To fans of the banjo, however, he will always be remembered primarily as an evangelist for the 5 string, whose missionary zeal brought a good many into the fold.
His 1954 book, How To Play the 5 String Banjo, was the first introduction to the instrument many of us encountered, briefly touching on frailing, folk and bluegrass styles in 74 short pages. It was written in a light-hearted style, inviting everyone to join in, and came to be known colloquially as the “little red book,” both for its simple cover design, and in reference to his politics by those who didn’t share them. At different times, it has been covered in green and blue as well. I still have my copy from 1973 in the bookshelf.
Pete was an icon of the folk music boom in the 1960s, but was an active performer before the general public embraced American folk music en masse. With The Weavers he was a popular musical figure in the 1940s, until he and the group ran afoul of the House Un-American Activities Committee of the US Congress in the ’50s and they all were blacklisted.
Whether he was singing against (or later for) the US entry into WWII in the ’40s, the civil rights movement in the ’60s, or for environmental concerns in the ’70s, the vision of Pete with his banjo remains in the forefront of the collective memories of the era. He was interested in the use of the banjo in the music of other cultures, and its history in the American music that had preceded him. Modern banjo innovators like Tony Trischka have spoken often of Pete’s influence in their musical life.
Seeger also had his turn at songwriting, largely in the protest song realm, where he composed hits like Where Have All The Flowers Gone and If I Had A Hammer, both famously recorded by Peter, Paul and Mary, and Turn, Turn, Turn which was a big song for The Byrds.
His trademark long neck banjo is now on display in the International Bluegrass Music Museum in Ownesboro, KY, donated by Carl Pagter of the California Bluegrass Association, when he was an IBMM board member. The museum also has a recorded presentation from their Video Oral History project interview with Pete.
The international media will remember Pete Seeger this week as an activist. Here, we salute him as a popularizer of the banjo who, like Earl Scruggs, introduced it, and its quirky sound, to millions. Thanks, Pete.