Seeger Family Tree

This season our song selection revolves around Pete Seeger and works he wrote, popularized or inspired (in the case of “Pete and Woody”). Pete is an icon of American folk music, and I was reminded that his family has been entwined with music as performers, composers and scholars for generations.

The Loeb Music library at Harvard has a room in the basement where ethnomusicological works are shelved. Ethnomusicology being the “anthropology of music,” this collection ranges from works that cover the archaeology of music from ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, to studies of contemporary music from every continent, to folk traditions from Europe and the Americas. A sign in the room identifies it as the Charles L. Seeger, Jr. Room.

Charles Seeger

Charles Seeger graduated from Harvard in 1908. He composed, conducted and performed  music, but is probably best remembered for his scholarly work studying musical cultures, his teaching, and his collaboration with his wife Ruth and the father and son team of John and Alan Lomax in creating the Archive of Folk Song for the Library of Congress.

Pete was the son of Charles’ first marriage to violinist Constance de Clyver Edson, which ended in divorce. Charles’ second marriage was to Ruth Crawford Seeger, a modernist composer.

Ruth’s background as a composer was helpful in transcribing many of the recordings collected by the Lomaxes and archived by the Library of Congress (and subsequently published by Smithsonian Folkways and now online). Her marriage to Charles produced four children — Pete’s half-siblings — including Peggy and Mike.

Peggy Seeger has been a folk-singer, songwriter, political activist and muse. She recorded (with her brother Mike) American Folk Songs for Children (1955) and wrote “I’m Gonna Be an Engineer.”

The Seeger family has always been left-leaning (Charles lost a job at UC Berkeley for opposing American involvement in the First World War — too liberal for Berkeley!). Peggy travelled to the Soviet Union and China before US had diplomatic relations with the Communist nations and ran into trouble with the US Dept of State. As a result, she ended up as an ex-pat in England where she met Ewan MacColl. They had three children together (although he was married to another at the time) and MacColl wrote a song about falling in love with her. You may remember Roberta Flack’s version of that song, The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face:

Oh, also, one of MacColl’s daughters (not with Peggy) was Kirsty, the awesome singer and songwriter who sang on The Pogues’ most excellent Christmas song: “Fairytale of New York,” (produced by Kirsty MacColl’s husband at the time, Steve Lillywhite [who also produced an album called "Boy" for some Irish band {who came here expecting a U2 reference? Not me}]). She also recorded Electric Landlady, which not only has the best title for an album ever (probably suggested by Johnny Marr of the Smiths), but also includes the song “In These Shoes?”

Okay, so Kirsty MacColl is Pete Seeger’s half-sister’s lover’s daughter.

Back to the Seegers.

Peggy’s brother Mike Seeger (Pete’s half-brother) was an accomplished folk musician who formed a trio called the New Lost City Ramblers, an important band that produced a more old-timey sound, more historical and not as polished as his half-brother’s band The Weavers. Here’s an NPR story on the 50th anniversary of the New Lost City Ramblers. It’s not hard to draw a direct line from Mike Seeger to events like the annual Lowell Banjo and Fiddle Festival.

The latest folk-singing Seeger to gain some prominence is Tao Seeger, the grandson of Pete and his wife Toshi. Here’s Tao singing one of his grandfather’s songs:

He also performed with his grandfather, Bruce Springsteen and a few other folks at President Obama’s inauguration:

Tao records in Spanish and English and has performed with The Mammals, as well as with Sarah Guthrie. But her family is a tale for another day.

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One Response to Seeger Family Tree

  1. Raechel Hackney says:

    I was excited to read the article in the Newton Tab today about the Newton Family Singers and your upcoming spring concert. I am glad to see that there is such a great interest in folk singing in Newton.
    I wanted to let you know that Annie Peterson and Peter Blood, authors of the best selling song book “Rise Up Singing”, as well as good friends of mine, will be performing a concert and sing-a-long the following week, May 13th at 2pm at the Newton Cultural Center. You may already be familiar with their book and know that Pete Seeger wrote the introduction.
    The concert is being held for the benefit of the Mothers Milk Bank of New England, and appropriately held on Mothers’ Day.
    Would your group be willing to mention this event at your concert? We all benefit by having more people listen to and enjoy folk music.
    Please feel free to contact me if you have any comments or questions.

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