TODAY THEY’RE AMERICAN LEGENDS—laureates of song, icons of iconoclasm, patriarchs of radical politics and traditional folk culture. But in September 1941, Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger were just rabble-rousing buskers trying to find a gig, pass a hat, and raise a few spirits and a little workers’ solidarity. After a cross-country tour of Grange halls and labor temples, Woody and Pete pushed up the coast in an old Buick limousine with room to sleep but the unfortunate habit, Seeger recounted decades later, of burning “a quart of oil every seven miles.” When they got to Seattle they felt like they’d reached the proverbial big rock candy mountain. Sons of the flatlands both, they marveled like every other visitor lucky enough to see Mount Rainier. “I’ll never forget looking southerly over the city and seeing that great strawberry sundae on the horizon,” Seeger told me in 1984, adding that Woody was also awed in his more taciturn way: Thereafter, whenever Seattle was mentioned, he would exclaim, “Best country!”
The people here impressed the two troubadours as much as the scenery. Today’s über-liberal Seattle has nothing on the Depression era, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s campaign manager famously referred to “the 47 states and the Soviet of Washington.” Local lefties, labor unions, and farmers formed a coalition called the Washington Commonwealth Federation that dominated the state Democratic Party. It sent its candidates to Congress and Olympia, and succeeded in passing progressive legislation that Roosevelt’s New Deal emulated.
In such a milieu, two exotic songsters with picket-line cred and an endless repertoire were treated like proletarian royalty. They found luxurious (for them) digs in the West Seattle home of an aspiring folksinger-turned-restaurateur named Ivar Haglund. Ivar’s wife was a Commonwealth Federation organizer; he was too busy promoting his waterfront fish bar and aquarium to put much effort in. But he was glad to help out when he could—and to swap songs, especially when they concerned sea critters. He and Seeger shared one song that each later told me he taught the other: “The Old Settler,” better known by its refrain—“acres of clams.” Both cherished the ditty: Haglund later named his flagship restaurant after it, and Seeger burst out singing it over the phone when he told the tale. But Haglund surely knew it first; “The Old Settler” is a classic from Puget Sound pioneer days.
Woody and Pete thanked Ivar by cutting a disc on his home recording machine: “Jackhammer John” and “Columbia Talking Blues.” They also cut a disc for Terry Pettus, the editor of the Commonwealth Federation’s newspaper, who took them under his wing and got them gigs: “Overalls and Snuff,” a sardonic local hop-picker’s lament. By the time Terry played it for me, he’d played it to near unintelligibility.
Terry Pettus was a tall, rangy fellow with a laugh that could cheer the dead and a grin that could light up a drab union hall. Those qualities served him well as a host of the frequent fundraising, consciousness-raising, and hell-raising parties the Commonwealth Federation held at the Polish Hall at 18th and Madison. These high-spirited events typically featured satirical improv by a troupe called the Topical Players and much enthusiastic drinking of beer, singing of songs, and, naturally, singing along. On the night Seeger and Guthrie headlined, they lifted the rafters even higher than usual. “This was mortally a blowout,” Woody wrote in his scrapbook, “and one of their most successful hoots.”
Pete and Ivar each claimed to have taught the other that song about "Acres of Clams."
“We were inspired to do our best for all the good people there,” Seeger recalled. They were also inspired by the name given these sing-along soirees: hootenannies. “Pete and me aim to put the word Hootenanny on the market,” wrote Woody. And they did. Back in New York, they and their friends started calling their own shows and rent parties hootenannies. The term spread like a virus in the folk-music craze of the late 1950s and early ’60s.
Even today, linguists, musicologists, and historians conjecture as to how the term entered the argot. They usually get as far as noting that a hootenanny was old Southern slang for a “thingamabob” and throw up their hands. That’s all Joe Klein offers in his standard biography of Woody Guthrie.
But Pettus heard the term growing up in Terre Haute, Indiana, where it had two meanings: an outhouse and “a party that just sort of happens—maybe one guy’s got a jug of whiskey, one guy’s got a guitar, and there you are.” Years later, Seeger met some French folks who said, “Hootenanny? Ah, you mean huit d’année”—literally “eight of the year”—a French country tradition of chasing newlyweds out to sleep in the fields on their wedding night. Or maybe they said nuit d’année, “night of the year.” Either way, could the term hail from the time, 250 years ago, when Terre Haute (“high ground”) and the rest of Indiana were French territory?
Wherever “hootenanny” came from, there was no place for Pettus or Seeger in the sanitized
hootenanny world they spawned. Both were blacklisted in the late 1940s and ’50s Red Scare, and the Commonwealth Federation disintegrated. Pettus became an editor of the communist People’s World—an even bigger bull’s eye on his back. In 1952, he was charged with conspiring to advocate the overthrow of the U.S. government. Convicted, he was sentenced to five years in prison, plus three for contempt for refusing to name other supposed traitors. The U.S. Supreme Court overturned this conviction, and Pettus had a triumphant second act leading the fight to save Lake Union’s houseboats. In 1982, Mayor Charles Royer declared a Terry Pettus Day. In 1985, the city named a park after him.
Seeger, barred from most stages, performed at summer camps. Blacklisting had ended by 1963, when ABC-TV launched the sanitized folksinging show Hootenanny. But it banned Seeger from appearing. Other stars—Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, the Kingston Trio—boycotted the show in solidarity. TV’s Hootenanny was soon dead and forgotten, but the legends of Woody and Pete and Terry and Ivar just kept growing.