret organization.” He continued, however, to describe himself as a “communist with a small ‘c.’”
In June 1950, Seeger’s name was listed in Red Channels, an influential pamphlet that identified performers with suspected Communist ties—though by this point he had already left the party.
In 1951 the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee investigated the Weavers for sedition, and in February of the following year a former member of People’s Songs testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee that three of the four Weavers were Communist Party members. Shortly after the start of the Korean War, the Communist Party connections of Seeger and his fellow Weavers led to the group’s blacklisting. Thus the Weavers disbanded, though they would reunite periodically to hold concerts in the mid-1950s.
After the dissolution of the Weavers, Seeger—whom critics dubbed “Khrushchev’s songbird”—earned a living mostly by playing solo concerts at college coffeehouses, churches, schools, and summer camps. Among his most noteworthy performance venues were the Little Red Schoolhouse and Elisabeth Irwin High School, a pair of Communist-run entities in New York City.
In 1955 Seeger was subpoenaed by the House Un-American Activities Committee, whose questions about his past Communist ties he answered evasively or not at all. Asserting that “I feel that in my whole life I have never done anything of any conspiratorial nature,” Seeger told the Committee: “I am not going to answer any questions as to my association, my philosophical or religious beliefs or my political beliefs, or how I voted in any election, or any of these private affairs. I think these are very improper questions for any American to be asked, especially under such compulsion as this.”
In 1957 Seeger was indicted on ten counts of contempt of Congress. In 1961 he was found guilty of that charge and was sentenced to a year in prison, though in 1962 his conviction was overturned on a technicality. The whole controversial ordeal, however, inflicted lasting damage on Seeger’s reputation and career; he was barred from appearing on network television for the next 17 years.
Throughout the brutal reign of Joseph Stalin in the USSR, Seeger was willfully blind to the Soviet dictator’s atrocities, and he remained that way for many years after Stalin’s death. As historian Ron Radosh points out, for example: “[I]n the late 1950s and early ’60s, [Seeger] sang songs like ‘Hey Zhankoye,’ a paean to Soviet collective farms run by Jews in the Crimea, heralding Stalin’s supposed freeing of Soviet Jews—at a time when he was preparing for the murder of the Jews of Russia and had arrested and murdered famous Jewish poets as American spies and Zionist agents.”
In the 1960s Seeger became heavily involved in the civil rights movement and its major demonstrations. We Shall Overcome, his musical interpretation of an old spiritual, became the movement’s signature song. Also in the ’60s, Seeger performed some benefit concerts on behalf of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.
Shortly after his indictment for contempt of Congress, Seeger adapted a Ukrainian folk song into the popular Where Have All the Flowers Gone?, which portrayed all war—regardless of the circumstances or the enemy—as senseless, futile, and rooted either in ignorance or a lust for power.
Ron Radosh observes how Seeger, throughout the Cold War, consistently sided with the USSR rather than with the United States:
“Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, Seeger called for peace, peaceful co-existence between the United States and the Soviet Union, singing songs like _Put My Name Down, Brother, Where Do I Sign?—_a ballad in favor of the Soviet Union’s phony international peace petition that favored unilateral disarmament by the West while leaving the Soviet atomic stockpile intact. He would sing and give his support to peace rallies and marches covertly sponsored by the Soviet Union and its Western front groups and dupes—while leaving his political criticism only for the United States and its defensive actions during the Cold War.”
In 1965 Seeger’s musical version of chapter three of Ecclesiastes—Turn, Turn, Turn—was performed by the Byrds and reached #1 on the Billboard pop chart. Notably, Seeger’s version slightly amended the scripture, which observed but did not pass judgment on the various cycles of life: “To everything there is a season.” To the phrase “a time for war, a time for peace,” Seeger added: “I swear it’s not too late,” thereby tinging the words with an activist message.
Even as he condemned America’s military involvement in Vietnam during the 1960s, Seeger sang in praise of the brutal Ho Chi Minh, the revolutionary communist dictator who ruled North Vietnam from 1945–69. In 1970, Seeger wrote a song celebrating Ho that included the lyrics: “He educated all the people, he demonstrated to the world: If a man will stand for his own land, he’s got the strength of 10.”
In the late ’60s Seeger began raising money to finance the construction of the Clearwater, a 106-foot sailing ship that would symbolize a wide range of anti-pollution efforts, particularly the crusade to make the Hudson River’s water cleaner. The vessel was first launched in June 1969 with a crew of musicians aboard.
Around that same time, Seeger was listed as a sponsor of the GI Civil Liberties Defense Committee, which was led by the Socialist Workers Party.
Seeger was also a sponsor of the May 11-13, 1973 founding conference of the National Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression—a CPUSA front group that grew out of the Angela Davis Defense Organization.
