American songbird

Pete Seeger never meant to be a well-known and controversial folk singer. That much is clear from Alec Wilkinson’s short but sweet biography. But singing came naturally to Seeger, and his fascination with folk music led to his gathering variants of songs and recording what usually became the canonical version.

Seeger also didn’t intend to be a symbol of leftist politics and stubborn American honor, as he became with his 1955 appearance before the House Un-American Activities Committee. But The Protest Singer includes the transcript from Seeger’s appearance as an appendix, which tells far more about his no-nonsense American attitudes than anything—except perhaps Seeger’s songs.

Wilkinson, who published a shorter version of The Protest Singer in The New Yorker, spent time with Seeger on his farm. He leads readers to see that, at his core, the great folk musician is about as conservative as it gets. Seeger believes the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights mean exactly what they say; his insistence on individual rights being considered something other than conservative says more about the times in which Seeger lived than it does about the songwriter himself.

The Protest Singer is less a full biography than it is a thoughtful essay about Seeger’s life, published as he turned 90. It bears the stamp of Seeger’s personality as he is today, looking back on a life that included most of the great struggles of the 20th century.

We learn that Seeger left off his Communist membership because he “never liked the idea anyway of belonging to a secret organization.” That didn’t—and doesn’t—stop the right from characterizing Seeger as a left-wing threat, even when singing something as innocuous as “Old Dan Tucker.”

But it’s songs like “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy,” an anti-war allegory from the Vietnam era, that get people in an uproar. The song was censored on his 1967 Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour TV appearance.

And the big controversy around Seeger threatening to pull the plug on Bob Dylan? You know, when Dylan infamously “went electric” at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965? Seeger’s complaint wasn’t about Dylan’s amplifier—Howlin’ Wolf already used one—but that the distortion made it impossible to understand the lyrics; he thought “Maggie’s Farm” was a great song.

Wilkinson details things like how Seeger built his family’s home with his own hands, with the help of friends, and how he made a living singing even though he was blacklisted and banned from TV and radio. Now, thanks to Bruce Springsteen’s popular cover album of Seeger’s songs, the songwriter’s a little better known among the younger set—but not too much.

The folk singer’s portrait emerges as one of a man more concerned with songs that people actually sing than with what they ought to sing, more concerned with what people actually do than with what they ought to do. And this is rare: Seeger is more a musical journalist with a deep curiosity for the lives of others than anything resembling an ideologue.

As Wilkinson describes in detail, some students at college concerts think Seeger is the father of rocker Bob Seger. Others are too young to even make that misconnection. But by the time Seeger leaves the stage, they’ve all sung along to “I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night” and understand that American folk music is about life, complete with heartbreak, trouble and hard work.