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Features | Fall 2015
(photo courtesy of Peggy Seeger)

A Continuing Song

Notes on the Life of Ruth Crawford Seeger

Ruth Crawford Seeger—composer, anthologizer of folk songs, and music educator—lived during the first half of the twentieth century (1901–1953). To many, her name rings familiar because she is part of the well-known Seeger clan. The second wife of ethnomusicologist Charles Seeger, she was mother to Mike, Peggy, Barbara, and Penny (Pete and John were offspring of Charles’ first marriage).

Born in Ohio, raised in Florida, and educated in Chicago, she was a gifted piano teacher by the age of sixteen and an established composer in New York City while still in her early twenties. She edited and transcribed two books of folk songs collected by John and Alan Lomax in addition to writing three of her own for children and families. The Seegers raised all four of their children outside Washington, DC, where such institutions as the Silver Springs Cooperative Nursery School served as a testing ground for developing her theory and practice of music education. Proximity to the Library of Congress Folk Song Archives also allowed Ruth to transcribe and arrange folk songs while raising small children.

I first learned about Ruth Crawford in the 1970s, when feminist music scholars drew attention to her as an American composer whose avant-garde works embodied the most contemporary musical ideas of her era. As a gifted young composer, she experimented with the use of dissonance, meaningless syllables, and percussive vocal affects, weaving together controversial elements in startling ways. Indeed, Ruth Crawford’s aesthetic sensibilities as a classical composer combined a sense of intuitive daring with a remarkable sensitivity to the cutting-edge musical currents of her day.

While in New York, her friends and associates included Virgil Thomson, Bartók, Rudhyar, Ives, Copland, and her teacher, Charles Seeger, whom she would one day marry.

“Just think what incredible pieces she might have composed had she only been freed from the constraints of marriage and children,” a composer friend recently lamented. Two or three decades ago, when a new generation of feminists searched out and championed heroines of women’s history, there was a tendency to view the family as an institution that oppressed women as independent creators. Even today, when feminists view the family in a more positive light, there has been a reluctance in some camps to let Ruth Crawford really be a Seeger, despite the fact that she carried that name by choice for more than half her life.

That musicologists want to claim her as their own and wish she could have gone on composing for many more years makes a great deal of sense. As the first woman to receive a prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship in Musical Composition for study in Europe, she was possibly the only female during the decade of the 1930s to be accepted as a serious force on the New York modern music scene. Her classical compositions (which she resumed in the last years of her life) are widely regarded as works of musical genius.
But Ruth’s genius lay not only in her work as a composer of modern music but in the pedagogical frameworks she developed to outline the role of folk music in child development and in her ability to mentor other mothers. While it’s true that gender roles and expectations in the decades of her marriage would have inevitably undermined her freedom to spend time composing, there are a number of concrete reasons for Ruth’s evolution into related fields of endeavor that the modern music camp seems to overlook. To view her twenty-five years of partnership as a curtailing of talent is, moreover, a fundamental misreading of how she viewed herself.

Ruth Crawford Seeger was an adept learner with a free-ranging curiosity and imagination. Her brilliance as an educator was rooted in her ability to communicate the learning process to others in a way that showed a remarkable clarity of mind and a deeply poetic disposition. She was highly focused and serious about her music when she moved to Chicago to study at the American Conservatory. But as life would have it, inadvertent learning experiences often become formative ones, and this was certainly the case with Ruth.

It was as the piano teacher for Carl Sandburg’s children that Ruth was first introduced to folk music. While a student in Chicago, she wrote some of the piano arrangements for Sandburg’s songbook, The American Songbag. This encounter with a major poet, whose work captured the greatness of the American spirit and an abiding sense of place, opened up whole new intellectual and musical possibilities for Ruth. At the Sandburg family home on the shores of Lake Michigan, she gradually became what Carl described as “an added informal un-adopted daughter at our house.” An entry from Ruth’s diary, written in 1921 at the age of twenty, reveals the extent to which folk music was inextricably woven into Sandburg family life.

