May 31, 2009
I just finished reading a new biography of Pete Seeger by Alec Wilkinson of The New Yorker. It’s a short, well-written work that gives a good look at Pete’s personality. It is based on a series of interviews Wilkinson conducted at Pete’s home in Beacon, N.Y.
This isn’t a fawning portrait. Pete’s doubts and insecurities come through, in his own words.
It is also interesting to learn in this work about Pete’s parents, and particularly his father, Charles, who was also an idealist.
There is a lack of balance in the way many people react to Pete. There are many who think of him only as a folksy singer of campfire songs – sort of a Tennessee Ernie Ford. There are those who cast him in a messianic role that he himself would reject. And there are those who think he is the antichrist because, like many thoughtful people of his and his father’s generation, he associated for a time with people who felt Communism held the answers to chronic economic, social, and political problems. Pete acknowledges – including in this book – that that was a mistake, but more than a half century later, some folks still pillory him for it.
Pete is well known not only for singing but for encouraging his audiences to sing with him. Wilkinson’s book examines this practice, which for Pete isn’t just a cutsey stage trick. Calling on people to sing goes to the heart of Pete’s notion of what music is for, and gets to discuss that in his own words in this book.
Pete Seeger has been an important figure in the history of the past seven decades – not always clearly understood, even by himself. Wilkinson’s book at least helps formulate the questions.