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How Can I Keep from Singing?: The Ballad of Pete Seeger Paperback – March 18, 2008

4.6 out of 5 stars 20 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

About the Author

David King Dunaway has written about American culture for publications ranging from the New York Times to the Virginia Quarterly. He is the author of nine volumes of history and biography, including How Can I Keep from Singing?, a biography of American folk singer Pete Seeger, which won the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers' Deems Taylor Award for excellence in writing about American music. Dunaway is currently a professor at the University of New Mexico, Distinguished Professor of Broadcasting at San Francisco State University, and a DJ for KUNM-FM radio in Albuquerque.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 560 pages
  • Publisher: Villard; Reprint edition (March 18, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0345506081
  • ISBN-13: 978-0345506085
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 1.2 x 8.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 15.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (20 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #451,306 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Richard A. Root on October 8, 2012
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
Pete Seeger is a musical genius, and a man who has introduced many of us to the music of America. This goes without saying, at least to those of us who were born in the "boomer" generation. Many younger people may know his music, but have no idea that he had anything to do with it. Today, he is often praised and loved, but not many know his story. He has never written his autobiography, other than "An Incomplete Folksinger" which was a collection of short writings he'd done. This book does tell his story. And, an amazing story it is. Pete Seeger is a study in courage. Born to a family who was of upper class New England, he was fascinated by the songs of America (and the world). To him, this meant what later became known as folk music. At the time, it was labeled as "hillbilly" or country music. He learned it, became one of the greatest five-string banjo players of all time, and began collecting songs. He became a pacifistic fighter for the unions, against segregation and bigotry, for the American Communist Party, and, as World War II broke out, for the United States war effort. After the war, he had some of his greatest song writing success, while being caught in the Red Menace witch hunt of the House on Un-American Activites Committee (HUAC) in the 1940s and 1950s. Due to the problems with HUAC, and the reaction of the media, he was unable to appear on TV or network radio, so he was forced to tour constantly to make a living for himself and his family. He really didn't start to make a decent amount of money until the late 1950s, when other artist started recording many of his songs, and they became hits for them. These include: "Where Have All The Flowers Gone?", "Wimoweh", "Turn! Turn! Turn!" "We Shall Overcome" "If I Had A Hammer", and many others.

Pete is not perfect.
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Format: Paperback
David King Dunaway's biography is valuable, but be advised, the author is no friend of folk music and is patronizing to Pete Seeger. In this he echoes the attitude of 1950s U.S. Cold War academic political science departments to folk music and folk musicians. Dunaway writes: "In the twenty-first century, the appeal of Pete Seeger is akin to that of a nineteenth-century Romantic figure, the rustic innocent with the magic flute, who appeals to those unable to live fully for the frantic quality of their lives," p. 421.

The book falls short as an explanation of Seeger's politics and does little to enlighten readers about the appeal of his music, since the author has no curiosity about the former and is lacking in knowledge about the latter.

There are also many very nasty comments in this book about other figures in the folk singing world, effectively unattributed, since the notes at the end are merely general attributions for each chapter without specifically stating who said what. Nor is there any attempt to interpret or give a context for these inflamatory remarks.

Dunaway is also inaccurate. He gets wrong the name of Seeger's nemesis Karl Joachim Friedrich (the teacher of Henry Kissinger and Zbigniew Brzezinski). The German-born Friedrich, a political scientist who was an adviser to the US military on propaganda during World War 2, was violently opposed to populist movements and wrote an article about Seeger and the Almanac Singers in the Atlantic Monthly in 1941, calling them "the Poison in Our System." Dunaway misspells the name of this writer as Carl Frederick, as though he were just a random writer and not a highly influential Cold War figure.
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This well-written, well-researched biography of one of America's folk icons is "can't- put-it-down" fare. The influences of family, the times, and the music itself that shaped Pete Seeger's music make for fascinating reading. One emerges from this book with an enhanced sense of history as heard through the songs sung by Seeger and his contemporaries, Leadbelly, Woody Guthrie, the Almanac Singers, and the Weavers, to name a few. Of particular import is the discussion of Seeger's interrogation by McCarthy's House Committee on Unamerican Activities, and subsequent blacklisting. The important lesson to be derived from this book is that "Freedom Isn't Free". Seeger and new generations of his family have continued to lend music to various important causes and movements in our nation. His story enhances credence to a quotation from him: that "Songs Change Things". " Given that, and the state of our world, 'How Can (We) Keep From Singing?"
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David King Dunaway has done a wonderful job in updating his classic biography of Pete Seeger. Dunaway, with excellent narrative skill, tells not only Seeger's life story, but also gives us a mini-history of the progressive movement in this country for the last eighty years or so. Seeger's involvement in the labor movement, the civil rights movement, the peace movement, and the environmental movement are all covered in depth. Also the struggle to be able to sing his songs in a supposedly free America is explored in the tales related to the riots at Peekskill, the McCarthy era, the blacklist, and right-wing bigots picketing his concerts.

The best part of all of this is that Pete Seeger, at age 89, is still actively writing and singing. I had the pleasure to see him in concert, along with his grandson Tao Rodriguez-Seeger, and Guy Davis two nights ago at the Sellersville Theater. He can still get a crowd to sing along with him. While his voice is perhaps not what it used to be (but as Arlo Guthrie told him "neither is our hearing"), the magic is still there.

This book captures as much of that magic as the printed page can hold, and is a great book for people of all ages to read. I highly recommend it if you are interested in reading about a real, authentic, inspiring American hero.
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