How Can I Keep from Singing?: The Ballad of Pete Seeger

How Can I Keep from Singing?: The Ballad of Pete Seeger

by David King Dunaway, Pete Seeger

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How Can I Keep from Singing? is the compelling story of how the son of a respectable Puritan family became a consummate performer and American rebel. Updated with new research and interviews, unpublished photographs, and thoughtful comments from Pete Seeger himself, this is an inside history of the man Carl Sandburg called “America’s Tuning Fork.” In the only biography on Seeger, David Dunaway parts the curtains on his life.

Who is this rail-thin, eighty-eight-year-old with the five-string banjo, whose performances have touched millions of people for more than seven decades? Bob Dylan called him a saint. Joan Baez said, “We all owe our careers to him.” But Seeger’s considerable musical achievements were overshadowed by political controversy when he became perhaps the most blacklisted performer in American history. He was investigated for sedition, harassed by the FBI and the CIA, picketed, and literally stoned by conservative groups. Still, he sang.
Today, Seeger remains an icon of conscience and culture, and his classic antiwar songs, sung by Bruce Springsteen and millions of others, live again in the movement against foreign wars. His life holds lessons for surviving repressive times and for turning to music to change the world.

“This biography is a beauty. It captures not only the life of the bard but the world of which he sings.”
–Studs Terkel

“A fine and meticulous biography . . . Dunaway has taken [Seeger’s] materials and woven them into a detailed, interesting, and well-written narrative of a most fascinating life.”
–American Music

“An extraordinary tale of an extraordinary man [that] will intrigue not only his legions of followers but everyone interested in one man’s battles and victories.”
–Chicago Sun-Times

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780307495976
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Publication date: 03/12/2009
Sold by: Random House
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 544
Sales rank: 671,547
File size: 6 MB

About the Author

David King Dunaway was born in Greenwich Village in New York City. He attended the universities of Aix-en-Provence, France, Wisconsin, and California, where he received Berkeley's first PhD in American studies. At the University of New Mexico, Dr. Dunaway taught biography and broadcasting, and he has been a Fulbright senior lecturer at the University of Nairobi, University of Copenhagen, and the National University of Colombia. Author and editor of a half-dozen volumes of history and biography, he consults on and produces national radio series for public radio.

Pete Seeger (1919–2014), legendary folk singer and peace advocate, issued approximately one hundred records and wrote or worked on dozens of books. He also collaborated on numerous radical songbooks and articles.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1

Hold the Line

At dawn on Sunday morning, September 4, 1949, the first convoys of cars headed north from New York City for Peekskill, a summer resort town where Seeger, Paul Robeson, and others were to sing. By 9 a.m. the roads were blocked with veterans' groups and local anti-Communists who had vowed to stop the concert. New York labor unions sent a security force of two thousand to keep the concert grounds open. Outside the gates, a thousand armed police lined up in formation. Across town in the woods, down by the riverside, a half-dozen men piled rocks the size of tennis balls into a car trunk.

The concert had been advertised two weeks earlier with a notice in the Daily Worker. Readers were invited for a pleasant evening in the country at the Lakeland Picnic Grounds. The name hinted at a quiet affair: beer and sandwiches, with a blanket to keep out the cool night air.

The FBI clipped the notice for their files. The Peekskill Evening Star called Robeson "violently and loudly pro-Russian"; their editorial was unusually bitter: "The time for tolerant silence that signifies approval is running out." A few residents wrote the editor, calling this an invitation to violence. That, for a time, was that. If the local citizens agreed with the Star, they weren't vocal about it.

On his newly purchased country land, Seeger didn't always see the morning papers. When he did, the news was scary. Communist Party leaders faced jail for teaching and writing about Marxism. Radio commentators called for a war to stop Communism. Anti-Communists beat up left-wing actors outside a theater in New York. Half the cast of They Shall Not Pass, a play about the trial of the Scottsboro boys, ended up in the hospital. There were no arrests.

Nineteen-forty-nine had not been a good year for Seeger's causes either. That spring, right after he'd turned thirty, People's Songs--an organization he had built from scratch and had run for three years--went bankrupt. He felt responsible for its debts. His new singing group, an unknown quartet called the Weavers, was falling apart from lack of work. Neighbors in Upstate New York distrusted the Seegers as "city folks." And then in August, Seeger's prim mother arrived for a visit, but the only accommodation he could offer was a tiny trailer lacking water or electricity. He and Toshi took the tent.

They had spent the summer clearing their land by the Hudson. The work could be toilsome, such as digging the foundation by hand. They hauled a cement mixer up the hill. But days passed and the hole grew.

"It was Hi! Here's a shovel," so often, Lee Hays joked of "Seeger's slave camps." Few guests had a chance to lie back and watch the boats pass. Toshi complained about people asking her husband about songs; the whole construction line could stop as he showed them a lick or two.

In balance, this beat New York City by a country mile. Takashi, Toshi's father, and Toshi planned a garden. She looked forward to making their dinner plates and to the kids growing up in the woods.

Seeger remembers being "happy as a lark" choosing and sawing the logs for the cabin: The thick green woods saw a lot of this energetic thirty-year-old, bounding through the forest. Seeger had fewer Party meetings, which meant more time with his banjo.