One evening after a siege of wood chopping on the windblown, chilling lake front and a boisterous, laughter-swept dinner with the two buoyant children, he sat there in the lamplight, singing song after song, simply, sometimes wildly, sometimes mournfully, his understanding voice winding in and out among the irregular nuances and accompanied by the stray chords on his guitar. His youngster sitting opposite with sleep-heavy eyes glued on his face, now and then crooning in drowsily on a song that she knew.

This compelling vision of folk music as a tradition for families stayed with Ruth Crawford and has much to do with the kind of parent she became. Her partnership with her husband and former teacher, Charles Seeger, was characterized by what Mike Seeger calls “a sense of mutual mission about making folk music alive in our family and for other families as well.” Her selected folk songs weren’t things that “children will have to outgrow…not a specially prepared baby food, strained and predigested and administered with an almost unavoidable element of condescension by adults and older brothers and sisters. It need not be discarded along with the kiddy car and the tricycle. Songs like these are sung by people of all ages. They are family stuff.”

Ruth Crawford Seeger was adamantly opposed to censoring material from the folk tradition to make it palatable for children. “The fear of hurting a child through song content came to me at that time as somewhat of a surprise. I had no ready-made thought-out answers. I could answer that it had seemed to us—to my husband and myself—a natural thing to sing to our children about all sorts of living and that you can’t separate living from dying. I could say that we had never laid undue stress on songs of ‘sadness,’ but that when they came along we passed some of them on to our children as part of what it was our privilege to give them.”

Despite over twenty-five years as a Seeger, in musicology texts and music dictionaries Ruth Crawford Seeger is still listed as Ruth Crawford. By exclusively legitimizing her compositions in modern music and omitting the Seeger part of her life, the uncomfortable implication is that her contributions to elementary school education and folk music are of less consequence than her talents in the “pure” arts. Yet only a person of Ruth’s advanced background in music could have articulated a theoretical basis for folk music in the way that she did. It seems somewhat disconcerting—this tendency to split her off into different personas—when she was a person who lived so ardently out of all facets of herself.

In fact, Ruth Crawford Seeger felt the pull of conflicting priorities as a creative tension that propelled her towards the kinds of projects that would ultimately allow her talent to mature on many fronts. In an expanded feminist vision, possible from the vantage point of the 1990s, Crawford Seeger’s most powerful legacy may well lie in the degree to which she was able to synthesize the full range of her talents and experiences into her life and life’s work. Like many women with children, she chose projects that would be conducive to raising a family.

If she had lived later in our century, during the years when résumés would become necessary prerequisites for self-respecting consultants, hers would be endless and fascinating, incorporating many hats and talents into a continuous stream. Music educator and theorist; folklore researcher and storyteller; classical composer and pianist; arranger, transcriber, and anthologizer; poet and writer; parent and partner...all stand out as defining aspects of her life and work.

Ruth herself wrote the most lucid rationales for her shift in loyalties from an art music milieu to the traditions of folk music. In the chapter “Why American Folk Music for Our Children?” from her first book, American Folk Songs for Children in Home, School and Nursery School, she stated:

Folk music is not a music to be worshiped from afar and performed only by those with special gifts or intensively acquired technique—yet it partakes of the quality of greatness. To enjoy it, one need not dress up either oneself or one’s voice. One can sit down with it comfortably, knowing that many parents and children have sat down with it before and tested its goodness—knowing that its value as good music has been democratically determined by general agreement and group acceptance.

Ruth and Charles Seeger shared a growing awareness of folk music as a genre powerfully linked to democracy. In his position as Chief of the Division of Music and Visual Arts at the Pan American Union in Washington, DC, Charles was in a position to build cultural alliances throughout the countries of this hemisphere. A quasi-government agency originally organized during World War II to keep fascism at bay, especially in South America, the Pan American Union gave Charles Seeger a unique platform from which to explore the newly evolving field of ethnomusicology.

But it also made him vulnerable to the increasing scrutiny of the FBI. Ruth’s second songbook, Animal Folk Songs for Children, appeared in 1950, the year in which McCarthy warned Truman that the State Department was riddled with communists. Those were years in which the baby boomers were entering school. The acute shortage of music teachers prompted the development of music education materials that would prepare classroom teachers to integrate music into the child’s day. By all rights, Ruth Crawford Seeger’s pioneering songbooks should have been central to this effort.

