Pete Seeger: Letters About Family and Childhood

Poignant and innocent, these childhood letters written by Pete Seeger will transport you back to a simpler time.
September 2012
By Pete Seeger
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“I would like to buy a big banjo and play in the very little jazz band up here that has just been started.”
Photo By Fotolia/Oana Stoica
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Pete Seeger, a lifelong American musical and political icon, has eloquently written in books and for magazines, activist movements and union letters. Pete Seeger: In His Own Words (Paradigm Publishers, 2012) assembles an array of sources such as letters, notes to himself, published articles, stories and poetry that paints the most intimate picture of Seeger as a musician, activist and family man. Through his own words, learn about the lives of his ancestors, and discover why, at age 13, he wanted a banjo in this excerpt taken from Chapter 1, “Growing Up (1919 - 1934).” 

Pete Seeger was recently interviewed on “The Colbert Report.” To watch him discuss Pete Seeger: In His Own Words, view the episide online: The Colbert Report - Full Episode: August 6, 2012.

“My Family Background,” 1957

Draft of letter to Paul Ross, dated May 10, 1957; found in Seeger files

Dear Paul,

You wanted some résumé of my family background and life, so I sit me down and try to organize a teeming memory.

First of all, like many people, I have spent much of my youth trying to forget my antecedents. I confess it. I tried to ignore them, to disparage them. I felt they were all upper-class, and I was trying to identify myself with the working people. Now, at the sage and sober age of 38 I have finally come around to assess them more objectively, to be grateful for their strength and character, for their making it possible for me to be alive on this world today, and to realize that a good honest streak of independency has run through them for as much of the last three hundred years as I know about.

Most of them seemed to be teachers, doctors, teachers, preachers, businessmen, teachers, artists, writers, or teachers. The generations seem shot through with pedagogues. In this century, both parents, several brothers, aunts, and uncles have all been teachers. Going back a few generations, we find several doctors, and more teachers. Back further, even a few soldiers, perhaps a lawyer, a hymn writer, and more teachers. Even old Elder Brewster on the Mayflower was as much a scholar as anything else. So: my hat off to them all, and the pursuit of knowledge. “Where men gather to seek truth, that spot is holy ground.” Probably the most financially successful was old great grandpa Charlier, whose select Institute was one of New York’s most elegant a century ago. But then he was the only one also ever brought before a congressional committee and asked how come some rich men’s sons were arranging bribes to congressmen for West Point applications. So maybe it’s just as well most of them weren’t too successful.

As for radicals, Lordy, the family seems shot through with them, too. In earlier centuries, this took the form of religious protest: Pilgrims, puritans—and I’m proud to see a lot of Quakers around, on both sides of the family (and now I find, in Toshi’s family, too). Even great grandpa Charlier was the son of a French Huguenot preacher.

Later, the radicalism took a more political turn. Great-great grandpa Seeger got disgusted with Prussian tyranny, came to America and was an ardent Jeffersonian. Refused to teach any of his sons the German language even. Went around New England orating for the new Republican-Democratic party (in between making his living as a doctor). Another branch of the family were all fervent abolitionists about one generation later. Even the businessman I knew best, my grandfather, had the independence to quit his job in the local bank (Springfield, Mass.) and seek his fortune in Mexico. Made it, or at least got it. Lost a good deal of it, I’m told, when a partner defaulted and a firm went bankrupt. My grandfather spent many years of his life conscientiously paying off every single debt, although he was not legally required to do so.

The main radicals in the 20th Century seem to have been of an aesthetic bent. I won’t mention the respectable relative who took me (at age 14) walking in the New York May Day parade. In those days, as the New Yorker magazine recently remarked, everyone was a social reformer. Sitting around the house without a job, it was the natural thing to do. I will mention my uncle Alan, whom I never knew. He was killed in 1914. He was a Shelley type poet. I only found this out recently. As a kid, I was unable to make out his poetry. But now, upon reading it, I find lots of it very good. He was in the famous Harvard class of 1910, along with Lippman, Broun, and his friend John Reed. My grandparents thought him a ne’er-do-well, because he then wouldn’t settle down to the life of a respectable businessman. Instead he went to France, fell in love with the country and the people, and when the First World War broke out, enlisted in the Foreign Legion, and was the second American to be killed. He left behind a slim volume of verse, and some miscellaneous writings, to tell what a wonderful contribution he could have made, had he lived. As I say, I only recently appreciated this. When I (at age 6) was forced to read before the 2nd grade class (mispronouncing almost every word): “I have a rennn—dezzz—voozz with death . . .” Poor Uncle Alan!

