February 29, 1996
Harvard
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HARVARD GAZETTE ARCHIVES

Pete Seeger To Receive Harvard Arts Medal

Singer-activist Pete Seeger will accept the Harvard Arts Medal on April 27 during ARTS FIRST '96, the fourth annual celebration of the arts at Harvard and Radcliffe, according to Winifred White Neisser '74, chair of the Overseers' Committee on the Arts.

The medal honors a distinguished Harvard or Radcliffe graduate or faculty member who has made outstanding contributions to the arts. Actor Jack Lemmon '47 was last year's inaugural recipient. Seeger will be in town on April 26 and 27 for half of the four-day festival.

Known for composing immensely popular songs such as "If I Had a Hammer," "Turn, Turn, Turn," and "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?," Seeger was born in 1919 to a family steeped in music. His father, Charles Seeger, was a musicologist. Stepmother Ruth Crawford-Seeger was a composer.

Seeger entered Harvard in 1936 as a member of the Class of 1940 and studied sociology, but left school in 1938 "partly because of lack of money, lack of high marks, and mainly because I got interested in extracurricular activities," as he writes in his 25th Anniversary Report.

When Seeger's father took him to a North Carolina square-dance festival in 1935, he was entranced by the five-string banjo, an instrument he plays to this day. In 1948, he wrote How To Play the Five-String Banjo, a guide still available in music stores.

After spending a few years at the Library of Congress's Archives of American Folk Music during the late '30s, Seeger hit the road to explore the nation's people and their music. With Woody Guthrie in 1941, he formed the Almanac Singers, one of the earliest groups to focus on songs with a social message. In 1949, he joined The Weavers, the nation's first commercially successful folk-music ensemble. Both as soloist and ensemble singer, he has recorded hundreds of songs on the Folkways, Columbia (Sony), and Decca labels.

During the '50s and '60s, Seeger became a clarion voice of the civil-rights and antiwar movements. In 1955, he was sentenced to jail for refusing to cooperate with the House Committee on Un-American Activities. The charges were dismissed in 1962.

Over the past decade, Seeger's songs have embraced the environmental movement. He and his family have lived in the Hudson Valley for 45 years. Their concern for the Hudson River prompted them to establish Clearwater, a largely volunteer group whose 106-foot sailboat (The Clearwater) travels the length of the river to educate schoolchildren about environmental pollution. Thanks in part to this group's efforts, much of the Hudson is again safe for swimming.

Two years ago, Seeger won the National Medal of Arts from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and a Kennedy Center Lifetime Achievement Honor. This year, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as an important formative influence. He has recounted his eventful life journey in Where Have All the Flowers Gone? (1993).

 


Copyright 1998 President and Fellows of Harvard College