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The Protest Singer

A slim new biography celebrates the life of icon and activist Pete Seeger.

By John Kehe / May 27, 2009



Alec Wilkinson has written a short volume about a slim fellow who has lived a gigantic life. Pete Seeger is one of those iconic American names – like Johnny Appleseed or Paul Bunyan – that evokes more legend than man. Does he really exist? How many among you have ever heard him perform? How many own any of his records or CDs? I see very few hands raised – including my own.

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Pete Seeger is, indeed, an actual human, now 90 years old and still going strong. (Heck, he won a Grammy just a few months ago.) And he is well worth knowing – but more because of what he’s sung and where and when he’s sung it than for what his music sounds like. He’s also remarkable for the green life he’s lived (long before it was cool) and for the countless people he’s inspired to action through songs and example.

The Protest Singer is the intimate portrait of the man who sparked the folk boom of the 1950s, marched with the Rev. Martin Luther King in Selma, stood up to McCarthy-era blacklisting and the Ku Klux Klan, and spent 40 years cleaning up the Hudson River. He’s a strong but shy man who built his first home with his bare hands from trees he felled himself. Material possessions have never interested him in the slightest. Seeger never aspired to a career as a singer and has no taste for fame.

“I seem to stagger around this agonized world like a clown, dressed in happiness, hoping to reach the hearts and minds of the young,” he once wrote in a journal. “When reporters ask me what effects my songs have, I try and make a brave reply, but I am really not so certain.”

From an early age, Pete Seeger has fervently believed in the power of folk songs to unite people in a common cause. His simple, stirring anthems “I Had a Hammer,” “Turn, Turn, Turn,” and “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy,” have emboldened scores of activists to stand up to power, fortified by the message of song.

Seeger is so uncomfortable with being an entertainer that he sometimes urges his fans not to buy his records; he prefers they sing the songs themselves. And sing them they have – at Selma, Ala., and the 1968 Poor People’s March on Washington. He’s encouraged activists to sing for workers’ rights and at voter registration drives. He’s sung his songs to protest war and segregation, and to fight for nuclear disarmament and the environment.

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