“Being generous of spirit is a wonderful way to live.” ~ Pete Seeger
As a music lover coming of age in the 60’s, I was aware of Pete Seeger’s music long before I knew who he was.
I’d heard the Kingston Trio’s rendition of “Where Have All the Flowers Gone,” Peter, Paul & Mary’s “If I Had a Hammer,” and the Byrds’ “Turn! Turn! Turn!” regularly on the radio, songs that eventually became part of my social consciousness DNA along with Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “The Times They Are A-Changin.”
It wasn’t until I saw Pete with Arlo Guthrie in “Alice’s Restaurant” that I became more curious about his life as a singer, songwriter, social activist, environmentalist, and collector of folk songs. I was surprised to discover he was behind so many of the songs I loved.
Who was this tall beanpole of a man, this crackerjack banjo picker who could get people all over the country singing and clapping along, stomping their feet to the beat, rousing their emotions enough to spur political action? Who was this community, log-cabin-and-sloop-building-man who steadfastly believed in the power of song through good times and bad?
After reading Stand Up and Sing!: Pete Seeger, Folk Music, and the Path to Justice by Susanna Reich and Adam Gustavson (Bloomsbury, 2017), I better understood why Pete himself probably escaped my notice, and I learned more about how he became a beloved American icon.
In this first ever Pete Seeger picture book biography, Reich and Gustavson present a fascinating overview of Pete’s long, purposeful life, highlighting key events of his seven decade career, where music and social activism were inextricably intertwined.
Reich begins with a typical Seeger moment on stage wowing his audience, and then she traces the origins of Pete’s core beliefs and passions, introducing him as someone who was born with “music in his bones,” a toddler who’d “toot, shake, and bang on the instruments Mother left all over the apartment, his knees jiggling and his hips a-wiggling.”
Music was a natural and essential part of family life, before and after his parents separated. During his boarding school years, Pete became impressed by Native Americans, especially their custom of sharing everything:
I decided that was the way to live: no rich, no poor. If there was food, everyone ate; if there was no food, everyone went hungry.
Living during the Great Depression reinforced this belief, especially when Pete and his father visited poor neighborhoods, marched in parades for working people, and attended union gatherings in NYC. The protest songs he heard about workers’ rights to “equality, justice, and respect” made a deep impression on him. Those “thousands of voices united by a common purpose” would forever echo in Pete’s mind, motivating and guiding his actions thereafter.
In high school and college, music remained an obsession. He was first exposed to the banjo by one of his teachers, and later when attending a music and dance festival in North Carolina, he heard the “rippling rhythms of the five-string banjo” and was totally hooked. He largely taught himself how to play by listening to records and imitating what he heard. More interested in “workers’ strikes and unions, the civil war in Spain, and the Nazis in Germany” than his studies, he dropped out of college.
Pete then began to work for family friend Alan Lomax, a folklorist, ethnomusicologist and archivist at the Library of Congress who collected and recorded folk music in the field. This job exposed Pete to a wide range of vernacular music (blues, ballads, lullabies, hollers, chants) as he continued to hone his banjo skills.
Through Alan, Pete met Woody Guthrie, from whom he learned a lot about playing, singing and performing, and with whom he traveled to places like Texas and Oklahoma, performing at union meetings. He saw firsthand how “music could fill a room with peace and harmony,” lift people’s spirits, and give them hope.
Back in NYC, Pete formed a group called the Almanac Singers. Whether playing for autoworkers in Detroit, longshoremen in San Francisco, or 20,000 people at Madison Square Garden, they could fire up an audience in the name of safer workplaces and better pay.
Soon after Pete married Toshi-Aline Ohta, he was drafted and deployed to the South Pacific, where he sang to wounded soldiers. After WWII ended, Pete continued to support the Labor Movement. He and Toshi built a log cabin in Beacon, New York, while racial tensions in the country were quickly escalating. After a scary incident where his car windows were shattered by rock-throwing thugs, Pete was more determined than ever to stand up for his beliefs.
He next joined a new singing group, the Weavers, who became very successful with hits like “If I Had a Hammer” and “Goodnight, Irene.” But Pete was unhappy with the lifestyle, preferring his family, log cabin, and singing for ordinary working people over the bright lights of stardom.
Hard times followed after the Weavers were blacklisted because the government deemed some of their songs unpatriotic. Pete, because of his affiliation with the Communist Party, was subpoenaed by Congress and indicted for contempt. With this threat of prison hanging over his head for years, he was barely able to make a living, since he was effectively banned from commercial television and other mainstream outlets. But Pete remained steadfast and kept on singing, performing, releasing records, and going wherever he was needed.
