Tuesday, May 26, 2009

The Protest Singer: An Intimate Portrait of Pete Seeger by Alec Wilkinson

When Alec Wilkinson asked for an interview and permission to write a book about Pete Seeger, the folk singer said that too many books and articles had already been written. All that Seeger thought was missing was a book that could be "read in one sitting." Taking the hint, Wilkinson wrote The Protest Singer: An Intimate Portrait of Pete Seeger, a book that can be read during an evening or on a cross country airplane flight. The main text is only 118 small pages including 30 photographs. Much of it appeared previously as an article in New Yorker. As a short and somewhat rambling account, The Protest Singer serves best as an introduction to Seeger for readers who are too young to know much about the subject or as a recollection for older fans. In this book, Wilkerson mostly tells about his visits with Seeger, recounting the stories that the singer told him. It will please the musician's admirers.

The Protest Singer also seems to bother Seeger critics, who are ready to challenge his memory and interpretation of events with their own. This was to be expected as the past never seems to be really behind us in America (or anywhere else for that matter). Popular history writing is as much about the present day struggle for the minds and souls of readers as it is about fairly describing historical events, figures, and eras, and Seeger is one person about whom few who remember him are neutral. This is a book by and for his fans. Instead of just complaining, a critic should write a book for the disparagers. Public libraries will buy that book also.

Personally, I enjoyed The Protest Singer, which describes the start of the folk music movement and its relationship with political causes, such as labor unions, civil rights, and war protests. Wilkinson portrays Seeger as a singular character within that movement, who is forthright with his opinions and ready to challenge the political, corporate, and military establishment. He also tells how the singer survived blacklisting by playing wherever he could, subsistence farming and bartering. Throughout the book are details about his musical career, which has emphasized audience participation over performance. He is still a person to rally a crowd around a cause or song.

After reading the book, I listened to The World of Pete Seeger on vinyl, two discs full of songs many people my age will recognize. My favorite is the sad and reflective "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?" I also recently heard the recent CD Pete Seeger at 89, enjoying the instrumental pieces most of all. That he can really play the banjo well has been lost in all the controversy.

Wilkinson, Alec. The Protest Singer: An Intimate Portrait of Pete Seeger. Alfred A. Knopf, 2009. ISBN 9780307269959

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

You mention his association with politics and labor unions and war protests - yet you fail to mention his long association and membership in communist party. Having just read this book his dedication and support for communism plays no small role in this volume (Seeger indicated he dropped his association with communism in 1949- after over 9 years). The author even includes the transcripts from the House Un-American Activities Committee. As an unbiased reviewer I believe this should have been mentioned in your review.