When author and New Yorker journalist Alec Wilkinson first approached folk-music icon Pete Seeger about writing an expansive biography, the modest performer - who turned 90 years old Sunday - demurred. Seeger instead challenged him to pen a tome that "could be read in one sitting." The result, based on Wilkinson's research and hours of interviews with Seeger himself, is this on-purpose slim volume. So what readers get is a pretty rapid-fire (and not always chronological) run through the Seeger's life: childhood with musically-inclined lefty parents; on the road with Woody Guthrie and the Weavers; family and military life; concerts for causes and worldwide travels; his association and marching with Dr. Martin Luther King; environmental interests; and the famous censored performance of an anti-Vietnam War song on The Smothers Brothers Show. The most interesting portions deal with Seeger's hunting down by and testimony to the House Un-American Activities Committee during the height of the Red Scare for charges related to his dabbling in Communism; his testimony is reprinted in its entirety here. Eventually cleared, he was still blacklisted, becoming a musical martyr and hero with instant credibility. (Of local interest: in the '50s, a group calling themselves "Texans for America" successfully lobbied to have Seeger's name removed from school textbooks.)
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Wilkinson skips most of Seeger's activities from the '70s up until today, but paints a warm and reflective portrait of the man in the late, late winter of his years as he sifts through memories and memorabilia in the ramshackle house that he shares with his wife of 60-plus years, Toshi. Bruce Springsteen once said, "Pete's library [of music] is so vast, that the whole history of the country is there." And the Boss should know, having recently done an entire record (The Seeger Sessions) and tour based on songs that the man either wrote or performed. The pair - along with Seeger's grandson Tao - provided a truly memorable segment during Barack Obama's inaugural concert, belting out "This Land is Your Land" to the masses on the National Mall. Work songs, murder ballads, slave songs, Olde English tunes, sea shanties, and hot-button current political tunes - Pete Seeger has sung them all, often accompanied by just his five-string banjo, emblazoned with the motto "This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender." Not bad for a guy who started out wanting to be a newspaper journalist. Knopf, 176 pp., $22.95.