A celebration of the life and songs of Pete Seeger on what would have been his 97th birthday
Rev. J. Mark Worth, Harvard Unitarian Universalist Church, Harvard, MA
with “The Johnson’s Basement Singers,” Britt Argow, Helen Batchelder, Bill Cordner, Donnalisa
Johnson, Ted Johnson, Keith Myles, Pat White, and Mark Worth
PRELUDE “Oh, Had I a Golden Thread” by Pete Seeger
OPENING SONG: “If I Had a Hammer” by Pete Seeger and Lee Hayes
We’re celebrating Pete Seeger’s life today. Seeger, who died in 2014, was a folk singer,
songwriter, peace activist, civil rights activist, and an environmental activist. Pete’s 1948 book, How to
Play the Five-String Banjo is a classic that taught generations of banjo-players. He is the inventor of
the long-neck or Seeger banjo. Many of his songs became popular hits in the 1950s and’60s.
You might not have known that he was also a Unitarian Universalist. He had formed an
interracial singing group in New York City, The Street Singers, and he wanted a place for them to
perform. They affiliated with Community Church of New York, a UU church, and put on several
benefit concerts there. As a result, Seeger joined Community Church. He sang at the opening
ceremony at our 1996 national Unitarian Universalist General Assembly, and remained a UU until his
Radio disc jockey Casey Kasem called Pete Seeger’s song “Turn! Turn! Turn!” “the oldest #1
pop hit” because the lyrics are adapted from the Book of Ecclesiastes in the Bible, which is believed to
be about 2,250 years old. Pete said, “I wrote only six words, ‘I swear it’s not too late.’”
SONG: “Turn! Turn! Turn!” by Pete Seeger
In 1943 Pete Seeger married Toshi-Aline Ota, and they remained married for 70 years until her
death in 2013. He said that Toshi – “without whom,” he said, “the world would not turn nor the sun
shine”– gave him the support that made the rest of his life possible.
Two important things happened in Pete Seeger’s life in 1936. His first musical instrument was
the ukelele, but when he heard a five-string banjo in 1936 his life changed forever. He spent the next
four years trying to master the instrument.
Also in 1936 Pete joined the Young Communist League, which was then at the height of its
popularity and influence. In 1942 he became a member of the Communist Party. He resigned from the
party in 1949, and later said, “Innocently I became a member of the Communist Party, and when they
said fight for peace, I did, and when they said fight Hitler, I did. I got out in ’49, though…. I should
have left much earlier. It was stupid of me not to. My father had got out in ’38, when he read the
testimony of the trials in Moscow, and he could tell they were forced confessions. We never talked
about it, though, and I didn’t examine closely enough what was going on…. [I] had no idea how cruel a
leader [Stalin] was.”
He dropped out of Harvard University and took a job assisting Alan Lomax, an American
folklorist and musicologist. Seeger was soon performing on Lomax’s CBS radio show, “Back Where I
Come From.” Josh White, Burl Ives, Lead Belly and Woody Guthrie were also regulars on the show.
“Back Where I Come from” was unusual in that it had a racially integrated cast, and that made news
when they performed at the White House for Eleanor Roosevelt.
In 1941 Seeger helped to found the Almanac Singers. With members such as Seeger, Lee
Hayes, Josh White, Burl Ives, Sis Cunningham, and Woody Guthrie, they sang songs that promoted
unions and racial integration. The Almanac Singers first album, “Songs For John Doe,” followed the
Communist Party line that the war was a phoney war being waged for corporate profits. But when
Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union, the Almanac Singers immediately withdrew “Songs For John
Doe,” and stopped singing peace songs. A few months later Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, and the
Almanac Singers put out a new album, “Dear Mr. President,” supporting President Roosevelt and the
war against Nazi Germany.
During the war, Seeger served in the U.S. Army in the Pacific. He was trained as an airplane
mechanic, but was reassigned to entertain the American troops with music. Later, when asked what he
did in the war, he said, “I strummed my banjo.”