While the Civil Rights Movement was gaining momentum, he met Martin Luther King Jr. in Tennessee and introduced him to “We Shall Overcome,” an anthem that soon galvanized protesters all over the country. Pete also performed at college campuses where thousands protested the Vietnam War. And closer to home, Pete and Toshi devised a plan to build a sloop to inspire people to clean up the Hudson River. Whenever and wherever there was work to be done, Pete was there with his voice, his banjo, his heart, and his unwavering faith in the people.
Just as important as working for “a clean river, a peaceful planet, a living wage” was Pete’s commitment to preserving American folk music traditions. He especially liked performing for groups of children and teaching them about the rich musical heritage that is every American’s birthright.
As his ancestors did before him, Pete planted “folk music seeds” for new generations, fostering the dynamic process of ‘sing, adapt, pass it on’ inherent to the genre. As younger artists recorded his music, some of his songs became hits. He was mentor and role model for many folk revival artists in the 50’s and 60’s. The circle keeps turning, with new voices inspiring others just as Pete did decade after decade.
In her Author’s Note, Susanna explains her sense of personal connection to Pete’s story. Like Pete, she came from a family tradition of political activism, and had a parent who was a musicologist. A native and long time resident of the Hudson Valley, she saw Pete perform many times, including at one of the first Clearwater Festivals.
Stand Up and Sing! is a well researched and engaging introduction to Pete’s life, and Susanna’s passion for her subject shines through. A long full life of 94 years is a lot to cover in 48 pages, but Susanna has effectively captured the essence of the man for a young audience, emphasizing the ideals for which he will continue to be revered and remembered:
- Have the courage of your convictions and never give up
- Follow your passion
- Stand up for the truth and what is right
- Equality, respect, and justice for all
- People standing together can effect change
- Promote peace, love, harmony, and empathy
- Getting the work done is more important than being famous
- Never underestimate the power of music to uplift, heal, energize, inspire, and bring people together.
Adam Gustavson’s mixed media illustrations help shape the narrative with full color art alternating with pencil drawings. The rich gouache paintings spotlight key moments in the timeline, while the drawings establish a comfortable continuity with related details.
In this blog post, Adam describes how he made the pictures. I found this part especially interesting:
The artwork for the book takes a couple directions, medium-wise. I wanted the backgrounds to have a texture reminiscent of a calfskin banjo head, something accomplished with thinned down oil paint on prepared paper and a lot of trial and error.
Adam has done a beautiful job of creating a captivating visual context for Pete’s story. I liked seeing Pete as a young boy playing in the woods, as a boarding school student penning a letter home, and a college age Pete holding his five-string banjo while listening intently to a record (probably my favorite spread).
I also liked the illustration of Pete on stage with Woody Guthrie, the wood floor planks and bare light bulb overhead taking us right into the heart of that union meeting. These pictures create a sense of intimacy and illuminate Susanna’s portrait of Pete as deeply motivated but humble and unassuming, making him more accessible to readers.
Pete was someone who definitely walked the walk and as Peter Yarrow says in his Foreword, “lived the message of his music.” His story is especially timely and relevant today, as new waves of political and social activism have swept the country. The fight for human rights and equality is ongoing, and young people need strong role models who mean what they say, remain true to themselves, and are willing to make personal sacrifices for the greater good.
I love Susanna’s closing words:
Pete passed away in 2014, but his work isn’t done. For in times of war, the world needs peace. In times of hatred, the world needs love. In times of injustice, the world needs truth. And whenever people gather in the name of freedom, they find strength and courage in song.
Today on the Hudson River, when Clearwater’s sails fill with wind and singing rises from her deck, she tells a story about standing tall, binding people together in friendship, and lifting them up with the power of music.
All ages will be inspired by this book and will want to learn more about Pete and hear more of his music.
What is your favorite Pete Seeger song?
Here’s mine. Sadly, I don’t think there will ever be a time when the message of this song isn’t relevant or doesn’t resonate.
🍓PETE’S STRAWBERRY SHORTCAKE RECIPE 🍓
Pete was wise in so many ways; he knew that to attract people to a festival you needed good food. He was fond of saying, “You know, there are rather better banjo players in the world than me, but I always claim I make the best strawberry shortcake.”
Each June, his Beacon Sloop Club hosts its annual Strawberry Festival at Pete and Toshi Seeger Park in Beacon, NY. It is one of several food-themed festivals held during the year to raise funds and promote awareness of environmental and social causes. Pete’s recipe, which calls for Hudson Valley berries, real whipped cream and a freshly-baked homemade biscuit, will once again draw oodles of hungry folks eager for a taste.
