Composer and folk music transcriber Ruth Crawford was born in East Liverpool, Ohio. She studied piano as a child in Florida, and in 1921 moved to Chicago to study at the American Conservatory of Music. In Chicago, she became a friend of the poet Carl Sandburg and taught piano to his three daughters. Her work in arranging folk songs began with her association with Sandburg, to whose collection The American Songbag (1927) she contributed several exceptional piano arrangements.
Crawford’s compositions impressed the composer Henry Cowell who generously assisted her professional career. He recommended her as a pupil to his friend Charles Seeger, a noted pedagogue, theorist, and philosopher of music, published several of her compositions in his influential New Music Quarterly, and helped her obtain a Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship. Crawford moved to New York in 1929, and became a vital participant in the “ultra-modern” school of composition, a group of composers that included Aaron Copland, Henry Cowell, Marc Blitzstein, and Earl Robinson. Through her studies with Seeger, Crawford became increasingly interested in linear writing and “dissonant counterpoint,” a 20th-century approach to counterpoint that turned traditional contrapuntal rules on their head. Her best-known work is the String Quartet 1931, a striking example of modernist musical experimentation, which established her brilliant and inventive musical mind.
Crawford and Seeger married in 1932, and their first child, Michael, was born in 1933. After the birth of Peggy, their first daughter, in 1935, the Seeger family moved to Washington, DC, so that Charles could begin a position as a music specialist with the federal government’s recently created Resettlement Administration. With four children in all (Mike, Peggy, Barbara, and Penny) to raise and a demanding schedule of teaching piano, Crawford stopped composing ultra-modern music, and turned to the work of teaching music to children and of collecting, transcribing, arranging, and publishing folk songs. Her three volumes of children’s folk songs — American Folk Songs for Children (1948), Animal Folk Songs for Children (1950), and American Folk Songs for Christmas (1953) — helped introduce a generation of young Americans to folk music and fueled the urban folk revival of the late 1950s and early 1960s. Her son Mike, daughter Peggy, and stepson Pete would be major figures in that movement.