On May 8, 1975—the 30th anniversary of V-E Day—Seeger participated in a “Rally for Detente and World Peace” which was co-sponsored by the National Council of American-Soviet Friendship (a CPUSA front) and the Marxist publication New World Review.
In 1979 the Indiana-based Eugene V. Debs Foundation, named after the famed American socialist, honored Seeger at its annual Award Banquet.
Just as Seeger had opposed America’s involvement in the Vietnam War, in the 1980s he condemned the Reagan administration’s military campaigns and weapons buildup. Meanwhile he supported the Nuclear Freeze Movement—a Soviet-sponsored initiative that would have frozen Soviet nuclear and military superiority in place and would have rendered Reagan unable to close that gap to any appreciable degree. As Ron Radosh puts it, “During the Cold War, [Seeger] supported unilateral American disarmament and backed one Soviet propaganda campaign after the other.”
Seeger was a member of the committee of sponsors for a March 28, 1982 gala luncheon in New York City organized by the Marxist publication New World Review. The event was titled “We Will Make Peace Prevail! Disarmament Over Confrontation, Life Over Death,” and nearly all the participants were members of the Communist Party USA.
When Al Sharpton in the late 1980s led a high-profile crusade on behalf of Tawana Brawley, a black teenager who falsely claimed that she had been raped by a gang of white men in November 1987, Seeger picketed alongside Sharpton and helped destroy the life of Stephen Pagones, the prosecuting attorney whom Sharpton and Brawley falsely accused of having participated in that rape. On April 5, 1988, for instance, Seeger, Sharpton, and a dozen other activists were arrested for blocking traffic during a protest demonstration on Brawley’s behalf.
On April 23, 1991, Seeger performed in a concert that was held at New York’s Riverside Church and sponsored by Youth For Jobs, Peace and Freedom—a project of the Institute for Democratic Socialism and the Democratic Socialists of America‘s Youth Section.
Seeger was an endorser of the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy & Socialism‘s July 1992 national conference at UC Berkeley, titled “Conference on Perspectives for Democracy and Socialism in the ’90s.”
On December 7 1992, Seeger performed at a New York City Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) fundraiser where longtime DSA activists Ruth and Victor Sidel were presented with the Paul Du Brul Memorial Award.
In 1994 Seeger was an initiator of the International Peace for Cuba Appeal, an affiliate of the International Action Center. Other prominent initiators included Cuban Intelligence agent Philip Agee, academic Noam Chomsky, and U.S. Congressmen John Conyers and Charles Rangel.
In 1995, several years after the fall of the USSR, Seeger said that despite communism’s failures, “I still call myself a communist, because communism is no more what Russia made of it than Christianity is what the churches make of it.” And in an interview with Mother Jones magazine in 2004, Seeger again stated: “I’m still a communist, in the sense that I don’t believe the world will survive with the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer.”
In 1999, Seeger — along with such notables as Ed Asner, Ossie Davis, Susan Sarandon, Eve Ensler, Michael Slate, Alice Walker, and Samuel L. Jackson — was a supporter of Mumia 911, a group of artists and performers that opposed the execution of convicted cop-killer Mumia Abu Jamal. The organization depicted Mumia’s case as an admixture of multiple elements: “racism, the death penalty, police brutality, incarceration of Black and Latino youth, persecution of revolutionaries, and government suppression of dissent.” “We are building a culture of resistance to stop the killing of Mumia Abu-Jamal,” said Mumia 911, “and to transform the reactionary political climate in which those clamoring for his execution have thrived.”
In 1999 Seeger visited Cuba to proudly accept the Castro regime’s highest cultural award, the Medal of the Order Felix Varela, in honor of Seeger’s “humanistic and artistic work in defense of the environment and against racism.”
In 2000 Seeger was a signatory to a political advertisement in the New York Times calling for an immediate end to America’s economic sanctions against Iraq. The ad charged that the U.S. was responsible for “killing … over one million Iraqis, mostly children under five.” Fellow signers included Ed Asner, Joan Baez, Daniel Berrigan, Philip Berrigan, Noam Chomsky, Ramsey Clark, William Sloane Coffin, Richard Dreyfuss, Mike Farrell, Thomas Gumbleton, Rev. James Lawson, Liam Neeson, Rosie O’Donnell, Tim Robbins, Susan Sarandon, Martin Sheen, and Howard Zinn.
In 2003 Seeger was a signatory to the “Statement of Conscience” drafted by Not In Our Name, a project of C. Clark Kissinger’s Revolutionary Communist Party. This document condemned not only the Bush administration’s “stark new measures of repression,” but also its “unjust, immoral, illegitimate, [and] openly imperial policy towards the world.” To view a list of additional notables who likewise endorsed NION, click here.
In the months prior to the March 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, Seeger appeared as a guest speaker and performer at numerous peace rallies across the United States. He supported the activities of such high-profile anti-war leaders as Medea Benjamin of Global Exchange and Leslie Cagan of United For Peace and Justice.
