An Intimate Portrait
Alfred A. Knopf: 160 pp., $22.95
In January, two days before the inauguration of Barack Obama, hundreds of thousands of people gathered on Washington, D.C.'s National Mall for a celebratory concert. After performances by Shakira and Usher, James Taylor and John Legend, Pete Seeger took the stage, with his grandson Tao Rodríguez-Seeger and Bruce Springsteen, to sing Woody Guthrie's "This Land Is Your Land."
Wearing a plaid shirt, blue jeans and a stocking cap, Seeger beamed. "You sing it with us," he told the audience. "We'll give you the words." His familiar split tenor rang out over the Reflecting Pool.
For seven decades now, Seeger has popularized folk music. Last Sunday, he celebrated his 90th birthday. In "The Protest Singer: An Intimate Portrait of Pete Seeger," Alec Wilkinson outlines Seeger's life in spare prose. The book, which began as a profile in the New Yorker, is not a biography. It is, in Wilkinson's words, "a factual novella," which centers on a series of recent interviews conducted at Seeger's home in upstate New York.
Wilkinson gives us a vivid sense of Seeger, whom he describes as "tall and thin and remarkably lithe," with "a sharp nose and full, round cheeks, a high-colored complexion and teeth that lean slightly to one side, like an old fence." He visits Seeger in his kitchen and living room, and on a walk around his homestead.
Seeger is rarely stationary. He clears land, hews logs and builds a house, modeled after Henry David Thoreau's cabin on Walden Pond. In winter, he makes maple syrup. "Some of Seeger's influences derive from the nineteenth-century and Calvinist habits of mind," Wilkinson writes, citing "a reverence for nature, a regard for human life, something like scorn for the nurturing of materialistic values, and a belief in the worth of right moral behavior."
During his lifetime, Seeger has championed many social, political and ecological causes, from the civil-rights movement to the remediation of the Hudson River. For a time, he was a member of the Communist Party. (Seeger tells Wilkinson that he wishes he "got out" earlier.) And yet, Wilkinson argues, his politics "are of the most extravagantly conservative kind. He believes ardently in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. His interpretation of them is literal."
In 1955, when the House Un-American Activities Committee subpoenaed him, Seeger invoked the 1st Amendment. "I will tell you about my songs," he said, "but I am not interested in telling you who wrote them, and I will tell you about my songs, and I am not interested in who listened to them." (Wilkinson includes the transcript of Seeger's testimony in the book.)
For many years, Seeger was blacklisted. On television, he was censored. The White House rescinded an invitation to play for President Kennedy. After a concert in Peekskill, N.Y., someone threw baseball-sized rocks at his car. At another event, a Vietnam veteran approached Seeger, to say that he'd come to the concert to kill him.
In the 1960s, Seeger and his family left the United States for a year-long trip around the world. He played to pay their way. It wasn't unlike a trip he took in the 1930s, after dropping out of Harvard. Seeger rode a bicycle through upstate New York, trading watercolor paintings for food, learning folk songs along the way.
Early on, Wilkinson recounts a phone call he made to Seeger, proposing this project. "What's needed is a book that can be read in one sitting," Seeger told him. With this sweet, short volume, Wilkinson has succeeded. It is a beautiful, honest portrait of a man who has found a way to subsist off art.
Gura is an assistant editor at National Public Radio.