By JAMES HARDIN
Composer-musicologist Charles Seeger (1886-1979), his first wife, Constance, his second wife, Ruth Crawford, and several of his children (Pete, Peggy and Mike) have been in the forefront of American musical creativity and social activism for nearly a century.
In recognition of the ways in which the Library's holdings have been enriched by multiple collections documenting this American family's extraordinary accomplishments, the Seegers were recently honored by the Library during a two-day event that featured a film showing, concert and symposium. Four generations of Seegers participated in the event, which was sponsored by the Library's American Folklife Center (AFC) and the Music Division.
The Seeger family tribute began on March 15, 2007, with a screening of film footage from the AFC's Pete and Toshi Film Collection, made by the legendary folksinger and his wife from 1955 to 1965. The footage was taken in this country and abroad, when the young couple traveled around the world with their three children to document traditional music and dance.
The next night, the Library's Coolidge Auditorium became the site of a Seeger-style sing-along when Pete Seeger, his half-sister Peggy and half-brother Mike, and a number of Seeger relatives and friends (notably niece Kate Seeger and her trio, the Short Sisters) sang, played musical instruments, told stories and encouraged the audience to participate. The concert attracted an overflow crowd that included folk music enthusiast Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Mrs. Reid.
"The Library's Seeger family collections represent an important and lasting aspect of the remarkable American creativity the Library seeks to preserve," said Librarian of Congress James H. Billington.
AFC Director Peggy Bulger added, "The American Folklife Center's Archive of Folk Culture and the Music Division owe a huge debt to the Seeger family." Comparing them to the Lomax family, which has also had a long and important connection to the Library's American Folklife Center, Bulger said, "the Seegers all have made enormous contributions to the fields of folklore, musicology and ethnomusicology."
Music Division Chief Sue Vita agreed that Charles Seeger was a pioneer musicologist whose papers and music manuscripts, as well as those of other Seeger family members, have enriched the Library's collections.
The March 16 symposium titled "How Can I Keep from Singing" took its name from a biography of Pete Seeger written by scholar David Dunaway, who was a featured speaker at the event. According to Bulger, the purpose of the symposium was "to showcase the Seegers' lifelong work and advertise the availability of Seeger collection materials to scholars and researchers."
Many of the scholars, archivists, folklorists, ethnomusicologists, musicians and folk music aficionados who gathered in the Library's Mumford Room simply wanted to say "thank you" for the way the Seeger family's music has touched their lives. For example, folklorist Millie Rahn's presentation, "The 'It Changed My Life' Syndrome: The Folk Revival," described "the transformative effect the music of the folk revival had upon well-to-do middle-class students and young people in Cambridge, Massachusetts." This transformation occurred during the 1950s and 1960s, in cities and town across the United States, with the Seeger family on front and center stage.
Neil Rosenberg, professor emeritus at Memorial University of Newfoundland, delivered the keynote address, "Family Values Seeger Style." He began by describing his own encounters with members of the family while he was a student at Oberlin College. He then explained how they came to occupy such an important place in American musical life and culture.
A composer and professor of music at Berkeley, Juilliard and other leading universities and conservatories, Charles Seeger had a compelling need "to know the relationship of music and society," said Rosenberg, and "to find a way to reconcile aesthetic and social values." Although he was reared in a Victorian middle-class household and trained in the European classical tradition, Seeger's desire to investigate those relationships led him to ethnomusicology.
Attending the symposium was 93-year-old John Seeger (second of three sons from Charles's first marriage, and Pete's older brother), who shared the story of a pivotal moment for Charles and his young family. After seven years teaching music at Berkeley, Charles lost his job. Returning to New York, he built a trailer for his car, and in 1921, with wife Constance (a noted classical violinist) and his three sons, launched a performance tour of southern states to bring European classical music to people in rural areas. While the family had little success in their endeavor, they discovered that nearly every home they visited included talented musicians. Charles realized that the American people have a vital music of their own, and he later became instrumental in establishing ethnomusicology as an academic field of study.
Other influences that shaped Seeger family values included the stock market crash of 1929, the Great Depression and the resulting plight of vast numbers of Americans. This period of social crisis, and subsequent events such as the civil rights and antiwar movements, inspired various family members to social activism, which became inextricably linked to their music and message.
