Where Has the Singing Gone?

How Pete Seeger chose to unite us through song

Alex Bauer


Pete Seeger was a musician with a dream.

On his way back from serving in the Pacific Theater during World War II, his eyes gleamed brightly and his mind raced with an uplifting idea. A stronger and more mature singer and leader than he was before the war, Seeger planned on making history through what he knew best: music. He yearned for unity and peace in the world and believed those ideals could be achieved by singing any chance he could get.

In Seeger’s ideal world, any person, no matter their background, should not be afraid to speak freely. Though the United States Constitution assures a “freedom of speech”, Seeger did not feel as if the United States, at the time, promised that essential freedom. To achieve his dream, Seeger, with the help of other folk artists like Alan Lomax and Lee Hays (who was also in the band The Almanacs with Seeger), started a folk singing organization with the aforementioned goal in mind: People’s Songs.

Like any successful grassroots movement, the power behind spreading the news by word of mouth was essential. Seeger quickly told folk peers about his idea of starting a movement through singing and sharing songs. Almost immediately, Seeger began planning meetings with folk singers, labor representatives, and others in hopes to raise money and awareness for shows and performances.

Seeger’s friends and fellow musicians were excited with his dream; they were in. People’s Songs officially began on New Year’s Eve 1945, with Pete Seeger as president and co-founder Lee Hays as vice-president. They soon realized the organization needed something more concrete to show people. Seeger and the rest of People’s Songs needed an outlet to provide its members — People’s Songs Bulletin was created to be that outlet. Although its lifespan was short, its impact on the folk scene and music — along with the social change coming to the United States — is monumental.

In January of 1946, Pete Seeger was asked his purpose in life, to which he answered: “Make a singing labor movement. Period. I was hoping to have hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands of union choruses. Just as every church has a choir, why not every union?” Seeger put that purpose to pen and banjo playing. With the creation of People’s Songs and its own pamphlet, People’s Songs Bulletin, Seeger’s sole intention was to get the music out to the masses. He believed peopled wanted to hear this uplifting music, sing along to it and take a part in a growing movement calling for social changes in society.

Action was important to Seeger. Songs could join people to a single, unifying cause. This project of collecting songs and publishing them for everyone to read was important to Seeger, who emphasized that everyone should take part in the simple action of singing. Seeger believed that writings in magazines or newspapers read over once or twice would get lost, but a song was sung over and over again — ingrained in the national conscious. Singing was a powerful medium.

An example of Seeger’s belief in song occurred at one of the most famous music events in history. When Bob Dylan went electric at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, Pete Seeger was angry. The distortion of the electric guitar was an annoying, avoidable problem. But, Seeger did not mind Dylan going electric — Howlin’ Wolf (a blues artist) played an electric guitar to great success. Seeger was mad because no one could hear the lyrics. No one could sing along. Without the ability to sing along — or listen to what Dylan had to say — the power of song was gone.

The first issue

The first issue of People’s Songs Bulletin was published in February of 1945. On the front page of the bulletin, “calls to action” were addressed to unions, songwriters and “Singers, Leaders of Choruses…”. Addressing the readers as such was a chance for Seeger and writers to bring readers together. Music and its power to unite were of the utmost importance to the publication, while making money from music was not the intended goal. However, Seeger knew this was a business and did list record stores/shops were a reader could go ahead and purchase folk records.

Most of People’s Songs Bulletin featured musical notes and lyrics of the songs that Seeger and the folk singers of People’s Songs wanted to share. Having them easily available in this format gave readers easier access to these songs. The songs included in the first issue were: “Solidarity Forever”, “The Rankin Tree”, “Roll the Union On”, “We Pity Our Bosses Five”, “Viva La Quince Brigada”, “Casey Jones”, and “I’m A-Looking For A Home”.

Blurbs were posted below the song title in which they gave a short “bio” of the song: who originally wrote it, where it came from, what tune to sing it in. Songs were cataloged to provide an easier way to keep track of all the ones chosen for publication. The first issue had 7 total songs, and the second issue began with song number 8. The second issue and onward held the same format as the first issue. Written blurbs calling out to “songwriters” and readers assessed the issues of the month, with music being a helpful way to bring about change. Still, the bulk of the publication was dedicated to the songs.

To Seeger’s delight, membership and readership rose dramatically. People’s Songs Bulletin soon began rising to two-thousand publications. And big time people were noticing. People’s Songs Bulletin received favorable reviews in Time, The New York Times and Fortune. Despite the high praise, Seeger and company could not keep up. A year later, they were receiving so many song requests to publish, they could not find the time — or have the resources — to publish them all. Seeger thought it a good problem to have as a publisher: there was no shortage of material. But with all its successes, there was trouble brewing for the folk singer.

The FBI began keeping tabs on the organization and People’s Songs Bulletin as soon as the first publications of the bulletin were published. Soon, labor organizations, who admired and teamed up with Seeger’s organization to help get the publication distributed, started to back away from Seeger and his team. Labor organizations did not want trouble with the FBI, especially when they were already on the agency’s watch list. Seeger began reaching out to others for help to publish and organize. In reality, Seeger had become a celebrity and grew too big to run a small-time publication, no matter its importance to the singer.

People’s Songs Bulletin grew to feature pictures and intricate designs in later publications, but it was getting away from the message Seeger wanted the publication to represent. He could no longer count on people like Lee Hays and folksinger Woody Guthrie (who was on People’s Songs board, but did not take an active part in organizing). Seeger also began realizing that technology might be more beneficial to his cause. TV, records and concerts that were filmed were far more effective than written pamphlets.

Seeger recognized this new technology as beneficial, but he was nostalgic about the past. Gone were the days of the union organizing of the 1920′s, where pamphlets and meetings were normal to get messages out to other unions and the public. The changing technology and not enough monetary support made People’s Songs Bulletin fold in 1949. To Seeger’s delight, its message of action and singing lived on in the performances of the rising folk movement, which was getting started to take over the world.

He realized his dream was alive and well, despite the dip in need for a consistent publication.

Even with the bulletin folding, the publication’s influence and importance is felt today. For one, the songs in the issues of People’s Songs Bulletin were taken from folk songs from the 1700′s and 1800′s. Those songs preserved and “lived on”, showing the longevity of its music. With songs carrying on from past centuries, their message will never be lost. It was history lessons coming alive through song.

The changing technology ensured these folk songs were no longer sung by 20 or 30 people in a coffee house. They were now performed at places like Carnegie Hall and amphitheaters around the country, by the country’s biggest stars: Joan Baez, Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash. Preserving and publishing the songs for the people of the present is People’s Songs Bulletin greatest benefit.

People’s Songs Bulletin also had another success: it was the birth of folk magazines. Sing Out! (which still runs today) and Broadside are just some of the few publications that enjoyed being in the mainstream eye. From Seeger’s dream spawned a movement that grew and unified more so than he thought it ever would. Even if his publication People’s Songs Bulletin was not around when the action and unifying got big in the late 1950s, Pete Seeger did not care. The message of unity and action was happening right before his eyes and he was more than pleased to see that happen.

The key to People’s Songs Bulletin was its simplicity. It was simply made; simply read; simply purposed; simply understood. There was no seeking to call out others or antagonize — the vibe of the publication was too simply unite and sing as one voice.

Pete Seeger would have been 101 today.

Are you singing today?



Alex Bauer

Just a guy who likes telling great stories, however and whenever I can. Click the Twitter icon to follow or e-mail me at ambauer93@gmail.com