Also in 2003, Seeger endorsed a statement condemning the Smithsonian Institution’s plan to exhibit the Enola Gay, the B-29 Superfortress used in the atomic bombing of Hiroshima in 1945. He and his fellow 250+ signers—among whom were Noam Chomsky, Norman Lear, Martin Sheen, and Oliver Stone—were opposed to the aircraft being regarded in a “celebratory” manner.
Seeger was a national advisory board member of the Disarm Education Fund (DEF), which sought “to ban all private ownership of handguns.” Other notables who have served as DEF board members over the years include Aris Anagnos, Ed Asner, Ramsey Clark, Dave Dellinger, Thomas Gumbleton, Spike Lee, Mario Obledo, Michael Ratner, Martin Sheen, and Howard Zinn.
When a reporter in 2005 asked Seeger to explain how he could have supported Joseph Stalin during the height of the latter’s oppressive reign, Seeger drew a moral equivalence between the Soviet Union and the United States, saying that the School of the Americas—the U.S. Army training facility that engages in joint exercises with Latin American soldiers—taught Latin American soldiers “how to torture, how to massacre, how to assassinate.”
Seeger made a personal endorsement of the Communist Party USA’s People’s World in June 2007.
In 2008, Seeger sang at a concert to benefit the presidential campaign of Barack Obama. At Obama’s inauguration concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in January 2009, Seeger sang This Land is Your Land, the socialist anthem of fellow communist Woody Guthrie.
In the summer 2009, the 40th Anniversary Commemoration Committee of the Chicano Moratoriums included Seeger’s name on a list of significant “Chicano movement” activists.
In 2010 Seeger was listed as an advisory board member with the National Jobs For All Coalition, an organization dominated by the Democratic Socialists of America.
Stating that he did not wish to “abandon the world to those who believe in violence,” Seeger in October 2010 spoke out in favor of “an economic boycott” designed “to end the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.” “My religion is that the world will not survive without dialogue,” he added. In early 2011, Seeger announced that “I support the BDS [Boycott, Disinvestment and Sanctions] movement as much as I can.”
Also in 2010, Seeger served as an advisory board member of both the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism and the Rosenberg Fund for Children.
That same year, Seeger was a member of Actors and Artists United for the Freedom of the Cuban Five (AAUFCF). The Cuban Five was a group of individuals convicted in 2001 by a U.S. jury for their participation in a brutal Castro spy ring and now serving time in American prisons. Other members of AAUFCF included Ed Asner, Mike Farrell, Danny Glover, Bonnie Raitt, Susan Sarandon, Martin Sheen, and Oliver Stone.
As documented by Francis X. Gannon in the Biographical Dictionary of the Left, Seeger was affiliated—as an entertainer, member, sponsor, instructor, or contributor—with a long list of Communist groups and fronts during his life. Among these were: the American Committee for Protection of Foreign Born [Americans]; the American Committee for Yugoslav Relief; the American Peace Crusade; the American Peace Mobilization; the American Youth Congress; American Youth for Democracy; the California Labor School; the Civil Rights Congress; the Committee for a Democratic Far Eastern Policy; the Committee for the First Amendment; the Communist Party; the Council on African Affairs; Daily World; the Jefferson School of Social Science; the Labor Youth League; the National Committee to Abolish the House Un-American Activities Committee; the National Council of American-Soviet Friendship; the National Emergency Civil Liberties Committee; the National Lawyers Guild; New Masses; the Political Rights Defense Fund (a Socialist Workers Party front); Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade; and Veterans Against Discrimination of Civil Rights Congress.
Seeger died on January 27, 2014.
For additional information on Pete Seeger, click here.
Further Reading: “Pete Seeger Dies at 94; Balladeer Was America’s Conscience” (Los Angeles Times, 1-27-2014); “Pete Seeger, Champion of Folk Music and Social Change, Dies at 94” (NY Times, 1-28-2014); “Happy Birthday Pete! Seeger at 90!” (by Ron Radosh, 4-29-2009); “Pete Seeger” (Keywiki.org, Britannica.com, ); “America’s Most Successful Communist” (by Howard Husock, City Journal, Summer 2005); “The Red Warbler” (by Ron Radosh, 2-10-2014); “Seeing Red” (by Kenneth Lloyd Billingsley, 5-20-2002); “My Final Words on Pete Seeger: Part II” (by Ron Radosh, 5-9-2009); “Media Encomiums for Pete Seeger Omit Radical Background” (The New American, 1-28-2014); “Pete Seeger’s Continuing Naivete on How to Achieve Peace” (by Ron Radosh, 10-23-2010); “Pete Seeger: Commie-Lover Till the End” (by Humberto Fontova, 2-2-2014).