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Women in Music – Ruth Crawford Seeger

Updated: Jun 17, 2021

Ruth Crawford Seeger: Modernist Composer, Music Educator, Ethnomusicologist, and Mother

Ruth Crawford Seeger, Mike Seeger, Peggy Seeger and Charles Seeger, c. 1937 Library of Congress.
Ruth Crawford Seeger, Mike Seeger, Peggy Seeger and Charles Seeger, c. 1937. Library of Congress.

Before we get into our Mother's Day themed post, Women in Music: Ruth Crawford Seeger, I have an announcement: This marks the 101st Perennial Music and Arts post! This little music and arts education blog has come a long way since it began a little over five years ago in March 2016.

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Ruth Crawford Seeger

Photos of Ruth Crawford Seeger at ages 2, 8, 16, and 20s from The Ruth Seeger Press Kit

Ruth Porter Crawford was born in East Liverpool, Ohio on July 3, 1901. She was the second child of Clark Crawford, an itinerant Methodist minister, and Clara Graves Crawford. The family resided in Jacksonville, Florida when Clark died of tuberculosis in 1914. Her mother began operating a boarding house to support the family.

Fine_Arts_Building_410_South_Michigan_Avenue_Beyond My Ken
Fine Arts Building, 410 S Michigan Ave, Wikipedia

Growing up, Ruth was interested in writing poetry and had aspirations to be a poet. She began studying piano at the age of six, and after high school graduation, she entered Foster's School of Musical Art in Jacksonville to further study piano. The Foster School relocated to Miami in 1921, and Crawford continued her higher musical studies by enrolling in the American Conservatory of Music in Chicago. (The American Conservatory operated from 1886–1991 and was located in what is now called the "Fine Arts Building" on Michigan Ave.)

Ruth Crawford: Modernist Composer

Ruth originally planned to stay at the conservatory for only a year, taking the one-year teaching certification course for piano. However, she stayed on, studying harmony (music theory) with John Palmer during her first year and counterpoint, orchestration, and composition with German-born, American composer Adolf Weidig Nov. 28, 1867 Sept. 23,1931) in subsequent years, who encourage her compositional efforts. In 1923, Clara relocated to Chicago to live with Ruth, and the following year, Ruth earned her bachelor's degree in music from the Conservatory and subsequently enrolled in the school's master's degree program. By 1924, at the age of only 22, Ruth had developed her "ultra-modernist" compositonal voice. Her early student works include her Piano Preludes (1924-1925), Sonata for Violin and Piano (1926), and Music for Small Orchestra (1926).

In Piano Preludes, many of Ruth's characteristics of her style are present. She uses assymetric rhythmics, ostinato figures, and atonal material that feels almost like chords to the listener.

Piano Prelude No. 2 (1924)

The first movement of Sonata for Violin and Piano, features a rich texture created with whizzing pianistic figurations and acrobatic violin. Notice the jazz-like ostinato bass line in the piano at the beginning of the second movement. The slow third movement uses elaborate chords that once again are reminiscent of jazz while the piano and violin play off one another in contrary motion—going in opposite directions at the same time. The final movement. sums up the work with by featuring the techniques of the earlier movements in one movement with a lot of contrary motion and more jazz-like"harmonies"

Sonata for Violin and Piano (1926)

Notice her use of ostinatos—repeated short musical ideas—in Music for Small Orchestra which give the piece cohesion without typical tonality.

Music for Small Orchestra (1926)

Although her talent was recognized by the musical establishment, Ruth was faced with the sexist attitudes of the day with critics saying statements that she could "sling dissonances like a man." At the time, music composed by women was considered "sentimental" or "quaint." Ruth challenged stereotypes. Listening to her Piano Prelude No. 2, for example, the percussive dissonances strike right away. But, as the piece goes on, we become accustomed to Ruth's harmonic dialect and the rolling chords at m. 21 begin to sound less atonal, lacking a tonal center, and more comfortable.

