It's almost impossible to fully comprehend the power of Seeger's songs or his role in shaping the direction of American music without knowledge of the socio-economic environment that existed prior to World War II. The stock market crash of 1929 and the bank failures of the early 1930s rapidly devastated much of the country, resulting in a 25% unemployment rate and leaving millions without a steady income, medical care or access to Federal and state assistance, much of which didn't exist yet. What's more, in rural areas of the country, electricity and running water were virtually non-existent or scarce, compounding an already desperate situation.
Within a few short years, the future's possibilities grew dim for many Americans with little hope of economic restoration in sight. Throughout this period—from roughly 1932 to 1940—the sheer relentlessness of economic hardship left many Americans beaten down and wondering whether other forms of government were superior to our own.
Among those who viewed Russia romantically were painters, sculptors, poets, writers, musicians and other artists—many of whom fared poorly during the Depression and were more sympathetic to suffering and social injustice than most. Eventually the Depression came to an end but only with the start of World War II—when Washington pumped billions into the economy to manufacture weapons, planes, ships, supplies, ammunition, uniforms and materials of all types. Factories needed workers, and with the labor force smaller due to 15 million soldiers out of the economy, wages tended to be higher as factories competed for labor.
By the late 1940s, Seeger co-founded the Weavers, a vocal-harmony quartet that performed and recorded by the mid-1950s. The folk movement of the 1950s was largely a loft and theater experience and often hinged on social causes of one kind or another. But with the rise of R&B and rock and roll in the mid-50s thanks to the 45 rpm, independent radio and affordable phonographs, folk music played less of an influential role with younger audiences.
Folk's dusty image began to change dramatically with the arrival and success of Bob Dylan in 1961 and 1962. Almost overnight, a wave of younger folk artists and harmony groups emerged as record companies sought to duplicate Dylan's youthful innocence and poetic expression. Seeger's and Woody Guthrie's push-back against powerful interests through story-telling music along with Dylan's observational and analytic approach was quickly taken up by artists like Peter Paul and Mary, Joan Baez, the Highwaymen, Kingston Trio, the Womenfolk and many others.
Today, the honesty and integrity of Seeger's voice and message can still be heard among musicians calling for social change or trying to raise funds for a range of causes. Seeger—with his flawless banjo-playing chops, clarion voice, sunny optimism and an ability to organize and inspire—set the tone for the today's youth culture. In Seeger's voice, we hear the sound of youthful idealism and the passion to think and act differently than past generations. The longevity of any song still depends on the spirit and caring of its lyrics, something that Seeger understood before anyone else.
Here's Pete Seeger singing Michael Row the Boat Ashore in 1963...