Before Pete Seeger, “father of American folk music,” died Monday at the age of 94, he had lived in Beacon, N.Y. since 1949. But before that, he was a denizen of the East Village. In what was then known as the Lower East Side, he encountered musical mentors like Lead Belly, ran with a relative unknown named Woody Guthrie, became an activist, and started his career as one of the country’s most iconic and beloved musicians.
Seeger was born in Manhattan but raised, for the most part, upstate in Patterson, New York. In 1932, his divorced father, a musicologist, was living on the Upper East Side and writing music columns for The Daily Worker. He gave his 13-year-old son, home from school in New England, an eye-opening tour of downtown, described in Seeger’s biography, How Can I Keep From Singing:
For a firsthand look into the depression, Charles walked his son through New York’s Lower East Side, telling him, “The streets aren’t so well lit as where we live.” Skeletons of buildings stood empty, the floors covered with broken glass. Shutters fell off their hinges. Father and son walked for miles until their feet ached. The Lower East Side stretched endlessly, compared to the sliver of well-to-do life on Fifth and Madison Avenues. The garbage-filled alleys were so different from Peter’s school in New England that he visited them as a conscience-stricken tourist.
After leaving Harvard and spending a couple of months biking across the Berkshires, trading his watercolors for lodging at farms, Seeger would return to the East Village in 1938 — this time as a resident. The starving artist and budding journalist crashed on his brother’s couch at 118 East 11th Street, between Third and Fourth Avenues. According to his biographer, David King Dunaway, he spent his days “sampling piroshky bagels and sour cream for the first time. He peered in at Ukrainian churches and Irish bars… To make ends meet he picked newspapers from the trash bins and read books at the library. He joined Youth Arts, a branch of the Young Communist League, and painted signs for marches.”
In the East Village, Seeger became a practicing musician. His aunt got him a singing gig at folklorist Margot Mayo’s American Square Dance Group on 13th Street, where he met Toshi-Aline Ōta (years later, he’d marry her in a Greenwich Village church). Folk archivist Alan Lomax, a friend of Seeger’s father, took Pete to the Lower East Side homes of musicians like Aunt Molly Jackson and Huddie Ledbetter. Lead Belly, then living at 414 East 10th Street, mentored Seeger on the 12-string guitar.
In 1939, Seeger joined the Vagabond Puppeteers, a sort of precursor to Bread & Puppet Theater based out of what was then the Youth Cultural Center at 106 East 14th Street, between Third and Fourth Avenues. The troupe’s music-and-papier-mâché performances in support of striking farmers set Seeger down what would be a lifelong road of touring the nation in support of causes like labor, pacifism, and environmentalism. Upon his return, he began playing and touring with a kindred spirit, Woody Guthrie, and together they honed what Dunaway describes as “a new music: citybilly meets hillbilly – a blend of politics, country music and ballads.”
In December of 1940, Seeger played his first gig with Lee Hays – at what was then the Jade Mountain Restaurant, at 197 Second Avenue, near East 12th Street. With Hays’s roommate, Millard Lampell, they formed the Almanac Singers, a collective that — depending on who was around — included Guthrie and other fixtures of the Village scene.
At first, the group lived in a forty-five-foot loft at 70 East 12th Street, on the corner of Fourth Avenue, where they hosted what they liked to call hootenannies:
Everybody pitched in to fix up the loft. They added an extra-high sink so their long-armed banjoist could do the dishes. A friendly carpenter built them a fourteen-foot picnic table with benches. Soon, hungry musicians were dropping in for dinners from a stew pot long on potatoes but short on beef. They held Sunday afternoon rent parties, which packed in a hundred people at thirty-five cents a head, and their peace songs got them so many write-ups in the Worker that other left-wing musicians grumbled.
Those peace songs would become, at first, a cause of consternation (after Germany invaded the Soviet Union, the Almanacs were forced to change their pacifist tune in the interest of the Communist Party) and then a source of real trouble: in 1942, after the group had achieved some success singing patriotic numbers, the FBI and local newspapers unearthed their debut album, Songs for John Doe, and exposed their leftist leanings, causing bookers to all but blacklist them.
In the fall of 1941, Seeger returned from a tour performing union songs, and, together with the Almanacs, moved into the second floor of a $95-per-month townhouse at 130 West 10th Street, between Sixth Avenue and Greenwich Avenue. Dunaway describes the Almanac House as a “frat house for musical revolutionaries,” and Seeger’s description of the place – from a letter to Lampell, reprinted in Pete Seeger: In His Own Words – is in keeping with that characterization:
It had three stories and a basement, but we didn’t have any furniture for it. It was kind of hilarious to see this male gang trying to fend for ourselves. We had a roof over our heads, but it was the most sparsely furnished place you ever saw – a bed and a chair and a table, and things like that. But we had a hootenanny in the basement every Saturday.
After being evicted in January 1942, the Almanacs moved into an apartment above The Dome, a popular bohemian hang at 430 Sixth Avenue, between Ninth and 10th Streets. Later that year, Seeger was drafted. When he returned to New York in 1946, he was living with his new wife in her parents’ house on MacDougal Street, and together they formed People’s Songs, a pro-labor organization that, once again, brought Seeger under FBI scrutiny.
After Seeger’s first solo engagement at the Village Vanguard, Billboard described him as a “trim, slim Sinatra of the folksong clan.” But by the time he returned to the Vanguard with his new band, The Weavers (who would score a #1 hit with Lead Belly’s “Goodnight, Irene”) he didn’t consider himself trim and slim anymore – and he had tired of New York City. “By 1949, I could see the disadvantages of city life,” he wrote. “My health wasn’t any good. I got no exercise except by running up and down stairs.”
In the spring of that year, he purchased land in Beacon, N.Y. and went up to the New York Public Library in search of instructions on how to build a log cabin. And in Beacon he’d remain – though, of course, he’d travel far and wide to give his famous testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee, lead a 500,000-person chorus of “Give Peace a Chance” in protest of the Vietnam War, sing “We Shall Overcome” for a crowd that included Martin Luther King, and play “This Land Is Your Land” at President Obama’s inauguration with Bruce Springsteen.
But Seeger didn’t lose touch with the East Village after moving to Beacon. In Commies, Ronald Radosh recalls that in the 1950s, Seeger gave group banjo lessons across from the Downtown Community School, at 235 East 11th Street, where he taught twice a week.
And throughout his travels, Seeger never forgot one thing: “Overall there’s something that should be kept in mind, that this was Greenwich Village, New York City,” he wrote in 1987. “It is no accident that some extraordinary art forms arise in cities where people meet each other.”