Judith Tick, professor of music at Northeastern University and author of a biography of Ruth Crawford Seeger, said that eventually Charles and his family came to embrace the values of Roosevelt's New Deal, which included collective action; folk music as an expression of the democratic ideal; the importance of local culture in building national identity; the need to learn by doing; and the documentary impulse, as represented by the various projects supported by the Work Projects Administration.
Charles and Constance divorced in 1927. In 1932, Charles married classical musician and composer Ruth Crawford (1901-1953), whom he met in the context of the New York intellectual community. She is considered by many to be the most significant female composer of the 20th century. Together they had several children, including Mike and Peggy, and Ruth became stepmother to Pete, then a teenager.
In 1935, the Seegers moved to Washington, D.C., where Charles worked in the New Deal administration. Taylor Greer, professor of music at Pennsylvania State University, explained that Charles "lived at the junction of two worlds": he had an artistic instinct and a rational intellect; he was a political activist and enlightened administrator.
Ruth joined the effort under way at the Library of Congress and other institutions to document American folk music and made brilliant transcriptions of field recordings collected by Alan Lomax, in particular those for his book "Our Singing Country." In 1948, she published her own book, "American Folk Songs for Children," which has become an enduring classic.
John Seeger's son Tony also participated in the symposium. He is an internationally renowned ethnomusicologist, former head of Folkways Records at the Smithsonian Institution and professor at the University of California at Los Angeles. He explained that Seeger children were "exposed to music from a very young age," both to the music of their parents and siblings and to that of friends and visitors. They attended concerts and listened regularly to recorded music. A number of Seegers worked at summer camps, where they taught folksongs to several generations of children.
"With such a name and heritage," asked Tony Seeger, "how does one establish an identity of one's own?" For him the answer was to "study music," and he spent many years with the Suyá Indians in Mato Grosso, Brazil. Of course, appreciation for the music of other cultures puts him squarely in the Seeger family camp.
Singer-songwriter Peggy Seeger has returned to the United States after living in England for 35 years with her life partner, the Scottish songwriter Ewan MacColl, who passed away in 1989. She and MacColl performed together and recorded many albums, worked on education and media projects and collected folk music from traditional singers in Britain. Peggy continues to tour extensively and has made 21 solo recordings and many others with a range of artists. At age 70, her voice and political activism are still strong.
Mike Seeger has devoted his life to singing and playing folk music of the American South, on banjo, fiddle, guitar, mouth harp, quills (panpipes), dulcimer, mandolin and autoharp. As a founding member of the old-time string band New Lost City Ramblers, Mike helped revive interest in traditional American music. He has recorded some 40 albums, both solo and with others. It may surprise the reader that Mike Seeger learned many of the songs he performs from Library of Congress field recordings (as did his older brother, Pete).
Pete Seeger was born in New York City in 1919, the third son of Charles and Constance Seeger. On a 1936 visit to the Folk Song and Dance Festival in Asheville, N.C., Pete heard the five-string banjo for the first time, and it changed his life forever. He got his first job in 1939, when he was hired by folklorist Alan Lomax to listen to field recordings at the Library of Congress and make recommendations as to which to include on the Library's legendary series of published recordings titled "Folk Music of the United States."
Pete Seeger is an American classic and an American original. His credits are legion: folksinger, author, composer; founding member of the Almanac Singers (with his friend Woody Guthrie) and the Weavers; former member of the Communist Party of the United States; founder of the environmental organization Hudson River Sloop Clearwater; winner of the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award (1993), the National Endowment for the Arts' (NEA) National Medal of Arts (1994), the Kennedy Center's Lifetime Achievement Honor (1994) and Harvard's Medal of Arts (1996). In 2000, on the occasion of the Library's bicentennial, the Librarian of Congress presented Seeger with a Living Legend award, which honors musicians, composers, artists, writers, activists, filmmakers, physicians, entertainers, sports figures and public servants who have made significant contributions to America's diverse cultural, scientific and social heritage.
For Robert Cantwell, professor of English and American Studies at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, Pete Seeger's career embodies the effort "to live his life to the level of his conscience." The entire Seeger family, said Cantwell, "lived out the ideal of social justice, holding the faith that it is possible to create a better world."
"I am more political now than ever before," said Pete Seeger at the signature sing-along that closed the symposium. "We must learn to talk with people we strongly disagree with … The world will have to get together some way, and music will help."
James Hardin, former editor and public information coordinator at the American Folklife Center, retired from the Library of Congress in 2004.