An economical, unsentimental, illuminating look at the venerable folk singer.
Veteran New Yorker contributor Wilkinson (The Happiest Man in the World: An Account of the Life of Poppa Neutrino, 2007, etc.) here expands a magazine profile of Seeger, who turns 90 this May. The musician asked the journalist to pen a book that could be read in one sitting, and we see a pleasingly close-up view as he rattles around the Beacon, N.Y., cabin he built with his own hands. The author gracefully reveals the arc of Seeger’s life and career. Born into a privileged, musical family, as a youth the musician gained a love for American folk music, facility on the five-string banjo and a commitment to political and social causes. He dropped out of Harvard to play with folk icon Woody Guthrie and work with folklorist John Lomax at the Library of Congress. After some time on the road, Seeger was embraced as a performer—first by the American left as a member of the Almanac Singers and then by pop listeners as part of the hitmaking quartet the Weavers, who notched a No. 1 hit in 1950 with “Goodnight, Irene.” The core of the book focuses on his victimization during the Joseph McCarthy witch hunts, when his ex-Communist background led to the Weavers’ blacklisting and Seeger’s appearance before the House Un-American Activities Committee, which resulted in a contempt of Congress conviction that was later overturned. Effectively shut out of performing on television for a decade, Seeger nonetheless became the dean of the American folk-music movement, thanks to his fearless and principled work on behalf of the nuclear-disarmament, civil-rights, antiwar and environmental movements. Here he emerges as a quiet, matter-of-fact yet hard-headed and courageous individual with a rare gift for drawing listeners of all ages into his songs, and a political boldness as understated as it is uncompromising.
Wilkinson strikes exactly the right notes in this deft look at one of America’s towering musical treasures.