Village People: Pete Seeger
(This post is part of a series called Village People: A Who’s Who of Greenwich Village, which will explore some of this intern’s favorite Village people and stories.)
Pete Seeger was a New York native, born on the Lower East Side on May 3, 1919. He was born to a very musical family: his father was composer and musicologist Charles Louis Seeger, Jr., who established the first musicology curriculum in the United States at the University of California. His mother was concert violinist Constance de Clyver, who had trained at the Paris Conservatory, and later taught at the Julliard School. They divorced when Pete was seven years old, and his father remarried to Ruth Crawford Seeger, who became known as a very important modernist composer.
After attending school in New England and working at the Archive of American Folk Song in Washington, DC, he returned to New York. When he first arrived, he lived with his brother at 118 East 11th Street. In 1940, he met Woody Guthrie at a benefit hosted by the John Steinbeck Committee to Aid Farm Workers. The two became good friends, and Seeger accompanied Guthrie when he went to visit his family in Texas.
In 1941, Seeger and Lee Hays played their first paying gig at the Jade Mountain Chinese Restaurant, at a lunch for refugees of the Spanish Civil War. (The Jade Mountain Restaurant opened in 1931 at 197 Second Avenue, where it remained until it closed in 2007.)
Seeger and Hays, along with roommate Millard Lampell, soon went on to form the Almanac Singers. Over the years, the group would also come to include Woody Guthrie, Sis Cunningham, Bess Lomax Hawes, Cisco Houston, Josh White, Burl Ives, Sam Gary, and others. Many of them, including Seeger, moved to 70 East 12th Street, where the established a commune of sorts which they called the ‘Almanac House.’ Musicians could stop by for a meal, or a place to stay (Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee crashed here in 1942). They shared chores, meals, and song credits (Guthrie’s ‘Union Maid’ was the exception to this rule). They held rent parties on Sunday afternoons, which they called ‘hootenannies,’ and their music-making during these parties got the Almanac Singers ‘so many write-ups in The Worker that other left-wing musicians grumbled.’
Eventually, Seeger and the other Almanacs moved to 130 West 10th Street, where they created another gathering place for musicians: a veritable ‘frat house for musical revolutionaries,’ as Seeger called it. (Guthrie, meanwhile, opted to take an apartment at 148 West 14th Street.)
During the Second World War, Seeger trained as an airplane mechanic, but was put to work entertaining American troops. After the war, the Almanac Singers disbanded. Seeger, Ronnie Gilbert, Lee Hays, and Fred Hellerman formed a new group, the Weavers, in 1948. They enjoyed great success for some years, before the Red Scare made them unemployable. Seeger and Hays were identified as members of the Communist Party, and Seeger was blacklisted. All of the members of the group were under FBI surveillance, and were not allowed to play on television or radio. Their recording contract was terminated in 1953.
During the 1960s, he was active in the civil rights movement and the anti-war movement, and a mentor figure for the new generation of folk musicians in Greenwich Village. In 1966, he founded the Hudson River Sloop Clearwater environmental organization, and launched the sloop Clearwater in 1969. The Great Hudson River Revival (the Clearwater Festival at Croton Point Park, which this intern has been attending since they were ten!) grew out of the fundraising concerts arranged by Seeger to pay for the sloop’s construction. His efforts helped to clean the Hudson River, and inspired musicians from the Village to Beacon and beyond.