Pete Seeger the American Folk Music Superstar

  February 19, 2024   Read time 3 min
Pete Seeger the American Folk Music Superstar
Pete Seeger has been the most influential figure in promoting and influencing popular folk music in the United States since the 1930s. Born in New York City in 1919, his rich musical background came from his father, Charles, a classical music scholar and composer, and later an ethnomusicologist, and his mother, Constance, a violinist and teacher.

Pete attended private schools and briefly Harvard College before launching out on his own. After attending Bascom Lamar Lunsford’s music festival in Asheville, North Carolina, in 1935, he developed his love for the five-string banjo. For about one year he served as Alan Lomax’s assistant at the Archive of Folk Song at the Library of Congress, and soon after met Woody Guthrie, with whom he traveled around the country. Back in New York in 1941 he formed the Almanac Singers with Lee Hays and Millard Lampell. Soon joined by various others, including SisCunningham, Bess Lomax (Alan’s sister), Pete and Butch Hawes, and even Guthrie, they performed at labor rallies and recorded a few albums of topical and traditional folk songs, including the influential Talking Union and Other Union Songs.

Pete served in the Army during World War II, and following the war he helped launch People’s Songs, an organization designed to promote topical songs. People’s Songs collapsed in 1949, but quickly Pete joined Lee Hays, Ronnie Gilbert, and Fred Hellerman in the Weavers, who had a series of popular song hits, starting with Lead Belly’s “Goodnight Irene” in 1950. The Weavers’s successful career was cut short in 1953 because of the developing anticommunist crusade, although the Weavers regrouped in late 1955 and Pete remained with them for a few more years. His recording career had begun in 1941, and in addition to his recordings with the Weavers, he produced a large number of albums for Moe Asch’s Folkways label throughout the 1950s.


Pete switched to Columbia Records in the 1960s, and recorded many popular albums, as well as composing numerous popular folk songs, including “The Hammer Song” (with Lee Hays), “Turn, Turn, Turn” (a hit for the Byrds in 1965), and “Where Have All the Flowers Gone.” He also continued a hectic performing schedule, first at schools, and increasingly at folk festivals and in concert halls through the 1960s. He had first self-published his banjo instruction manual in 1948, which soon became the starting point for all subsequent banjo players, and he also recorded a guitar instruction album.

He had long supported world peace, civil rights, and labor unions, and in the late 1960s he became an environmental activist with initiating the sloop Clearwater in order to publicize cleaning up the polluted Hudson River. He also published a number of books, including Where Have All the Flowers Gone, filled with 200 of his songs. Honored by the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. and inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, he continued his active schedule into the twenty-first century, when he was well into his eighties. Through a busy career, marked by numerous highs and lows, Seeger never faltered and has been considered the most consistent and important influence on shaping the modern folk music movement. His albums, perhaps totaling close to 100, are still generally available, particularly through Smithsonian Folkways Recordings; he received a Grammy Award in 1997 for the album Pete. His numerous compositions have been recorded by Bonnie Raitt, Roger McGuinn, Richie Havens, and other contemporary artists on a series of CDs issued by Appleseed Recordings: Where Have All the Flowers Gone: The Songs of Pete Seeger (1998), The Songs of Pete Seeger: If I Had a Song (2001), and Seeds: The Songs of Pete Seeger (2003).

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