The Protest Singer: An Intimate Portrait of Pete Seeger

By ALEC WILKINSON

My purpose, Pete Seeger explained last year, chopping wood at his New York cabin, “is in trying to get people to realize that there may be no human race by the end of the century unless we find ways to talk to people we deeply disagree with.” The folk musician, who turns 90 this May, has long embodied the courage not only to sing about, but also to act on, his convictions, and author and New Yorker writer Wilkinson has crafted a slim biography that tunes in to Seeger’s life with a clear, unhurried frequency. The Protest Singer offers a straightforward and accessible record of Seeger’s idiosyncratic choices and patriotism. He toyed briefly with Communism, though, Wilkinson reveals, “here is no conceit that he has more emphatically embraced than that all human beings are created equal and have equal rights.” After six years in the army, he reunited with his wife and children in 1948 and began performing folk songs with three friends who called themselves the Weavers. Within a year, they’d sold four million albums. Summoned to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1955, Seeger was indicted for contempt and sentenced to a year in jail, and this book includes the entire transcript as an appendix. The judgment was thrown out, but only after being blacklisted did Seeger find himself unshackled from the commercial world, happily free to return to singing for kids in schools. Wilkinson’s portrait comes out as unfussy as its subject, and Seeger’s example of peaceful living, as intelligible as his songs.

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