Seeger's bookings were not numerous, but he survived. The night before he'd been first scheduled to sing at Peekskill, he'd led a performance of some teenagers he'd brought together, the Good Neighbor Chorus. He'd driven into the city and set up, taken the kids home after the show, and carted off the instruments; it was probably 2 a.m. before he got to bed. Fortunately, the concert was not until eight the next night, and only ten miles away. After dinner that evening, Seeger packed his banjo in the car and, with his mother in tow, cheerfully headed south. They didn't know they were heading straight into the first full-scale riot of America's cold war.

He'd ignored predictions of violence, though Peekskill had a reputation as a center for the Ku Klux Klan. The preconcert parade organized by the Joint Veterans Council of Westchester County was already the subject of rumors. Suspecting the parade might get rough, the leader of a teenage marching band had withdrawn, telling the Peekskill Star, "I wouldn't want to bring my boys anywhere they could get hurt."

It was one of those seductively warm August evenings, but the road to the concert was empty. Seeger expected the concert to go on: "It was legal and there might be a few who'd object, but after all, there were policemen there." He planned to sing a few songs and show that people can say what they want in America.

Mother and son had a pleasant ride along the parkway. They arrived early, but at the exit from the highway, a patrol car blocked their way. Seeger pulled his car to one side and walked over.

"Officer," he said politely, "I'm one of the performers here tonight. Do you think you could help me get through?"

"He looked at me rather peculiarly. 'There's not going to be any concert,' he said, striding away." Seeger was puzzled. He could see press cars hurriedly pulling up, while police idled at the entrance to the picnic grounds.

He later found out what had happened. Novelist Howard Fast was master of ceremonies, and he'd arrived an hour or so before Pete. At first, everything had gone smoothly: The sound system worked, the lights were set. Fast was relieved at how well things were going. That was at seven o'clock. A few minutes later, matters looked quite different, as Fast wrote in Peekskill USA.

A boy ran up to say there was trouble at the top of the road, where the veterans' parade was gathered. When Fast and his crew ran up to the entrance, veterans charged them, three hundred vigilantes with billies and brass knuckles and rocks in clenched fists and American Legion caps. It became clear why no more people or entertainers were coming into the concert. One of the forks of the road was piled high with rocks, a great barricade of stone, and the other had a Legion truck parked across it.

It was straight out of an old-time western: Fast and his friends were cornered in a box canyon with nowhere to turn. Picnic dinners were forgotten.

The veterans in the parade weren't gangsters. These were respectable folk: well-dressed real estate men, grocery clerks, and filling-station hands, men who feared losing what little they had, vets frustrated at not having a good job after the war. They blamed the city intellectuals in their summer houses, the Negroes, and the Jews.

Fast sent off a scout to find help. Not knowing what else to do, Seeger drove his car up on the grass and turned back, departing just as the scout reached the main gate. Exactly what happened next has never been determined. In the last light of the day, the veterans were bearing in, shouting, "We'll finish Hitler's job!" and "Give us Robeson. We'll lynch the nigger up!" Soon Fast and the others were backed against a truck while the crowd swung into them with bats and fence posts.

Someone aimed a blow at Fast. A friend deflected it, but the attacker leaped on the writer, tearing off his glasses. Others went down in the free-for-all. Someone yelled, "They're killing Fast, God damn it."

Fast limped up from beneath a pile of bodies, his clothes torn. Then he did something Seeger might have done in his place; he began to sing. The concertgoers locked arms to form a line and started.

We shall not--we shall not be moved!

We shall not--we shall not be moved!

Just like a tree that's standing by the water,

We shall not be moved!

The road in front of them was bathed in the glare of headlights, but all else lay in darkness. Across the beams came the "new Americans," brandishing fence rails. In the shadows, a man was stabbed.

Off in one corner, three men in suits scribbled furiously in their notebooks. They were from the Justice Department, and to them, this was a bold new experiment in red-hunting.

As the vets closed in, they met a new resistance. Emboldened by the music, the concert organizers halted their retreat. Joining arms and singing gave them an extra measure of courage. They fended off the attackers for two more hours, until the mob battered their way to the stage. Frustrated that Robeson wasn't there (he'd been warned of the attack), the vigilantes broke up wooden chairs and set fire to pamphlets and songbooks. They left behind a flaming cross, the Ku Klux Klan trademark.

At ten o'clock, the police began to help. The wounded were taken to a hospital, the buses rumbled back to the city in the dark, and the long night was ended.

Next morning, Seeger read the half-dozen stories in the New York Times: RIOTS STOP CONCERT. The local D.A., an ambitious fellow named Fanelli, said the audience provoked the violence by showing up where they weren't wanted. Veterans' groups denied responsibility for the attack; their parade had officially disbanded before dark. There were no arrests.

Seeger signed a group telegram urging Governor Dewey (the recently defeated presidential candidate) to investigate. The governor named District Attorney Fanelli as his neutral observer.

This was Monday. The veterans' riot had taken place on Saturday, and the furor still hadn't let up. Not content with congressional hearings or labeling subversive books in libraries, anti-Communists had opened a new front: street violence.

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