Oh, and in this century, miscellaneous other relatives experimented with Christian Science, yogism, nudism, advocated woman’s suffrage, pacifism, vegetarianism, organic gardening, and one was part of the NY Daily Worker. This might all add up to sound like a family full of crackpots, but believe me, they have all been well-thought-of members of their communities. It does all point up to a remarkable streak of independence and I, at age 38, take my hat off to it.

Me? I was born in 1919. Never had to go hungry, but witnessed a good deal of family penny pinching. Been at boarding school almost all my life, first starting at aged five. Went for five years to a small private progressive school in Connecticut, where I became a fervent disciple of Ernest Thompson Seton, the Canadian naturalist, whose descriptions of the primitive communist lives of the American Indian communities seemed ideal to me. Loved the woods and hills above all, till I was sixteen. Once argued that I wanted to be a hermit, live by myself on a mountainside, and let the sinful world go its way. (Cracks Toshi now: Yeah, but why ask your wife to do it too?)

“A Laissez-faire Upbringing,” 1972

From The Incompleat Folksinger, Simon and Schuster, 1972

I said I had a laissez-faire upbringing. I’m forever grateful for it. From age eight I was away at boarding school. It was the decade when the term “progressive education” first flowered. Our class would take up a “project” (ancient Egypt, the Middle Ages, etc.). We’d write a play about some event in those times, stage it and act in it. Shop class, English class, even math would be drawn into it. The main thing we all got from it: learning, real learning, is fun.

And summers at home we were forever building things. One summer it was model boats, another summer model airplanes. Music? We made music for the fun of it. My parents, bless them, decided to let me find out for myself what kind of music I liked.

I did get one strict lesson at school, which I’ll not forget. At age fourteen I started a school newspaper, just for the hell of it. It was in competition with the official school paper, which was dull, respectable, and always late. Mine was pure Free Enterprise, a mimeographed weekly; I gathered the news, typed it up, sold it for a nickel, and kept the money.

But after a few months I’d had my kicks and decided to quit it. The headmaster called me in. “Peter, I think you ought to continue the paper.” He explained that the wealthy old woman who paid the school’s deficit liked reading it; its informal tone made her feel closer to the school. Her journalist friends, the young Alsop brothers, had complimented her on it.

I demurred. It’s a lot of work, says I, and doesn’t leave me as much free time as I’d like. But the headmaster was firm. “Better get your copy for next week’s issue.”

My favorite teacher sided with the headmaster. “You can’t be a butterfly all your life, Peter.” So for two more years I brought it out on schedule. Years later I discovered that this was why I got a complete scholarship to an otherwise rather expensive school. But just as valuable was what I learned in running the Avon Weekly Newsletter: typing, writing, editing, cartooning, and learning how to walk up to a stranger and try to ask the right questions. The goofs I made! Edna St. Vincent Millay visited the school when we put on her play Aria Da Capo, an antiwar allegory. (With my hair in curls, I’d played the female lead—Avon was not co-ed).

The English teacher said I should take the opportunity to get an interview with her. “She’s an important modern poet.”

“What the heck will I ask her?”

“Don’t be silly.”

So I found myself seated awkwardly before this demure and beautiful woman, blurting out, “What do you think of Shakespeare?”

“I Would Like to Buy a Big Banjo,” 1932

Letter to Constance de Clyver Edson Seeger from Avon Old Farms boarding school, Fall 1932; found in Seeger files

Dearest Mama,

I’m really awful mad at myself for not writing sooner, I’d put it off and put it off and put it off until I just had to.

I’m getting along pretty well and am fitting in very well with everything. Did you get the card of my monthly marks? I got an “A”, a “D”, a few “Cs”, and a “B”. I’ll try to pull ’em up because I know that they aren’t very good.

I’m going to try and write one letter every day to somebody or other at least. Some time along now, pretty soon, there will be what is called a “long weekend” and if one wants to, one may come home for it. May I? I’ll write as soon as I find out when it is.

If one gets on the Dean’s list one may get an extra weekend home and so I’m going to try and get on it.

I think I’ll start a diary. It would be terribly useful only I wouldn’t know what to put in it. And then I’d put off writing something down that night and put it off till evening, the next morning, and so on.

I would like to buy a big banjo and play in the very little jazz band up here that has just been started. I have been practicing on one of the masters’ banjos but it’s awful awkward to keep borrowing it. It’s not half so hard to play one as I thought and I’ve already learned about ten chords the last week and can read “B# dim.” and play something that sounds okay and is technically correct. I’m having lots of fun. The music teacher said that he would go into Hartford with me and help me choose one from a pawn shop and I could use my allowance money to get it if it wasn’t over nine dollars or so. Will you let me get one? Please.

