Book review: The Protest Singer

Too many books have been written about me, at too great length. What's needed is a book that can be read in one sitting.

Alec Wilkinson writes that he was worried Pete Seeger would not agree to another biography, so when the folk icon told him to write something brief and readable, Wilkinson must have been thrilled. He succeeds in the task with The Protest Singer: An Intimate Portrait of Pete Seeger (Alfred A. Knopf, 2009).

Seeger turned 90 this year, and while longevity runs in his family, his voice is starting to falter and, well, he's 90. He's active, but by necessity less so than in his younger years. He's still an active voice for workers' rights and for the First Amendment, and if you don't know much about him or of his music, you really should catch up.

His stepmother told him once that he had "a talent for song leading," and that he should develop it, and develop it he did. Watch that video above. He sings one line, waves his hand, and if he didn't do anything the rest of the song, no one would have noticed. That was recorded in 1993; compare it to a video taken 30 years earlier. One line, and everybody's singing.

Seeger's life story is a great narrative. He used to hop boxcars with his banjo and ride with Woody Guthrie. He was drafted during the second World War, and later wound up blacklisted by HUAC. He took a "world tour" with his family as a cover while the last of the blacklisting faded out. He built the first home he and his wife Toshi lived in, a log cabin in Beacon, N.Y. (they still live on the property, though in a house that was built later).

He has stood up for workers' rights, civil rights and all sorts of other things. Even into his 80s, he'd stand outside in the rain on the side of a highway with a sign that said, "Peace."

To me, his legacy is song and song leading. There's nothing better you can do with a guitar than get everyone around you singing, in key or out, the right words or not. Seeger truly is an American treasure, and Wilkinson's book will take you little enough time to read that you'll have plenty of energy to do more research, listen to some music, and maybe pick up your guitar and play some songs.


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