After reading about Pete’s strawberry shortcake we simply had to make some — even though we obviously don’t have Hudson Valley berries here in Virginia. We thought it was a nice way to celebrate Susanna and Adam’s new book — and it is, after all, National Strawberry Month. I’m sharing his recipe just as he told it in a 1982 Mother Earth News interview.
Let me tell you, I think Pete’s right. His SS is so good. My mustached sous chef, who prepared the strawberries, as well as the entire Alphabet Soup kitchen staff, lapped up the whipped cream like krazy kitties. And who can resist a warm, flaky biscuit? Buttering one just out of the oven and immediately topping it with berries and cream makes the cream a little melty, and it likes to say a friendly hello to the melted butter and berry juice just before it goes in your mouth. Yum!
Mr. Cornelius even came up with a new saying:
First you Stand Up and Sing! — then you Sit Down and Eat. 🙂
Pete Seeger's Clearwater Festival Strawberry Shortcake
Just before dinner (not earlier), rinse and hull 2 quarts of fresh, ripe strawberries. Then slice about 1-1/2 quarts of the fruit into large chunks. (Crushing the berries would make the sauce too juicy.) Set the remaining whole strawberries aside to use later as decoration. If desired, sweeten the sliced fruit to taste. (A few tablespoons of sugar or honey should sufficiently please your palate.) Put in icebox.
Next, whip 1 pint of heavy cream, adding 1/2 teaspoon of vanilla and a little sweetener to taste as the cream becomes lighter. Then chill the topping.
Now, with clean fingers, combine 2-1/2 cups of unbleached flour, 3 teaspoons of baking powder, 3 tablespoons of sugar and 1/2 teaspoon of salt with 6 tablespoons of butter until it is smooth — no lumps. Set the mixture aside while you grease a cookie sheet.
With that done, you can relax and eat your dinner — but preheat the oven first. You’ll want it to be medium-hot (425 to 450 degrees F) before you put the biscuits in. About 20 minutes before you plan to serve the dessert, go back to the kitchen.
Next, quickly stir a scant cup of milk into the flour mixture. The consistency of the batter should be much thicker than that for a cake, but not as dry as typical rolled biscuit dough. Spoon the batter onto the cookie sheet in eight (2-inch) lumps, and pop the works into the preheated oven.
The biscuits generally take 15 to 20 minutes to bake. When the dough has turned golden brown, take the shortcakes out of the oven and carry them to the table. Now comes the time when seconds count!
Working as fast as you possibly can, slice a piping hot biscuit, insert a pat of butter between the halves and place the cake in a serving bowl. While you’re slicing the next biscuit, have a friend dollop a generous spoonful of the sliced strawberries on top, followed by a great blob of whipped cream and a garnish of whole strawberries.
Then eat the treat right away. Now you know why Clearwater Strawberry Shortcake is the best in the world! And why most restaurants cannot serve it.
~ from The Plowboy Pete Seeger Interview (Mother Earth News, 1982), as seen at Jama’s Alphabet Soup.
Watch Pete talk about the festival and the shortcake here:
STAND UP AND SING!: Pete Seeger, Folk Music, and the Path to Justice
written by Susanna Reich
illustrated by Adam Gustavson
published by Bloomsbury, March 2017
Picture Book Biography for ages 8+, 48 pp.
*Includes Foreword by Peter Yarrow, Author’s Note, Quote sources and Bibliography
**Junior Library Guild Selection
🎤 SPECIAL BOOK GIVEAWAY! 🎼
The publisher has generously donated a copy of Stand Up and Sing! for one lucky Alphabet Soup reader. For a chance to win, simply leave a comment at this post no later than midnight (EDT) Wednesday, May 17, 2017. You may also enter by sending an email with SEEGER in the subject line to: readermail (at) jamakimrattigan (dot) com. Giveaway open to U.S residents only, please. Good Luck!
Tara Smith is hosting the Roundup at A Teaching Life. Take her a strawberry or two and check out the full menu of poetic goodness being served up in the blogosphere this week.
“I have sung for Americans of every political persuasion, and I am proud that I never refuse to sing for an audience, no matter what religion, or color of their skin, or situation in life.” ~ Pete Seeger
*Interior spreads posted by permission of the publisher, text copyright © 2017 Susanna Reich, illustrations © 2017 Adam Gustavson, published by Bloomsbury. All rights reserved.
Copyright © 2017 Jama Rattigan of Jama’s Alphabet Soup. All rights reserved.