This is the third and final part of the "New U.S. issues" series, to read part one click here. To read part 2 click here.
Folk musician Pete Seeger, a political and social activist and legend in his time, is now an American musical icon, appearing as the 10th member of the Music Icons series.
News and information about the new Pete Seeger Music Icon stamp can be found here.
A stamp for Seeger (1919-2014), who died at age 94, was issued July 21 in Newport, Rhode Island, the day before the start of the annual three-day Newport Folk Festival, founded in 1959 by George Wein, with some help from Seeger and Albert Grossman.
Seeger was “the singer, folk-song collector and songwriter who spearheaded an American folk revival and spent a long career championing folk music as both a vital heritage and a catalyst for social change,” the New York Times said in Seeger’s obituary.
Though popular with some segments of America, he was watched closely by J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI and among those blacklisted House Un-American Activities Committee. He emerged from those murky shadows in the turbulent protest-driven culture of the Sixties and became a mainstay among the voices for social change for the rest of his career.
The stamp art features a color-tinted, black-and-white photograph taken in the early 1960s by Dan Seeger, the performer’s son. Pete Seeger is shown in left profile singing and playing his iconic banjo. The square stamp pane resembles a vintage 45 rpm record sleeve. One side of the 16-stamp pane includes the stamps and the image of a sliver of a record seeming to peek out the top of the sleeve. A larger version of the stamp-art photograph appears on the reverse side with the words “Pete Seeger / Folk Singer.”
Art director Antonio Alcalá designed the issue. Dan Seeger’s photograph was color-tinted by Kristen Monthei.
Seeger, who performed and postured his views well into his 90s, wrote or popularized many well-known folk songs, many of them steeped with themes such as peace, freedom and civil and human rights.
He’s credited with writing or adapting “If I Had a Hammer,” “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?,” “Turn! Turn! Turn!” and “Wimoweh (Mbube)” (aka “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”). At the height of the Vietnam War in 1967, Seeger performed his metaphorical anti-war song “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy” on the “Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour,” but censors cut the performance from the telecast. Among other songs Seeger is closely associated with are “We Shall Overcome,” “Good Night, Irene,” “Little Boxes” and “This Land is Your Land,” penned by his friend and collaborator Woody Guthrie. Seeger joined Bruce Springsteen and others to perform “This Land” at President Barack Obama’s 2009 Inauguration.
Obama, quoted in Mother Jones said the following at the time of Seeger’s passing: “He believed in the power of community — to stand up for what’s right, speak out against what’s wrong, and move this country closer to the America he knew we could be. Over the years, Pete used his voice—and his hammer — to strike blows for worker’s and civil rights; world peace and environmental conservation. And he always invited us to sing along.”
Springsteen, in the same article, presented an appreciation that reviewed their joint appearance at Obama’s inauguration. Springsteen said in part: “At some point Pete Seeger decided he’d be a walking, singing reminder of all of America’s history. He’d be a living archive of America’s music and conscience, a testament of the power of song and culture to nudge history along, to push American events towards more humane and justified ends. He would have the audacity and the courage to sing in the voice of the people, and despite Pete’s somewhat benign, grandfatherly appearance, he is a creature of a stubborn, defiant, and nasty optimism. Inside him he carries a steely toughness that belies that grandfatherly facade and it won’t let him take a step back from the things he believes in.”
Rolling Stone magazine offered a list of Seeger essentials, several noted here earlier, on its website.
Seeger received many awards, including five Grammy (including a 1993 Lifetime Achievement); the inaugural Woody Guthrie Prize (2014); the Letelier-Moffitt Human Rights Award (1986); induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (1996); and the Kennedy Center Honor (1994).
Seeger was the son of Harvard-trained composer musicologist and composer Charles Seeger Jr. and concert violinist Constance de Clyver Edson. His parents divorced when Pete was 7 and his father married his composition student and assistant, Ruth Crawford, who went on to become an influential composer.
Clearly, the tone was set for Pete to follow a musical background.
As a teenager in 1936, Seeger – who had focused his musical talents on the ukulele – traveled with his father and stepmother to the Mountain Dance and Folk Festival near Asheville, North Carolina, where he heard and saw the five-string banjo, which he studied and played the rest of his life.
The seed of folk music was set and more influences came along – time spent at Greenwich Village Clubs; time, but no degree, studying music and politics at Harvard; touring with a group of puppeteers; work with Alan Lomax at the at the Archive of American Folk Song of the Library of Congress; performances on a radio show hosted by Lomax, where he met the likes of Burl Ives, Lead Belly and Woody Guthrie; enrollment before World War II in the Young Communists League, from which he resigned in 1949; and time performing with the Almanac Singers, which in 1941 produced recordings like “Talking Union” and “Songs for John Doe” (a Soviet-leaning song against joining the war).
After Germany invaded the Soviet Union in WWII, “Songs for John Doe” was off the Almanacs’ play list, though the pro-intervention tune – “Dear Mr. President,” with a solo by Seeger – was recorded. Though Seeger was often later an antiwar advocate, at this point the singer sided with American intervention but included lyrics that noted the U.S. could be better without racist policies like Jim Crow laws and anti-Semitism.
Seeger joined the Army and trained as an airplane mechanic but was reassigned to entertain troops. After his service, he bought land overlooking the Hudson River in Beacon, New York, where he first built a log cabin. He called the property home for the rest of his life. During the late 1960s Seeger helped build a 106-foot sailing ship – the Clearwater – that would crusade for cleaner water on the Hudson River. The ship was launched in June 1969 with a crew of musicians. It became a symbol for antipollution efforts and education.
Seeger and others soon established People’s Songs, conceived as a nationwide organization with branches on both coasts and designed to “create, promote and distribute songs of labor and the American People.” With Seeger as its director, People’s Songs worked for the 1948 Progressive Party’s presidential campaign of Henry A. Wallace, FDR’s former secretary of agriculture and vice president.
The House Un-American Activities Committee (founded 1938) targeted people – particularly those in the entertainment industry – that that the committee thought were communists, fascists, sympathizers or otherwise anti-American. In the mid-1950s, Seeger was among the many who wound up on the blacklist, which forbade them to work freely in the entertainment industry. Among the others targeted were songwriter Yip Harburg, actor-singer Paul Robeson and playwright Langston Hughes.
According to his obituary in the New York Times, Seeger was indicted in 1957 on 10 counts of contempt of Congress and was convicted in 1961 and sentenced to a year in prison, but the next year an appeals court dismissed the indictment as faulty.
Seeger regained his voice soon after with the revival of the folk music scene, which included the co-founding of the Newport Folk Festival in 1959. Though he signed with Columbia Records in 1961, he remained banned from television. When the TV show “Hootenanny” offered him an appearance if he signed a loyalty oath, Seeger declined, the Times said. Instead, he went on a world tour and continued to travel and perform throughout the country into the 21st century. He often toured with Arlo Guthrie, Woody’s son.