Pete Seeger, who passed away Monday, has been described as the “father” of American folk music. Like the Coen Brothers’ fictional portrayal of ne’er-do-well folk singer Lleywn Davis, Seeger looked the part of the progressive troubadour, oblivious to the worldly business of making money. With his tattered work shirts and his left-wing politics, Seeger looked the part of the man of the people, a card-carrying member of the 99 percent.
This wasn’t an act. But it’s worth noting that Seeger was, despite his best efforts to eschew worldly success, a remarkably successful musical entrepreneur who made millions. His first group, the Weavers, had a string of hits, including a recording of Leadbelly’s “Good Night, Irene” that sold a staggering 2 million copies in 1950. Other hits soon followed.
Things fell apart, thanks to McCarthy’s witch hunts. When Seeger was hauled before the House Un-American Activities Committee, he refused to answer, earning him a prison sentence that was later overturned. The Weavers later reunited, but when the other members of the group wanted to record a song for a cigarette commercial, Seeger declined on principle.
Yet financial success would dog him far more tenaciously than McCarthy ever could. By the mid-1960s, when Seeger’s music had become the soundtrack of the civil-rights movement, money was pouring into his bank account, earning him a six-figure income. In an amusing profile published in the New York Times in 1966, the paper of record described a man “who is most at home when working at hammering out songs of love between his brothers and sisters, and who never expected the hammer to turn to gold in his hands.”
But it did, again and again. Seeger, whom the Times described as having found “financial achievement more burden than blessing,” discovered that every time he followed his heart and stuck to his principles, he made yet more money. Still, he stuck to his guns. In 1979, he told Rolling Stone that “I still believe the only chance for the human race to survive is to give up such pleasures as … private profit.” But the profits kept piling up.
Seeger was exceedingly generous with both his money and his time. Thanks to this war on his own wealth, Seeger escaped inclusion in the infamous “1 percent” (a good thing, too, given that he was active in the Occupy Wall Street protests). But he was dangerously, perilously close: A recent estimate of his net worth pegged it at $4.2 million, putting him just a couple million shy of that infamous percentile.
This accumulation of wealth would have been his greatest failure — perhaps his only failure. The man who sang at hobo camps, labor halls and at union rallies just couldn’t stop making money. An accidental entrepreneur and unwitting capitalist, Seeger was, despite his best efforts, the quintessential American success story.
Stephen Mihm is an associate professor of history at the University of Georgia. He wrote this article for Bloomberg News. Follow him on Twitter: @smihm.