While in Chicago, Ruth also studied piano with Djana Lavoie Herz (1888–1982), pianist and ex-follower of the Russian composer Alexander Scriabin (Dec. 25, 1871 – April 14, 1915). Madame Herz introduced Ruth to a circle of mystics and modernists, including French-born American author, composer, and astrologer, Dane Rudhyar (b. Daniel Chennevière, March 23, 1895 – Sept.13, 1985); American modernist composer, music theorist, and teacher, Henry Cowell (March 11, 1897 – Dec. 10, 1965); and German-born American pianist Richard Buhlig (Dec. 21, 1880 – Jan. 30, 1952). Cowell became a strong support and ally for Ruth's music, and he arranged performances of her music in New York and published it in the periodical New Music Quarterly.

Ruth with hatchet and poet, Carl Sandberg, Ruth Seeger Press Kit
Ruth with hatchet and poet, Carl Sandberg, Ruth Seeger Press Kit

At this time, Crawford was the piano teacher of American poet and Chicagoan Carl Sandburg's (Jan. 6, 1878 – July 22, 1967) three daughters and she became "like an un-adopted daughter" in the Sandburg family. Sandburg was the one who initially piqued Ruth's interest in American folk music. She described one evening in the Sandberg home in her diary,

"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."

Evenings like this helped Ruth to realize that impact that simple folk music can have and its ability to bridge the gaps between generations. This realization would play a large part of her life once she was married and had a family of her own.

Ruth contributed musical arrangements to Sangburg's 1927 book, The American Songbag and of her 10 songs, eight of them were arrangements for Sandburg's poems with the first set of five composed in 1929 and the second set of three composed 1920 – 1932. Sandburg's poetic style influenced Ruth's musical style. She wrote, "One can draw a kind of rhythmic and dramatic pleasure from the very smallest thing" in reference to his use of vernacular language. Musically, she sough to use a similar direct, every day language through the use of dissonance and asymmetrical rhythms in both her settings of his poetry and instrumental music and her vocal works without text.

In 1929, Ruth went to New York where she began study with American musicologist, composer, music teacher, and folklorist, Charles Louis Seeger. Seeger was a teacher at the Institute of Musical Art in New York, which is now known as Juilliard. As Seeger's student, she continued to grow as a modernist though she also shared his love for folk music. She helped him write his treatise, Tradition and Experiment in (the New) Music, in the summer of 1930. Her input was so vital that he considered making her a co-author, however, it was published his name only.

In 1930, Ruth won a Guggenheim Fellowship to work abroad, and she traveled to Europe. She was first woman to have earned this honor. During her time in Berlin, Crawford composed the textless vocal piece, Three Chants: To an Unkind God, To An Angel, and To A Kind God for unaccompanied women's chorus. The eerie sound of Three Chants is before its time. In fact, they are most reminiscent of music not composed until the 1960s, three decades later. It is more similar to the choral works of mid-century avant-garde composers like György Sándor Ligeti (May 28, 1923 – June 12, 2006) and Iannis Xenakis (May 29, 1922 – Feb. 4, 2001) than to others composed at its time.

Three Chants: II. To An Angel (1930)

In 1931, Ruth published her most famous work, String Quartet. In String Quartet, we have the four string parts playing in a complex counterpoint with contrasting rhythms, chromaticism, and wide intervalic leaps. Unsurprisingly, she had began the works while abroad and was influenced by the 12-tone approach of Arnold Schoenberg (Sept. 13, 1874 – July 13, 1951) and student Anton Webern (Dec. 3, 1883 – Sept. 15, 1945).

Not long after the publication of String Quartet, in 1932, she and Charles Seeger were married and she assumed care and responsibility for Seeger's three children from a previous marriage that had ended in divorce in 1927, including famed folk singer, known for popularizing "We Shall Overcome" in the 1960s, Peter "Pete" Seeger (May 3, 1919 – Jan. 27, 2014). Likewise, Ruth "adopted" several of Charles' musical methods, and she entered the most prolific era of her career from 1930 to 1933. However, in 1934 onward, she shifted gears in her career and focused on cataloging folk music and music for children.

