New York City – born Pete Seeger is undoubtedly the most well-known and influential figure of the mid-20th century urban folk song revival. The son of the erudite musicologist Charles Seeger and a professional violinist Constance de Clyver Edison, Seeger was educated at elite New England boarding schools before entering Harvard University where he joined John Fitzgerald Kennedy as a member of the class of 1940. But two years later he dropped out of college and moved to New York City in hopes of pursuing a career in journalism.
Seeger had begun playing the four-string banjo in a high school Dixieland jazz combo, but his interests shifted toward folk music after attending the Asheville, North Carolina folk festival in 1936 with his father. Charles, who was beginning to study and promote folk music through his position with the federal Resettlement Administration, introduced Pete to the famous folk music collector Alan Lomax, who offered him a temporary position working at the Library of Congress Archive of American Folk Music. There Seeger immersed himself in recordings of traditional Anglo and Afro American folk music and began teaching himself to play the guitar and five-string banjo.
Seeger relocated in New York City in the early 1940s where he sang with Woody Guthrie and Huddie “Lead Belly” Ledbetter in the burgeoning urban folk music revival. He helped found the Almanac singers in 1941, a loosely knit group of left-leaning folk singers and political activists who sought to use folk music to promote union and other progressive causes. In the 1950s he organized the Weavers, a more professional sounding folk ensemble whose 1950 recording of the Lead Belly song “Goodnight Irene” brought folk music to the popular music charts. Throughout the 1950s and early 1960s Seeger’s solo concerts and recordings for Folkways Records put urban American audiences in touch with the rich heritage of traditional American ballads, blues, work songs, and spirituals. Seeger encouraged thousands of young people to pick up guitars and banjos and to discover American folk music. He also demonstrated that new folk songs could be written using traditional forms and instruments, as he authored or coauthored well-known anthems of the folk revival including “We Shall Overcome,” “If I Had a Hammer,” “Turn, Turn, Turn,” and “Where Have all the Flowers Gone.”
Seeger was devoted to using folk music to promote progressive political causes. His socialist leaning made him a victim of McCarthy blacklisting in the 1950s, and in the 1960s he emerged as a prominent voice in the civil rights, anti-war, and environmental movements. Today, in his late eighties, Pete Seeger remains an outspoken critic and controversial figure, beloved to old leftists and young progressives who see him as the “voice of the people,” and reviled by conservatives who dismiss him and other urban folk singers as hypocritical leftist phonies.