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The Protest Singer: An Intimate Portrait of Pete Seeger Paperback – June 8, 2010

4.4 out of 5 stars 18 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

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)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Booklist

“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 --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 174 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage; 1 edition (June 8, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0307390985
  • ISBN-13: 978-0307390981
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 0.4 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 7 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (18 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,075,776 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By rctnyc VINE VOICE on May 17, 2009
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This short biography describes Pete Seeger's evolution as a person and musician. It begins by describing Seeger's upbringing in a politically-aware, educated family that encouraged and developed his musical talents. After enrolling at Harvard -- where he was in the same class as JFK -- Pete decided that his life's work was as a cultural historian. He left college to travel around the country, and soon began composing and singing to earn a living, meeting and performing with Woody Guthrie and others at political rallies, union meetings and other places where ordinary people gathered. Pete fought in WWII and, after the war, along with three other folk musicians, formed the iconic folk group, The Weavers. Throughout his career, he studied and collected examples of traditional folk music, while adding his own compositions to the long line of American songs that stetched back beyond the Revolution to the colonial period. Pete viewed such music as the medium through which ordinary Americans recorded and expressed their feelings, experience, hopes and dreams. His family supported him in his endeavors, as well as in his efforts to build a home and life in the hills overlooking the Hudson River, in Beacon, New York, where he and his family still live.

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.
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Format: Hardcover
Intimate in the title is the key to this book. The events of Pete Seeger's life are highlighted, many of which are well known, but the pearls of the book are the quotes that are included from their conversations as Seeger answered questions about his journey through life.

"People ask, is there one word that you have more faith in than any other word,"he told me, "and I say it's participation. I feel that this takes on so many meanings. The composer John Philip Sousa said,'What will happen to the American voice now that the phonograph has been invented? Women used to sing lullabies to their children.' It's been my life work, to get participation, whether it's a union song, or a peace song, civil rights, or a women's movement, or gay liberation. When you sing, you feel a kind of strength; you think, I'm not alone, there's a whole bunch of us who feel this way. I'm just one person, but it's almost my religion now to persuade people that even if it's only you and three others, do something. You and one other, do something. If it's only you, and you do a good job as a songwriter, people will sing it."

And the pictures; they show a man working hard for that participation from himself and from others with grace and joy and sticking by what he believes is right no matter what. Pete Seeger is a man to be thanked and copied, we need more like him.
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Format: Hardcover
Alec Wilkinson is one of my favorite essayists and Pete Seeger is one of my favorite people; this lovely short portrait leaves one with a sweet image of this true man of the people. Pete Seeger, a folksinger all his life, shunning commercial success in favor of just singing to whoever asked him--and mainly, to union workers, school children and other low-budget audiences--standing up courageously to the House Un-American Activities Committee and being blacklisted for years afterward, is a true American hero in the traditional sense. He's the genuine article: he really doesn't seek fame and fortune and wishes only to sing for, and with, the people. The more people join in, the better; for Seeger, it isn't about his own voice or his talent.
His one shot at serious commercial success was dashed by the blacklisters when, in the early 1950s, his group, the Weavers, had been signed by a television network for their own show. A right-wing group published a pamphlet listing notable men and women whom they claimed were Communists, including Leonard Bernstein, Arthur Miller, Orson Welles, and Seeger. Incapable of bitterness, Seeger's only comment was, "I expected it, so I didn't really feel resentful. We assumed that sooner or later they'd get us."
Seeger lives with his wife of many decades--who seems to share his unpretentious taste--in a woodsy home where he makes his own maple syrup and entertains his visiting children and grandchildren. His lifestyle is simple and basic, as befits a person with his values, described by Wilkinson thus: "...a reverence for nature, a regard for human life, something like scorn for the nurturing of materialistic values, and a belief in the worth of right moral behavior."
Wilkinson writes elegantly, which makes this story even more of a treat to read.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This biography of Seeger, The Protest Singer, by Alec Wilkinson, 2009, Knopf, is a delicious and speedy read. Welcome illustrations too.

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.
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