String Quartet (1931)

Seeger Family Portraits, (1) Ruth and her son Mike, (2) Charles, Ruth, Peggy,

Ruth Seeger: Mother and Ethnomusicologist

Besides Charle's three sons, Ruth and Charles raised three daughters and a son of their own, including daughter Margaret "Peggy" Seeger (b. June 17, 1935) and son Mike Seeger (August 15, 1933 – August 7, 2009), who both stayed in the "family business" so-to-speak and became renowned folksingers and educators. The Seeger children fondly called her "Dio." While the children were growing up, Ruth and Charles both focused on preserving American Folk music, so much so that song Mike said that his parents had “a sense of mutual mission about making folk music alive in our family and for other families as well.” So, in 1936, the Seeger family relocated to Washington, D.C. to work as folksong collectors for the Library of Congress. Crawford acted as transcriber for the books Our Singing Country, and, with Charles, Folk Song USA, both authored by American educators, musicologists, and folkorists, son John (Sept. 23, 1867 – Jan. 26, 1948) and his father Alan Lomax (Jan. 31, 1915 – July 19, 2002). Ruth not only provided transcriptions also helped catalog folk music by making recordings, some of which featuring well-known folk performers such as Burl Icle Ivanhoe Ives (June 14, 1909 – April 14, 1995).

Ruth in the Studio with Burl Ives, Ruth Crawford Seeger Press Kit
Ruth in the Studio with Burl Ives, Ruth Crawford Seeger Press Kit

Ruth believed that folk music was inter-generational and was an essential piece of culture that beings people together. She also felt that is was equitable form of music, perhaps this is why she loved working in it after working in the "lofty realms of high art music" that was often far from the "vernacular" language that she found so appealing in Sandburg's poetry She wrote on folk music:

"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 Teaching Round Children in 1950, Ruth Crawford Seeger Press Kit
Ruth Teaching Round Children in 1950, Ruth Crawford Seeger Press Kit

Ruth Crawford Seeger: Music Educator

Under her married name, Ruth Crawford Seeger, she published her own folk collection, American Folk Songs for Children for In Home, School, and Nursery School, in 1948. They book was designed to be used in schools and well as for parents with their children. It is still used by some music teacher's today, and Crawford's approach to music pedagogy has been used by many music educators as a model. Pete Seeger went on to release a 1953 album of the same name for the Smithsonian's Folkways label featuring 11 of these arrangements.

Ruth was adamantly opposed to censoring folk music to make it "safe" for children. She wrote:

“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.”

While some scholars, ignore Ruth's contributions to the worlds of music education and ethnomusicology—the study of music from the cultural and social aspects of the people who make it—in favor her early career as an "ultra-modernist" composer, they are ignoring the fact that it takes someone her strong musical background to fully understand folk music and its context. Ruth did return to the work of "serious composition" in 1952, just before her death, with the Suite for Wind Quintet. At the time, she had it was the first time in a long time that Ruth Crawford Seeger felt like Ruth Crawford, modernist composer.

Suite for Wind Quintet harkens back to her earlier concerts works with its bouncy melodic lines, ostinato figures, and intricate counterpoint. Scored for flute, clarinet, horn and bassoon, this suite is in three short movements, totaling about 10 minutes in leng

Suite for Wind Quintet (1952)

Tragically, she had just learned that she had cancer the same day that the FBI came to question Charles. This was during the 1950s McCarthy era and rather than implicate his colleagues, Charles resigned his job. Pete Seeger describes that day as the day most prevalent in his mind from that period of his life. As he stood in the door frame, they were listening to Japanese music, and

"She expressed astonishment—and the two of us shared it—astonishment at the way in which silence was woven into the music.”

Seeger Home in Chevy Chase, Google Street View
Seeger Home in Chevy Chase, Google Street View

Ruth died at home the following year, on Nov. 18, 1953 in Chevy Chase, MD.

Ruth Crawford Seeger only lived to be 52 years of age. Yet, in her relatively short life, she had two successful careers—one as an composer and one as a musicologist. She, however, used both careers to educate and share her a passion for music with others. She believed wholeheartedly in the importance of the accessibility of music and music education for all and believed that music, folk music in particular, had a timeless, enduring quality. She wrote in American 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.