In 1948 Seeger campaigned for Progressive Party candidate Henry Wallace, who had been
FDR’s Secretary of Agriculture, and then Vice President. Wallace urged friendly relations with the
Soviet Union, and that we not enter into a Cold War. Wallace was criticized for accepting the support
of the Communist Party, and came in fourth, behind Democrat Harry Truman, Republican Thomas E.
Dewey, and Dixiecrat Strom Thurmond.
The Peekskill Riot ~
In 1949 Pete Seeger, Lee Hayes, and Woody Guthrie went to a Paul Robeson concert in
Peekskill, N.Y. Robeson was an African-American singer, Shakespearian actor, and former NFL
football player. He was also an outspoken advocate for African-American civil rights. The concert was
to be a fund-raiser for the Civil Rights Congress, an anti-lynching organization which had Communists
among its leaders. These were the early years of the Cold War and the Red Scare, and the American
Legion organized a protest against Robeson that quickly grew into an anti-Communist, anti-Jewish and
anti-Black riot. The rioters were armed with baseball bats and were throwing rocks. Robeson was not
able to get out of his car. Seeger, Hayes, and Guthrie were also attacked, and barely escaped. Local
police refused to intervene. Seeger later used rocks from the riot to build the chimney of his house in
Fishkill, N.Y., as he wanted a permanent reminder of what had happened that day.
Commercial success and blacklist ~
In the early 1950s Seeger became a founding member of The Weavers, along with Lee Hayes,
Ronnie Gilbert, and Fred Hellerman. Seeger and Hayes wanted to sing songs that would appeal to a
more mainstream audience than The Almanac Singers had been able to reach. The Weavers had hits
with the American classic, “On Top of Old Smokey,” the Israeli folk song, “Tzena, Tzena, Tzena,” and
a South African song, “Wimoweh.” Hayes and Seeger wrote another hit song, “Kisses Sweeter Than
Wine.” Their biggest hit was “Goodnight Irene,” which stayed at #1 for thirteen weeks.
As a result of their success they were offered a national TV show – but then the protests started.
At the peak of their popularity, radio stations stopped playing their songs, the TV offer was withdrawn,
and their bookings were canceled due to the anti-Communist blacklist.
In 1955 Hayes and Seeger were subpoenaed to testify before the House Un-American Activities
Committee. Seeger told the Committee: “I’m 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.”
Because Seeger did not seek the protection of the Fifth Amendment but still would not testify,
he was indicted for contempt of Congress. He was convicted and sentenced to10 years in jail. But he
appealed, and eventually the conviction was overturned.
When the rest of The Weavers wanted to cut a cigarette commercial, Pete quit and began a solo
career. Because he was blacklisted from the more mainstream venues, he brought his folk songs to
college campuses, teaching them to a younger generation. His trouble with the House Un-American
Committee always got into the newspapers before his concerts, bringing out more students who wanted
to know what all the fuss was about.
Vietnam War Era ~
Pete’s songs were just about everywhere during the 1960s. In 1961 the doo-wop group The
Tokens had a #1 hit with Solomon Linda’s song, “The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” which had been
popularized by The Weavers as “Wimoweh.” The Kingston Trio was formed in imitation of The
Weavers, and recorded Weavers’ songs such as “The Wreck of the John B,” the Almanac Singers’
“Sinking of the Rueben James,” and Seeger’s “Where Have All the Flowers Gone.” The Kingston Trio
was non-political, but Peter, Paul & Mary, who had a hit with Seeger’s tune, “If I Had a Hammer,”
followed in Seeger’s political footsteps. The Beach Boys had a #3 hit with “The Sloop John B,” an
adaptation of The Weavers’ “Wreck of the John B.” The folk-rock band The Byrds, Judy Collins, Cher,
John Denver, and Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page all recorded Seeger’s song, “Bells of Rhymney.” And
The Byrds had a #1 hit with Seeger’s, “Turn! Turn! Turn!”
By the early ‘60s Seeger was a senior member of the folk revival centered around Greenwich
Village in New York City. An early booster of Bob Dylan, Seeger became famously angry when Dylan
went electric at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival. In the 1970s Seeger performed frequently with Arlo
Guthrie, the son of his old friend, Woody Guthrie.
