The Protest Singer

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 1)

Published in time to coincide with Pete Seeger’s ninetieth birthday celebration in May, 2009, The Protest Singer is a slim, readable volume that explores the life and work of this icon of American folk music and culture. The book shines a spotlight on some of the many controversies that grew around Seeger during his decades of performing and using the power of his public image to support a variety of leftist political causes. While many of the basic facts in the book are drawn from earlier biographies of the singermost notably David Dunaway’s How Can I Keep from Singing? (1990)much of the original material comes from a series of visits Alec Wilkinson made to Seeger’s home in rural upstate New York over several months during 2008. A great deal of previous biographical material has been written about Seeger, so both the author and the musician himself were interested in giving the public a smaller, less comprehensive book. Wilkinson quotes Seeger as saying, “What’s needed is a book that can be read in one sitting.” This book attempts to fill that perceived need.

The early pages of The Protest Singer feel a bit scattered and unfocused, as the author introduces himself and his subject and previews several moments and themes he will return to cover later in greater detail. At this point, Wilkinson seems eager to establish the fact of his visits to Seeger’s home and the openness of the singer’s dealings with him. Before long, though, the book settles into a fairly straightforward chronology, though even then the author takes some liberties with time.

The book becomes, essentially, a series of verbal snapshots of Seeger at various points in his life: attending boarding school as a child, dropping out of Harvard to travel and paint pictures, meeting and courting his wife, serving in World War II, building his own house in rural upstate New York, participating in various left-leaning political causes, and playing music around the country and the world. Still, Wilkinson makes no attempt at a full recounting of the singer’s ninety years. Rather, he presents a string of anecdotes, some about Seeger’s music, many about his political activism, and others simply about the musician’s daily life.

A typical incident recounted from Seeger’s life will illustrate Wilkinson’s method. In 1949, Seeger bought a piece of land on a remote mountain outside Beacon, New York, mostly using money he borrowed from his family. He moved there with his wife Toshi and their children to live in a trailer while he cleared the land and built their first cabin with his own hands, using plans he discovered in the New York Public Library. As he describes this episode of Seeger’s life, Wilkinson also recounts how, during the same period, Seeger was commuting to New York City regularly to perform in nightclubs and how he also became involved in a nearby civil rights concert that turned into a famous riot. The author also recounts his own visits with Seeger on the property, where he still lives, and how the singer showed him around the property and described, in his typically humble way, his amateurish attempts to build a proper fireplace.

In reading Wilkinson’s account of Seeger’s early life, it is easy to see where both his musical talent and his fiery political attitudes originated. Seeger’s parents, Charles and Constance Seeger, were both classically trained musicians with a passion for bringing their art to the widest possible audience. When Pete was a boy, they traveled around and performed in small towns, often on a stage built into a homemade trailer. Charles was a committed communist and even wrote a brief manifesto (reprinted as an appendix in The Protest Singer) about the need for music to serve a greater cause than simple entertainment. Seeger’s parents both encouraged his musical development, though his mother would have preferred him to specialize in a classical instrument rather than the banjo...

(The entire section is 1626 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 1)

Booklist 105, no. 16 (April 15, 2009): 12.

The Boston Globe, April 19, 2009, p. C6.

Library Journal 134, no. 7 (April 15, 2009): 94-96.

The New York Times Book Review, 5 31, 2009, p. 26.

Publishers Weekly 256, no. 11 (March 16, 2009): 49.

San Francisco Chronicle, May 3, 2009, p. H1.

The Times Literary Supplement, November 27, 2009, p. 35.

The Wall Street Journal, May 2, 2009, p. W9.

Weekly Standard 15, no. 4 (October 12, 2009): 36-37.