Behind Pete Seeger, a formative father and mother

Behind Pete Seeger, a formative father and mother
Pete Seeger (Handout)

Driving home from a performance of Handel's "Theodora" the night Pete Seeger died, I switched on the radio. "Where Have All the Flowers Gone" was playing. It was an extraordinary concurrence.

Handel's oratorio concerns political protest. Christian martyrs Theodora and her lover stand up to bad government, as Seeger so often, so famously and so effectively did. Handel's score has an unromanticized directness, another Seeger specialty. Plus Seeger, like Handel, lifted spirits, however sad the subject.


There is even an Irene in "Theodora." Seeger's first hit was the single of "Goodnight Irene" by the Weavers, two years after Seeger co-founded the folk group in 1948. Handel's Irene sings that just as "the rosy steps of morn" drive away night, virtuous toils raise "our hopes of endless light." That could have been something the optimistic Seeger might have made into his own song.

In the two weeks since his death at 94, Seeger has been eulogized as perhaps American music's most effective activist. He forged the folk music revival, contributed mightily to the civil rights movement, galvanized anti-Vietnam War protests, stood up boldly to Joseph McCarthy, played an inspirational part in the education of countless children and played an indispensable part in cleaning up the Hudson River.

A fine 2007 documentary about Seeger is suitably named "The Power of Song." But where did that power come from? Far more was involved than charisma. The real power came from Seeger's singing, his musicianship. Yes, Seeger was one of the great figures in American music. But he is not always given enough credit for having been a great American musician.

Exceptional musicianship is what allowed Seeger to sell his songs and thus his causes as powerfully as he did. That musicianship was not happenstance. The obituaries all duly note that his father was a musicologist and his mother a concert violinist and then move on to the momentous life that Pete Seeger led.

Charles Seeger was indeed a musicologist — and much, much more. Pete's father was the father of West Coast Music.

A Harvard grad, Charlie, as he was known to everyone (even I got to call him that the first time I met him in my student days at Berkeley) had his hopes of becoming a conductor dashed by hearing loss of high frequencies, so he turned to composition, music theory and the nascent field of musicology, which he felt should apply the scientific method to the study of music history.

He had an exceptionally inquiring and independent mind. In 1911, he became the head of the recently established and unimpressive music department at UC Berkeley, which he promptly modernized and scandalized.

At Cal, he staged Dada-style events. He experimented with free rhythms, dissonant counterpoint and progressive percussion. He explored music of other cultures and pioneered the study of ethnomusicology. He examined musical thinking from novel structural, physiological, emotional and historical approaches.

He broadened the curriculum to include early music, when that was all but unknown, and the latest atonal advances of Schoenberg and others, when that was downright unacceptable.

His most important student, Henry Cowell, put all these together and created the California School of musical inclusiveness and experimentalism. Cowell's two most prominent students were John Cage and Lou Harrison. Charlie liked to quip that Cowell had swiped some of his best and many of his worst ideas.

California politically radicalized Seeger. Witnessing the conditions of farm workers in the Central Valley, he took up their cause. He also became a pacifist during World War I. By the time Pete was born in 1919, Seeger had worn out his welcome at Berkeley and returned to New York.

Seeger taught at various institutions in Manhattan, worked for the WPA in Washington, D.C., and knew all the top New York composers. He stopped composing and turned his attention to writing groundbreaking essays on the function of music and society and on ways to chart the meaning of folk song.


Pete's mother, Constance de Clyver Edson, who taught violin, was a more traditional musician and mother. The couple divorced when Pete was 7, and five years later Seeger married Ruth Crawford, the first important American female composer.

A high modernist, Ruth Crawford Seeger wound up writing too little — with Seeger's three sons to look after and the four children of her own with him, she had little time to compose. But her few scores, particularly her 1931 string quartet, were influential for their rhythmic novelty and stand up as challenging classics. Like her husband, she became active in studying folk music and as an educator. But she was the composer of the family and rigorous musical guide for her stepson.

What Pete got from Charlie and Ruth was not a formal music education he didn't want; he got the superb informal one that he needed. He taught himself ukulele and other instruments and gravitated toward popular music. But he was exposed to an exceptionally wide range of musics and musical ideas from infancy, along with certain Seeger iconoclasms.

"Father and Ruth did not like the Romantic aesthetic," Pete told Ruth Crawford Seeger's biographer, Judith Tick. "Once you started off with one rhythm, you held it to the end. And if a song was in certain key, you didn't suddenly make it louder in one place and soften in another. A typical Romantic trick."

It was this absence of such tricks, Tick explains, that "marked the meeting points between 'high' contemporary musics and 'low' oral singing style."

That became Pete's singing style. I doubt that he ever intoned an unintelligible syllable. He made every word matter. Vocal embellishments were kept to a minimum, used only for heightened effect, which is what made them such spirit raisers. He sang folk music the way Handel opera should be sung — with little vibrato, unerring dramatic intent and careful purpose given to ornamentation.

Handel may even have been Seeger's unconscious model. He loved the composer, as did his father. In the 1920s, Charlie and his violinist wife toured the back woods in a homemade trailer playing Handel for hillbillies on a portable piano with 18-month-old Pete on his knee.

Pete wouldn't have been Charlie's son, however, if he didn't rebel some against a too-rigorous anti-Romantic approach. His folk singing wasn't 100% pure either, as folk singing never should be. But when he put too much of his own personality into his performances, he heard about that from Ruth, who died in 1953.


Ultimately, Pete found the perfect balance to become uniquely persuasive. His trademark was the group sing. He made everything seem simple, so simple that anyone could join in. Once we got in the groove, Seeger then sang a high contrapuntal, almost Baroque, line that made the song soar and created the illusion that we were being carried aloft on his wings. It was the work of a master musician.

In 1955, Charlie moved to Los Angeles, where he helped to establish UCLA's department of ethnomusicology and where he remained until 1971. He died in 1979 at age 90. I also attended UCLA and, like so many others, I trace my early enthusiasm for world music as well as for the West Coast tradition directly to Charlie.

Pete Seeger was a rare singer whose virtuous toils raised our hopes of endless light. Let us thank Charlie and Ruth for their essential part in making that possible. Along with a nod to Handel.