Ruth Crawford Seeger (1901–1953), an American experimental composer active in the 1920s and 1930s, devoted the second half of her career to transcribing, arranging, performing, teaching, and writing about American folk music. Many works from Crawford Seeger’s collections for children, including “Nineteen American Folk Songs” and “American Folk Songs for Children,” are widely sung and recorded, but her monumental efforts to publish them often remain unacknowledged. This article underscores the link between her work in American traditional music and Bruce Springsteen’s best-selling 2006 album “We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions” in order to give Crawford Seeger due credit for her contributions. By examining her prose writings and song settings, this article illuminates aspects of her thinking about American traditional music and elements of her unusual and striking arrangements, which were deeply informed by her modernist ear.
Of his 2006 album We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions, Bruce Springsteen remarked: “Growing up as a rock ’n’ roll kid, I didn’t know a lot about Pete’s music or the depth of his influence. So I headed to the record store and came back with an armful of Pete Seeger records. Over the next few days of listening, the wealth of songs, their richness and power changed what I thought I knew about ‘folk music.’ Hearing this music and our initial ’97 session for Pete’s record sent me off, casually at first, on a quest.”1
A tribute to a key figure in the folk revival, Springsteen’s recording stirs up discussion about the complex processes of transmission and influence in American traditional music. His rendition on We Shall Overcome of several traditional American tunes, such as “Froggie Went a-Courtin’,” “John Henry,” “Erie Canal,” “Buffalo Gals,” and “Old Dan Tucker,” can be traced back five decades to Pete Seeger, who first recorded them in the 1950s.2 The renewed interest in Pete Seeger spurred by Springsteen’s Grammy-winning, best-selling album and his international Seeger Sessions tours has unfortunately not extended to another Seeger . . .
- 1Liner notes to Bruce Springsteen, We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions (Columbia Records, 2006). The “’97 session” that he refers to resulted in a tribute album to Pete Seeger to which Springsteen contributed “We Shall Overcome,” a song Martin Luther King, Jr., first heard in 1957 sung by Pete Seeger, who learned it in 1946 from Zilphia Horton, who herself had learned it from striking tobacco workers who visited the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee. See John W. Barry, “Seeger Introduced King to ‘We Shall Overcome’ in 1957,” Poughkeepsie Journal, January 31, 2011; and “We Shall Overcome: An Hour with Legendary Folk Singer and Activist Pete Seeger,” Democracy Now!, September 4, 2006, http://www.democracy now.org/2006/9/4/we_shall_overcome_an_hour_with. Springsteen and Seeger together performed Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land,” along with Seeger’s grandson Tao Rodríguez-Seeger, at President Obama’s first inauguration in January 2009.
- 2Pete Seeger, “Froggie Went a-Courtin’,” American Folksongs for Children (FTS 31501/FC 7601, 1955), reissued on CD as American Folk, Game, and Activity Songs for Children (Smithsonian Folkways 45056, 2000); Seeger, “John Henry,” American Ballads (Folkways 2319, 1957); Seeger, “Erie Canal,” Yankee Doodle and Other Songs (Young People’s Records 9008/Children’s Record Guild 9008, 1954 or 1955); Seeger, “Buffalo Gals” and “Old Dan Tucker,” American Favorite Ballads, vol. 1 (FA 2320, 1957), rereleased as part of series SFW 40150. Other albums containing Pete Seeger’s recordings of songs from Crawford Seeger’s songbooks include Songs to Grow On, vol. 2: School Days (Folkways FC 7020, 1950); Birds, Beasts, Bugs & Little Fishes (Folkways 7610, 1955), reissued on CD as Birds, Beasts, Bugs, and Fishes (Little and Big) (Smithsonian Folkways 9628, 1998); and Birds, Beasts, Bugs, and Bigger Fishes (Folkways FW 7611, 1955), rereleased as SFW 45022, 1991 and on CD as SFW 45035, 1998. For a listing of songs recorded by Pete Seeger, see David King Dunaway, A Pete Seeger Discography: Seventy Years of Recordings (Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow Press, 2011).