HOW CAN I KEEP FROM SINGING: Pete Seeger by David King Dunaway


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As made clear in a too-chummy introduction, Dunaway was given access to Seeger's family, friends, letters, and journals--and the result is a rather fulsomely detailed but reasonably objective biography of ""the most picketed, boycotted performer in American history."" Son of a well-bred musicologist who underwent a dramatic socialist conversion, Seeger grew up prep-schooled but radicalized (at 18, his ""politics were a strange mix of revolution and Robert's Rules of Order""); folk-music researcher Alan Lomax was a family friend whose recordings led Pete to his beloved five-string banjo. So when, after dropping out of Harvard in 1938, he failed to find N.Y. newspaper work, Pete turned to music, meeting Leadbelly and then Woody Guthrie: they crossed America together, collecting songs, creating a ""citybilly blend of politics, country music, and ballads."" But the music/politics intersection would be a problematic ideal over the next three decades: the brief success of Pete's Almanac Singers ended with exposure of the group's start as Communist Party entertainment (Pete was an ambivalent party member); Pete returned from WW II with hopes for a ""singing labor movement"" (the unions were less than thrilled); then came the Weavers, attacked by the Left and purists for selling out, disbanded after an HUAC informer fingered their CP connections. And though Seeger's career survived that, he soon was himself up before the HUAC: he refused to answer, was indicted for Contempt of Congress (case dismissed, on technical grounds, after seven years of proceedings) and blacklisted . . . even through the early-60s folk-boom. But even more disillusioning, somehow, was his devotion to the civil-rights and anti-Vietnam war movements, while he has now regained some optimistic fervor with environmentalism. Dunaway recognizes Seeger's blind spots and doesn't shy away from his frustrations. Fine for fans, then, if not quite sharply focused enough for more critical readers.

Pub Date: Aug. 2nd, 1981
Publisher: McGraw-Hill