Seeger was closely associated with the Civil Rights movement in the 1950s and ‘60s, and
popularized the spiritual, “We Shall Overcome,” which he performed at the historic March On
Washington and many other Civil Rights events.
A long-time opponent of the arms race, he was also an opponent of the Vietnam War. His song,
“Waist Deep in the Deep Muddy,” was an allegory of the war. It told the story of a captain who tried to
lead his platoon across a river while on training maneuvers, but the captain drowned because he didn’t
know there was quicksand ahead. The final lines were, “I’m not going to point any moral / I’ll leave
that all to yourself / Maybe you’re still walking, you’re still talking / you’d like to keep your health. /
But every time I read the paper / those old feelings come on. / We are waist deep in the Big Muddy /
and the big fool says to push on.” When The Smothers Brothers invited Seeger on their TV show, he
sang “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy,” and CBS censored the song. On a second appearance, however,
CBS allowed the same song to go on, maybe because Seeger had just recorded it for Columbia
Records, a subsidiary of CBS. At any rate, it was Seeger’s first national TV appearance since he had
been blacklisted in the 1950s.
Here’s another of Pete’s Vietnam War-era songs, “Bring ‘Em Home.”
SONG: “Bring ‘Em Home” by Pete Seeger
In 1966 Seeger co-founded an environmental organization which built the sloop Clearwater and
promoted the cleanup of the Hudson River. In the 1970s my first wife and I owned a natural food store
in Lenox, Massachusetts, which we named “Clearwater Natural Foods” for the sloop and Seeger’s
environmental efforts. In 1979 I sold my half of the store to my ex-wife, she sold it to someone else,
and it’s still in business. Arlo Guthrie had been one of our customers.
On January 18, 2009, Seeger performed at the inauguration of President Obama. That same
year he won a Grammy for “best traditional album” for his album “At 89,” which is named for the fact
that he was 89 when he recorded it.
On May 3, 2009, at The Clearwater Concert, Pete’s 90th birthday was celebrated, and the event
was later broadcast on PBS. Joan Baez, Arlo Guthrie, Tom Paxton, Bruce Springsteen, and The Byrds’
founder Roger McGuinn were among the featured performers.
Seeger performed as recently as September 21, 2013, at “Farm Aid” at the Saratoga Performing
Arts Center in Saratoga Springs, New York – he was 94 year old at that concert.
SONG: “Get Up and Go (How Do I Know My Youth Is All Spent?)” by Pete Seeger
In more recent years, Seeger was honored for his long career in promoting racial harmony,
workers’ rights, peace, and environmental issues, but he also received renewed criticism for his early
association with the Communist Party. In a 1995 interview with The New York Times Magazine,
Seeger said he had been blind to Stalin’s failings and apologized “for following the party line so
slavishly, for not seeing that Stalin was a supremely cruel misleader.” In 2007 Seeger wrote a song
criticizing Stalin and Stalinism called “Big Joe’s Blues.”
In a 1996 interview with our denominational magazine, the UU World, Seeger spoke of the
changes he had witnessed, saying, “Did you expect Nixon to leave office the way he did? Did you
expect the Berlin Wall to come down so peacefully? So don’t be sure there’s only doom ahead. On the
other hand, the world has become more dangerous – it’s now much easier to bomb people. On balance,
the human race has lots of surprises. I would like to live another 50 years to see what they’re going to
And let’s end with a Seeger quote about his religious beliefs. He said, “I feel most spiritual
when I’m out in the woods. I feel part of nature. Or looking up at the stars. [I used to say] I was an
atheist. Now I say, it’s all according to your definition of God. According to my definition of God, I’m
not an atheist, because I think God is everything. Whenever I open my eyes I’m looking at God.
Whenever I’m listening to something I’m listening to God.”
Pete Seeger died on January 27, 2014. Rest in peace, Pete. Thanks for all of the songs!
CLOSING SONG: “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” by Pete Seeger
POSTLUDE “My Father’s Mansion” by Pete Seeger