I guess it goes without saying that biographies are always going to be written about people who have already gained a certain amount of renown; otherwise nobody would be interested in reading about the person. If we already know about a person because what they have done has gained them sufficient recognition to have a biography written about them, what are we looking for when we read their biography?
There is always going to be an audience for the “tell-all” biography that does its best to diminish its subject matter, but those books are more self-serving exercises on the part of their authors to obtain their own notoriety, rather than to give a true accounting of a person’s life. Although I’m sure that, on some level, wanting to find out if a person’s private face matches their public image will always be part of the motivation for reading a biography, most of us are looking to gain deeper insights into the people who have sparked our interest for one reason or another.
How did they develop into the person deserving of a biography? If they were a musician, when did they begin playing and who were their influences, for example? Was there some moment in their life which brought about a revelation that set them on the path that would lead them to fame? In order to sate his audience’s desire for answers to these sorts of questions, the author of a biography will have to have done extensive research into his subject matter, and be able to convince his or her audience that they know what they are talking about.
David King Dunaway received the first Ph.D in American Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, in folklore, history, and literature. He is the author of a half dozen books of history and biography, specializing in the presentation of folklore, literature, and history via broadcasting. He has also created a number of radio broadcasts and documentaries on such topics as Route 66. Across The Tracks: A Route 66 Story is a three part radio show on the influence of this famous cross country highway on America’s literary and artistic culture.
However, his main focus for the last thirty years has been documenting the life and work of Pete Seeger. In 1981 he published a preliminary version of a biography of Pete, and this year, a new definitive edition of How Can I Keep From Singing? The Ballad Of Pete Seeger has been re-issued by Random House Canada through their Villard Books imprint. In the twenty-seven years since the book’s original publication, Dr. Dunaway has delved deeper into the life of Pete Seeger in order to substantiate what he had in the first edition. He also, to quote Mr. Seeger, “spent many days going over each page” of the original publication with Pete, fixing mistakes that Pete had found in the original book.
The result is an exhaustive documentation of the life of the man who was probably the most significant folk singer of the twentieth century, with a career that spanned close to seven decades. He has performed with some of the most famous names in music including Huddie Ledbetter (Leadbelly), Woody and Arlo Guthrie, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Muddy Watters, and influenced more people around the world than can probably ever be counted. He was also vilified and blacklisted for being un-American by the Joseph McCarthy anti-Communist witch hunts of the 1950s, stoned by angry mobs, and received death threats for most of his career because of his belief in the power of music to conduct social change.
Professor Dunaway takes us on an Odyssey that starts with Pete’s parents who were both musicians, and his father being a Conscientious Objector in World War I. Although Peter wasn’t born until 1919, and missed out on his father’s burgeoning radicalization, it was part of the family atmosphere that would shape his future. When he was still an infant his father, Charles Seeger, decided to take Classical music to the people and packed up the family into a ramshackle car/trailer, and headed out on the road. They ended up in the Ozark mountains playing classical music for people who in turn played them fiddle tunes.
Charles Seeger was also part of a group of Classical musicians who tried to compose music for the picket line in support of the burgeoning trade union movement in the 1920s, but the world will probably never be ready for the twelve tone protest song that the Composer’s Collective insisted on trying to write. But young Pete missed out on most of this activity, and from the age of four, he was in boarding schools. His parents’ marriage had ended when he was quite young and he ended up spending a great deal of time alone.
Aside from his parents’ music and his father’s radicalism, the biggest influence upon young Pete Seeger were the writings of the Canadian naturalist Ernest Thomas Seton, who wrote stories about survival in the wilderness for young boys based on a romantic and idealized version of Native American life. Seeger spent long hours alone in the woods relishing the solitude. While most young men of intellectual privilege would sequester themselves from the world’s realities in the ivory towers of academia, Seeger refers to himself as growing up in a woodland tower where he learned about surviving in the woods, but little or nothing about the world’s bitter realities.
Two things occurred during his time in high school in the 1930s that, according to Dr. Dunaway, were key in young Peter’s development; he purchased his first banjo and his father became involved with a group of men trying to find a wider audience for American folk music. It was through this group of people that Pete met Huddie Ledbetter and, indirectly, Woody Guthrie. In 1940, Woody invited Pete to take a road trip with him to discover America. Long before the Beats, Kerouac, or anybody else, they took to the road with a banjo and guitar; playing for food and gas as they crossed the country via Route 66.
Anybody who knows anything about Pete Seeger knows of his passion for social justice and his love of folk music from all the corners of the earth, but especially that of his own country. He had a firm belief in the power of music to bring people together and overcome the barriers of race and class. In How Can I Keep From Singing: The Ballad Of Pete Seeger, Dave Dunaway does a masterful job of establishing the roots and showing how those beliefs developed and grew in Seeger. He’s not blind to the consequences of the third great influence on Seeger growing up though: the isolation and lack of any real emotional support of family and friends as a child.
Growing up in his “woodland tower” meant that Seeger had no real experience with human nature or what fear and hatred could drive people to do. The result was that on occasion he would inadvertently place his wife and children in danger. While trying to get to a concert in Peekskill where he was supposed to perform, the car he and his family were travelling in was stoned so badly by an angry mob that the windshields shattered, leaving Pete, his wife, and his children covered in shards of glass. Less physically dangerous, but just as threatening, was his failure to realize the severity of the House Un-American Committee Hearings and the consequences of his initial conviction for contempt of Congress would have on his career for the 1960s, even though he was eventually acquitted on appeal.
Pete Seeger the solitary singer on stage leads two thousand people in song, and in that moment is fulfilling his dream of bringing all people together — no matter what their backgrounds — through the power of music. But he’s still Pete Seeger alone, the young boy with dreams of being a hermit living in the woods. He and his wife have been married more than sixty years and, according to Dunaway, have a wonderful partnership and marriage, but that doesn’t stop there being a certain aloofness about Seeger that dates back to those days as a solitary child.
How Can I Keep From Singing: The Ballad Of Pete Seeger is a marvelously detailed and fascinating account of both a man and an era. Yet, for all of his accomplishments, and in spite of all of the joy he has brought so many people over the years, I was left with a feeling of sadness that in some ways Pete Seeger never got to experience the gifts he bestowed on us. This is a brilliant and poignant account of one of North America’s truest treasures.