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The Protest Singer: An Intimate Portrait of Pete Seeger Hardcover – April 21, 2009
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From Publishers Weekly
In his latest book, New Yorker writer Wilkinson (The Happiest Man in the World) gives due praise to the influential American singer Pete Seeger, who humbly told his biographer that what's needed is a book that can be read in one sitting. It is just such a spirit of humility that emerges from Wilkinson's lovely and, indeed, brief profile of Seeger (who turns 90 in May), at once social activist, environmentalist and, above all, courageous musician, the peoples' singer, who wholeheartedly believed in his father's dictum that music, as any art, is not an end in itself, but is a means for achieving larger ends. Wilkinson's thorough research is artfully couched in his extended interviews with the singer on his wooded property in upstate New York, during which Seeger elucidates his storied genealogy, recounts his times with Woody Guthrie and describes his testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1955 (the full transcript of which is reprinted as an appendix). Wilkinson's biography reads as lucidly as if we were there with him, listening to Seeger's history as he boils maple sap down to syrup and chops his daily quota of firewood. In Wilkinson's writing, one can almost hear Seeger's axe splitting the logs. (May)
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“Too much has been written about me, and at too great length,” says Pete Seeger, who turns 90 on May 3, 2009, and whose eventful life New Yorker contributor Wilkinson condenses into a one-sitting read (all Seeger thinks is necessary). Seeger’s life has been crammed with interesting activities and people. First among the latter is his father, composer and ur-musicologist Charles Seeger, whose journey to and away from communism prefigured his third son’s similar path; most famous among Seeger’s people is prolific protest singer Woody Guthrie. Freight-hopping minstrel at 20, top-of-the-charts record performer at 30, blacklistee scrambling to support his family at 40, voice of the civil-rights and antiwar movements thereafter, Seeger also built his family’s first home largely by himself, dreamed up a successful project to spur cleaning the Hudson River, and still boils his own maple syrup. His thousands of recordings go unappraised here, attesting the modesty he practices as an obligation more than a virtue. Wilkinson’s writing about him is modest, too: plain with a little clunky folksiness and reservedly though unmistakably affectionate. --Ray Olson
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Top customer reviews
Pete's political beliefs, and his courage in standing up to McCarthyism, are linked in Wilkinson's biography to his underlying philosophy, which views all people as members of a single spiritual community. Pete Seeger's goal has been to unite people of many backgrounds, classes, ethnicities, racial backgrounds and religions through the common vehicle of music, which he views as the expression of a common, human spirit. It is this common humanity, not a political ideology, that Seeger seeks to advance through his efforts as a writer and singer. Wilkinson allows Seeger to explain these motives and objectives in his own words.
A significant passage in the book describes Pete's response when, after a concert during the Vietnam era, a man came up and said that he'd come there that night to kill Pete, but had changed his mind. Pete sat down and talked with the man, and they sang "Where Have All The Flowers Gone" together. Afterwards, the man had said "I feel cleansed," and left quietly. This episode demonstrated the strength of Pete's faith in the transforming power of empathy and common bond forged by music. Rather than merely accept the man's tacit apology, or feel afraid, Pete tried to heal the man -- a Vietnam war vet -- and succeeded.
Wilkinson writes that Pete Seeger wished for him to write a biography that could be read in one sitting. This short book fills that bill. It is informative, entertaining and helps the reader to understand and appreciate the eras through which Pete has lived in his 90 years. An appendix containing Seeger's HUAC testimony during the McCarthy era allows the reader to evaluate for him or herself Pete's actions during that troubled period.
Although I do not agree with every political position that Pete has taken in his long life, he is in my estimation an ethical person and American patriot. His patriotism is about honor, integrity and justice, not ideology. Yet those who disagree with that assessment would also appreciate this biography, which is evenhanded, informative and fair. I'll bet that Pete likes it.
The video contains Seeger singing many of his best known pieces, and does so in the context of his interactions with audiences in concert and with groups of other people in different settings. The music is, of course, superb. But be clear that this is not simply a collection of Seeger's music. It is some of the story of his life.
His formative early years are presented, and I found that fascinating. The video presents his musical, political, and personal development as he grows and matures into adulthood. It interviewed him about those hard years (for him and for the whole nation) of the McCarthy investigations of the 1950's. Because of his refusal to "name names" before McCarthy's witch-hunting investigation, he was blacklisted. The only "concerts" he found he could give, to which no one objected, was to children and young people in schools. Seeger chuckled as he recounted how that was exactly the age group he could have picked to sing to and sing with. After all, it was a great way to get across his passions - about love and grace, peace and justice - to kids in their formative years. Would that ALL who heard him could be as inspired and moved as were the kids with whom Pete sang!
The video highlights Seeger's later work, including his herculean efforts (with others) to clean up the Hudson River and to continue to address the increasingly important needs to speak out for peace and justice in our world. The closing scenes with Seeger singing in concert with his grandson are both touching and inspiring.
This video reminded me that Pete Seeger has a truly unforgettable voice... both the music itself that he offers the world, as well as the interconnected message that he brings in and through his music. The video will touch your life, as Pete Seeger continues to touch our world with a voice and message that must never be extinguished.
Wilkinson cites "Seeger's biographer, David King Dunaway" in two or three places. I enjoyed Wilkinson's story so much that I am now reading the Dunaway biography, How Can I Keep from Singing: The Ballad of Pete Seeger, and I can compare them.
At 428 pp, Dunaway's is the definitive biography, its first edition having been published in the 1980s. With rich collaboration between the author and his subject, the second edition, which appeared in 2008, is a masterpiece in the genre. I recommend both books -- Seeger's story is a terrific one at any length.