Let's meet again soon! Our next posts will celebrate the work of Asian American and Pacifier Islander artists.


For Further Information

“About The Seeger Family.” About the Seeger Family: How Can I Keep From Singing: A Seeger Family Tribute. March 15-16, 2007 (The American Folklife Center, Library of Congress). Accessed May 7, 2021.

Baumgart, Emily. The Experimentation of Ruth Crawford Seeger. 2020. Video. Accessed May 3, 2021.

Ballard, Lincoln M. "A Russian Mystic in the Age of Aquarius: The U.S. Revival of Alexander Scriabin in the 1960s." American Music 30, no. 2 (2012): 194-227. Accessed May 6, 2021.

Cliff, Mary. “Memories and Melodies: Peggy Seeger in Conversation with Mary Cliff.” CCHS Spring 2014 Program | Chevy Chase Historical Society. Accessed May 3, 2021.

Harvey, Todd. “Seeger Family Materials in the Archive of Folk Culture.” Selected Resources - The Seeger Family Tribute (The American Folklife Center, Library of Congress). Accessed May 7, 2021.

Hawes, Bess Lomax. Ruth Crawford Seeger talk, New York City. to 2000, 1925. Manuscript/Mixed Material. Accessed May 3, 2021.

Hampsong Foundation. “Crawford Seeger.” Song of America, December 30, 2020. Accessed May 3, 2021.

Lewis, David and Peggy Seeger. “Ruth Crawford Seeger Biography.” Ruth Crawford Seeger Biography - mother of Peggy Seeger, June 24, 2009. Accessed May 3, 2021.

Robin, William. “The Pioneering Modernist Who Wrote an Audacious String Quartet.” The New York Times. The New York Times, October 13, 2017. Last modified October 13, 2017. Accessed May 7, 2021.

“Ruth Crawford Seeger : a Composer's Search for American Music : Tick, Judith : Free Download, Borrow, and Streaming.” Internet Archive. New York : Oxford University Press, January 1, 1997. Last modified January 1, 1997. Accessed May 7, 2021.

“Ruth Crawford.” John Simon Guggenheim Foundation. Accessed May 7, 2021.

“Ruth Seeger: Kennedy Center.” Ruth Seeger | Kennedy Center. Accessed May 7, 2021.

Sandburg, Carl, and Ruth Crawford Seeger. “The American Songbag : Sandburg,Carl. : Free Download, Borrow, and Streaming.” Internet Archive. Harcout Brace And Company., January 1, 1970. Last modified January 1, 1970. Accessed May 7, 2021.

Seeger, Pete. “American Folk Songs for Children Liner Notes.” Smithsonian Folkways Media. Smithsonian Folkways, n.d. Accessed May 7, 2021.

“Solar Winds at Brandeis University.” Women's Philharmonic Advocacy. Accessed May 7, 2021.

Stevenson, Joseph. “String Quartet 1931: Details.” AllMusic. Accessed May 7, 2021.

Stewart Garrison, Lisa. “A Continuing Song: Notes on the Life of Ruth Crawford Seeger • Pass It On!” The Children's Music Network. Accessed May 7, 2021.

Tick, Judith. “Ruth Crawford Seeger's ‘Three Songs to Poems by Carl Sandberg for Voice, Oboe, Piano, Percussion, and Optional Orchestral Ostinato.’” American Symphony Orchestra. Last modified December 21, 1992. Accessed May 7, 2021.

Watts, Sarah H., and Patricia Shehan Campbell. “American Folk Songs for Children: Ruth Crawford Seeger’s Contributions to Music Education.” Journal of Research in Music Education 56, no. 3 (October 2008): 238–54. Accessed May 7, 2021.


Janae J. Almen is a professional music instructor, composer, sound artist, and writer. She has a BA in Music/Education from Judson University and a MM in Computer Music/Composition from the Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University. She is the founder of Perennial Music and Arts and is passionate about sharing her love of music and arts. The picture to the left is from a recital she participated in at the Fine Arts Building in Chicago, IL—the same building that Ruth Crawford Seeger studied at the American Conservatory. The image below is the view from recital hall. (Both photos by Dad, Glen Almen.)



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