Among the many anecdotes from David King Dunaway’s anecdote-rich biography of folk music legend Pete Seeger is this one: in the summer of 1955, after a folk festival somewhere in Louisiana, Seeger was invited to a house “outside of town” to learn Cajun songs. Seeger arrived to discover that he was in the home of Edwin E. Willis, the Democratic congressman from St. Martin Parish, one of three members of the House Un-American Activities Committee, which had just held hearings into the so-called Communist infiltration of the entertainment industry. Seeger, front and center in these hearings, had refused to either cooperate (like Burl Ives) or plead the Fifth (like Lee Hays). Instead, banjo in hand, he turned the hearings into a brief but rollicking discussion of the true meaning of patriotism. The story—which Dunaway seems to recount solely from Seeger’s recollections—continues with Willis’ wife singing merrily along until Willis corners Seeger in the kitchen to inform him he’s not welcome.
The story is thin on details, but it speaks to the major theme of Dunaway’s book and Seeger’s life: the interplay of politics and music. As a staunchly pro-union, mostly anti-war, always pro-environment, deeply pro-rights and, yes, one-time card-carrying Communist banjo player, Seeger set out to bring democracy to the streets, the workplace and the concert hall. He hitchhiked the country with his friend Woody Guthrie, led massive sing-alongs in union halls and summer camps, and wrote lasting songs such as “If I Had a Hammer” and “Where Have All the Flowers Gone.” How Can I Keep from Singing? is an authorized biography, yet Dunaway grapples with the contradictions in Seeger, an Ivy League drop-out playing Appalachian tunes, a Leftist idealist blindsided by the truth about Stalin, an anti-materialist outsider who, with the Weavers, did more to commercialize folk music than anyone before him, and a peace-loving musician who, more than once, expressed his temper by smashing musical instruments.
We’re now in the midst of a minor Pete Seeger revival, in part because the notoriously media-shy musician, now approaching 90, is finally agreeing to sit down to tell his own story. How Can I Keep From Singing? was originally published in 1981 but has been re-written to add new material from extensive Seeger interviews; the new version also includes previously unpublished photographs. It joins Jim Brown’s affectionate documentary Pete Seeger: The Power of Song, which recently aired as part of the PBS American Masters series, as well as Bruce Springsteen’s Seeger Sessions recordings and concerts, which majestically kicked off at Jazz Fest 2006.
The revival is overdue, and the story of the sing-along at Edwin Ellis’ house that perhaps illustrates the best reason: no matter what the circumstance, Pete Seeger has always been good for a song.