But in the fifties, Ruth Crawford Seeger’s eloquently designed and recorded experiments in singing with children made few ripples in the larger field of music education. Were her songbooks censored during the McCarthy era or were the low sales of the second two books due to a simple problem of distribution? We can expect to see a fuller picture of Ruth in Judy Tick’s forthcoming biography, Ruth Crawford Seeger: An American Woman’s Life in Music, to be published by Oxford University Press next year.

(photo courtesy of Peggy Seeger)

As Pete Seeger recalls it, the FBI visited his father at home in early 1953 on the very day that Ruth was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Rather than submit to hearings in which he would be called upon to expose composer colleagues, Charles Seeger submitted his resignation the next day. Ruth Crawford Seeger’s illness progressed rapidly. In retrospect, Pete’s most vivid memory of that time is an image of himself standing in a doorframe, listening with Ruth to Japanese music. “She expressed astonishment” he said “and the two of us shared it—astonishment at the way in which silence was woven into the music.”

Silence fell on the life of Ruth Crawford Seeger and she lived on for only a matter of months. Fortunately, today more of her work is widely available in a variety of forms than ever before. Two of her songbooks are in print: Animal Folk Songs for Children and American Folk Songs for Children. There is an important new release of her classical work, The Music of Ruth Crawford.

The music from each of Ruth Crawford Seeger’s children’s songbooks has been recorded on cassette and CD by her own children and grandchildren (Animal Folk Songs for Children, American Folk Songs for Children and American Folk Songs for Christmas are all available through Rounder Records). Almost half of these songs are drawn from African American traditions and the majority are ones I’d never heard before. Animal Folk Songs for Children, sung and played by her four children—Mike, Peggy, Barbara, and Penny Seeger along with their children Neill, Claum, and Kitty MacColl; Kim Seeger; and Sonya and Rufus Cohen—stands as a particularly eloquent testimony to her enduring legacy. The accompanying notes include Ruth’s own thoughts about animal songs as well as an intimate portrayal of the Seeger family recording session. After reading it, I listened to each song over and over rather than playing the tape straight through, as if to savor the Seeger childhood memories of listening to each phrase repeated endlessly as their mother transcribed folk songs with painstaking perfectionism.

Editor’s Note: A discography, bibliography, and further information on Ruth Crawford Seeger can also be found on Peggy Seeger’s website.

It should come as no surprise that Ruth Crawford Seeger’s work is gaining meaning over time. That her own family is carrying on the traditions is part of what she would call a natural development in the life of a song. That other families are singing them too builds the spiritual fellowship she envisioned. When it came to leave taking, she was always opposed to official conclusions. As she wrote, perhaps prophetically, in her introduction to Animal Folk Songs for Children:

Perhaps most characteristic among the traditions of this music, and most important for us to retain as we sing and play it, is the keeping going, the insistent moving on, the maintaining of pulse and pace and mood unbroken throughout the singing of a song. Songs are sung as though they might continue off into space. This singing and playing is close accompaniment to living; to working, to playing games, to dancing all night, to doing nothing, to doing anything a long time, to jogging down a night road behind the unhurried clop-clop of the old mare’s hoofs, or riding along in a car or truck with miles rolling underneath.

In making the piano accompaniments for this book, this keepgoingness or never-endingness has been a thing cherished. The last measure of a song has often been left up in the air, with no final home chord (tonic) tempting the player to ritard or to stop and to pay homage to the approaching double bar. It is such avoidance of tonal finality that will help the player feel this last measure not as an ending but as part of a continuing song; that it will pull him past the double bar he has been taught to observe as a stop sign, and on back to the beginning without loss of the song’s speed or pulse. And, when at last it really comes time to stop, perhaps (having no comfortably padded home chord to relax into) he may find he likes taking leave of a song as folk singers do—casually, as though soon to meet again.

Originally published in Issue #16, Winter 1994.