In a recent edition of Times Higher Education, James Alexander lamented the gradual demise of the electric guitar in the years that followed the 1970s. The article ran around the time of the 90th birthday of banjo-playing folkster Pete Seeger, the man who famously lambasted Bob Dylan for poisoning folk music by performing Maggie's Farm with an electric guitar. For Seeger the problem was volume. Dylan's distorted electric guitar created a noise that pushed his words into the background. Dylan wanted it this way; it gave the song new meanings. Seeger objected as, to him, Dylan's words were the meaning.
'To Everything There Is a Season' is the story of a man whose life is filled with this kind of inconsistency; the son of academics who rejected his Harvard education in favour of life as a troubadour; the middle-class, denim-clad American folk archivist in awe of the suited and booted working-class Leadbelly; the folk historian keeping the musical past alive at the expense of possible futures; the political activist who tried to silence Dylan's new "voice".
Indeed, Seeger's story is so rich in contrasting biographical threads that its retelling demands an academic's eye for the fine detail. Allan Winkler's approach is as fastidious as you might expect from an award-winning professor of history. Throughout the book he unpicks the numerous tales unearthed through obsessional research and delivers them in a clear, linear narrative that uses Seeger's life and music (some of which is included in an accompanying CD) as the framework for exploring the important role of music in 20th-century US protest movements.
Whether talking the reader through Seeger's years as part of a politically motivated, communism-friendly folk group, The Weavers, or recounting the singer's persecution at the hands of the House Un-American Activities Committee, Winkler's presentation of Seeger's life story is rich in detail. Where the book is less successful is in its wider contextualising aims. For example, we are shown that Seeger's songs captured the essence of protest and his performance of them took ideas deemed "radical" by government agencies into the US mainstream. Yet the tone of Winkler's investigation is never questioning. Why did the US seemingly embrace the right-wing dogmatism of McCarthy? How did folksong find a place as the voice of protest? Certainly Winkler recounts well-used theories on these issues, but at no point does he fully investigate. He seems comfortable with the facts as they exist in American folklore.
This lack of critical distance also spills over into his recounting of Seeger's biography. It is thoroughly researched and offers an exemplary framework, but Winkler seems all too eager to accept the version of events given to him, occasionally by Seeger himself. As a result he fails to address some of the more contradictory elements of Seeger's story.
This sense of uncritical acceptance becomes exaggerated by an afterword in which Winkler discusses the extent of his subject's involvement, providing chapter-by-chapter copy approval and turning this, in effect, into a fan's book.
As a linear retelling of Seeger's story and the times he has lived through, 'To Everything There Is a Season' works well. However, as an academic analysis of "the father of American folk music", it leaves too many questions unanswered. For instance, why did a man who had championed the outsider voices of American folk music attempt to silence Dylan's new electric "voice" at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965?
‘To Everything There Is a Season’: Pete Seeger and the Power of Song.
By Allan M. Winkler
Oxford University Press
Published 21 May 2009