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Fight Songs

By Bill Beuttler | April 19, 2009

The Protest Singer: An Intimate Portrait of Pete Seeger
By Alec Wilkinson
Knopf, 152 pp., $22.95

"Turn! Turn! Turn!" indeed. The past few years have been a time to celebrate Pete Seeger, the great American folk singer and social activist, who will turn 90 on May 3.

Seeger sang his late friend Woody Guthrie's "This Land Is Your Land" alongside Bruce Springsteen on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in January, closing the star-studded concert preceding Barack Obama's inauguration. In February, Seeger's "At 89" won the Grammy Award for best traditional folk album.

Springsteen had already put out a splendid 2006 album of his interpretations of traditional tunes associated with Seeger, "We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions." The next year saw new songs honoring Seeger from Steve Earle ("Steve's Hammer [For Pete]") and Ry Cooder ("Three Chords and the Truth"). Last year, PBS aired the Jim Brown documentary "Pete Seeger: The Power of Song" as part of its American Masters series. Also last year, David King Dunaway published a thoroughly updated revision of his 1981 Seeger biography, "How Can I Keep from Singing?" A website petition has even begun promoting Seeger as a candidate for a Nobel Peace Prize.

Now comes "The Protest Singer: An Intimate Portrait of Pete Seeger" by New Yorker staff writer Alec Wilkinson. Most of Wilkinson's unusually concise biography - which includes a 28-page transcription of Seeger dodging and weaving through his 1955 testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee - appeared previously in Wilkinson's 2006 New Yorker profile of Seeger. But concision was what Wilkinson had in mind when he approached Seeger about writing a "factual novella" about him.

"Too much has been written about me, and at too great length," Seeger replied. "What's needed is a book that can be read in one sitting."

What resulted is a slim, lucid volume that, despite its quick pace and casual tone, manages to engagingly pack in all the key twists and turns in Seeger's very full life. Wilkinson also finds room to bring us on visits to Seeger's Beacon, N.Y., home overlooking the Hudson River, where we observe him having lunch and bantering with Toshi, his wife of more than six decades, making syrup from tree sap he collected in buckets, and reflecting on his life's meaning.

Born to musician parents, Seeger became immersed in the music of rural America during a boyhood trip to North Carolina with his musicologist father, Charles Seeger, and, after dropping out of Harvard several years later, while transcribing songs for folklorist John Lomax at the Library of Congress. The same year he began working for Lomax, 1939, Seeger met both his bride to be and his mentor for making music and exploring the American West by hopping trains, Guthrie.

Seeger and Guthrie sang union songs together in a group called the Almanac Singers, until they were drafted for service in World War II. Returning home, Seeger and three friends formed the Weavers, which scored a huge hit with their 1950 recording of the folk standard "Goodnight, Irene." By then, the Cold War and McCarthyism were gearing up, and about to make Seeger a pariah for associating with communists.

Seeger never served his one-year prison sentence for refusing to name names during his congressional testimony - an appeals court ruled the indictment faulty and dismissed the case. But his performing for several years was limited to college campuses and other places less susceptible to boycotts than big-city concert stages and radio stations.

He also began singing for causes besides workers' rights. His new verses and substitution of the word "shall" for "will" helped make "We Shall Overcome" a staple of the civil rights movement. His song protesting the Vietnam War, "Waist Deep in the Big Muddy," stirred fresh controversy when CBS censored it from a Seeger appearance on the "Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour." He helped get the sloop the Clearwater built, and used it to proselytize for cleaning the Hudson, which is now again swimmable.

"It's been my life work," Seeger tells Wilkinson, "to get participation, whether it's a union song, or a peace song, civil rights, or a women's movement, or gay liberation. When you sing, you feel a kind of strength; you think, I'm not alone, there's a whole batch of us who feel this way. I'm just one person, but it's almost my religion now to persuade people that even if it's only you and three others, do something. You and one other, do something."

Doing so doesn't always work. "The Protest Singer" ends with a flashback to Seeger, then 84, standing alongside Route 9 outside Beacon on a cold, slushy winter day holding up a sign protesting the rush to war in Iraq.

"Many of my projects in life have failed," Seeger had told Wilkinson earlier, "and Toshi has lived through so many of these failures with me. The 'Clearwater' was the exception that proved the rule."

Then again, maybe some causes just take time. Back when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was pronouncing "We Shall Overcome" a tune that "really sticks with you," few imagined that Seeger himself would someday help welcome a black president with a song.

Bill Beuttler is an Emerson College publisher/writer in residence.

© Copyright 2009 The New York Times Company