Your loving son,
Peter

“I’d Like to Buy a Good Banjo,” 1933

Letter to Constance De Clyver Edson Seeger from Avon Old Farms boarding school, Winter 1933; found in Seeger files

Dearest Mama,

How are you? Don’t work too hard. I’m getting along quite well. My shoe-shining business is thriving, only now that there is so much snow on the ground, shoes get wet and then they don’t take a shine.

I was wondering what I should do about my banjo, you see, being second hand, as it is, it will naturally cost quite a bit to repair it because small parts will be constantly falling apart or breaking. Only two days ago one of the pegs broke from long wear and I will have to buy a new one. Do you think that I should spend $15 or $20 of my savings in the bank to buy a good banjo with a nice tone and everything? I’d like to a lot and honestly I think that it would be worth it because I’m awfully interested in the banjo and I’d like to learn how to play it really well. You know, so I can dance around on it the way some of the guys who play over the radio can.

Our orchestra is coming along very well and last night we played for supper. It made quite a hit. The only trouble is trying to get guys to harmonize and practice. (Y’know, these temperamental artists!) But we’re having heaps of fun.

Give my love to everybody and please write me.

Peter

“On Awakening in Camp the Morning After a Snowfall,” 1934

From The Winged Beaver, Avon Old Farms’ literary magazine

Still, white trees,
Softly drawn on a blue sky,
Are weighted down
With the white ashes of Wahkonda’s pipe,
Now he has finished smoking.
 

Only a murmur’s heard,
Where once proud waters flowed.
A deer drinks at black waters,
Then bounds away.
 

Up! Up! Make the fire,
Chop the ice from the spring below!
Up! Up! And look at the world!
It’s white in a foot of snow!
 

Still, white trees,
Softly drawn on a blue sky,
Are weighted down
With the white ashes of Wahkonda’ s pipe,
Now he’s finished smoking.
 

“Forbidden,” 1934

Found in Seeger files

I saw a frightened child
Peering through a crack
Which looked out on the courtyard of the world.
 

His mind was full of wonder
Trying hard to comprehend
The forbidden, secret, good things that he saw.
 

But voices of guardians,
The secret, silent guardians,
Came floating down the hallway, and he fled
 

I saw him again
And he’d brought along a chisel,
Trying, trying, to see more clearly.
But once again the guardians,
The stealthy, ghostly guardians
Came gliding down the passageway.
Again he fled.
 

“That’s forbidden.”
“That’s not right.”
“Run and save yourself
Before you fall to Hell.”
 

And then, very satisfied,
They walked slowly back
With their rusty, unused keys
In their mouths.
 

I’ve never seen him since,
For he’s stayed
Where all good children should.
But he’s dropped his chisel.
Let’s pick it up.
 

“An Interview,” 1935

From the Avon Weekly Newsletter, May 7, 1935

Ladies and Gentlemen: We here present to you an interview at last, a human interest episode, too.

Sunday afternoon while seeing Bill Worrall for some dope of the Winged Beaver, we were ignominiously cornered by those two athletic gentlemen, Messrs. Geyelin and Harriman. There was nothing to do about it; they wanted themselves interviewed, and had the upper hand, so the following conversation ensued:

Mr. H.—“Say, listen; we’re getting pretty sore. Here I’ve been subscribing to your newssheet all year and you haven’t had my name in once.”

Mr. G.—“Well, the only time I get my name in is when I go to the infirmary, and that isn’t very good publicity.”

Etc. When we told them that all they needed was to do something and we would print it if possible, they obliged by relating achievements and heroic deeds known previously (as far as we can find out) to none but themselves, which unfortunately, we have now forgotten. (Apologies to Mr. H. and Mr. G.) But at last it ended:

“You can quote us on that, too.”

“Crow Shooting,” c. 1935

From the Avon Weekly Newsletter 

Through the kindness of “Brooks,” Baekeland’s father, the school now has a very fine owl decoy and also a crow call. Commander Hunter and Mr. Thayer will soon rig up a place for the “Avon Owl” to roost, so that boys from a blind may be able to make him flap his wings and appear lifelike. The owl plus the crow call should attract many birds to the vicinity of the blinds, so that boys can shoot them. Crow shooting is an excellent sport, and has the advantage of killing a very undesirable bird. They (the crows) eat birds’ eggs and are known to do away with a half grown chicken. Another black mark against them is the fact that they make sufficient noise to wake up those who do not sleep soundly in the morning. Boys interested in crow shooting should buy 5 cent shot and then see Commander Hunter.

This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from Pete Seeger: In His Own Words by Pete Seeger, published by Paradigm Publishers, 2012. 


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