NYFS logo    tagline
 Pinto Guira making guiramaking a mandalaplaying mandolin

Voices Spring-Summer 2008:
Click on the cover for the Table of Contents. Read “Words of Steel: Pete Seeger and the U.S. Navy Steel Band” by Andrew Martin here.
JOIN the New York Folklore Society today to receive Voices.

Voices SS08


Volume 34

Words of Steel:  Pete Seeger and the U.S. Navy Steel Band by Andrew Martin

It seems probable that the steel drum is destined to spread through still other parts of the world than the West Indies, perhaps in each country adapting itself to local popular-folk traditions.

—Pete Seeger, 1958

As we approach the fiftieth anniversary of Pete Seeger’s research trip to the island of Trinidad, the legendary folklorist’s proclamation is almost reality. The steel band sound has firmly asserted itself as the signifying voice of the Caribbean on a global scale, and steel band ensembles have become increasingly popular additions to school curriculums throughout the United States. Seeger’s contributions to the development of the Trinidadian steel drum movement in the United States from 1957 to 1964 are significant: they include an article in the Journal of American Folklore, films titled 18 on Steel and The Steel Drums of Kim Loy Wong, several recordings, and arranging for native Trinidadian Kim Loy Wong to establish a steel drum band and manufacturing facility in University Settlement, New York.

But perhaps Seeger’s most important—and unlikely—contribution to the steel band movement in the United States was as consultant to Admiral Daniel Gallery, founder of the United States Navy Steel Band. From 1957 to 1961 Gallery and Seeger exchanged a series of letters that describe in great detail methods for steel drum construction, opinions on proper repertoire for the U.S. Navy Steel Band, and the contemporary state of folk and popular music in the United States.

In the letters, Seeger and his political ideology are locked in a fascinating tension with Gallery and the military connotations of this partnership. The correspondence took place while Seeger was living in Beacon, New York, and Gallery was stationed in Puerto Rico but making regular visits to Boston and New York. This article aims to explore and frame these previously unpublished correspondences, which offer a unique insight into Seeger’s life as a folklorist during the late 1950s. Gallery and Seeger both recognized the inherent potential of steel drums, the national folk instrument of Trinidad and Tobago, as a musical cultural ambassador for the United States. These correspondences uniquely illustrate how both men pursued their goals.

The Rhythm of the Islands

The 1950s witnessed many significant cultural developments, including the birth of rock and roll, several dances crazes (the Twist, for example), and the calypso and exotica crazes, to name only a few. American tourists became increasingly interested in the Caribbean Islands as an exotic vacation paradise. American entertainment and travel industries capitalized on this interest by creating music, films, and advertisements saturated with postwar American visions of island bliss and happiness, while turning a blind eye to the harsh realities of unemployment and political disenfranchisement yielded by centuries of colonialism. The music of Harry Belafonte and other calypso artists emerged as an American popular style that was appropriated for U.S. consumption by major record labels.

The idea of consumer abundance was more than simply a postwar cultural myth. By the late 1950s and early 1960s Americans were spending close to three hundred billion dollars annually on nonessential consumer products (Hurley 2001). Calypso was en vogue, and the entertainment industry scrambled to capitalize on the deep pockets of American consumers with a penchant for escape. This moment spawned the calypso club, which calypso scholars Ray Funk and Stephen Stuempfle describe:
Calypso clubs created an imaginary Caribbean atmosphere with fishnets, palm fronds and other trappings. Performers often wore straw hats and striped and floral outfits, unlike the dress suits worn by calypsonians in Trinidad. Particularly appealing for Americans were performance routines involving extemporaneous singing about audience members, risqué lyrics, limbo dancing and steel pans. (2007)
Belafonte and other calypsonians often hired steel drum players to accompany concerts; it is there that many Americans first experienced the exotic and infectious instrument. New York traditionally served as a haven for Caribbean immigrants, and many Trinidadian musicians immigrated to the city to play steel drums and sing calypso during the 1950s, performing at private parties and clubs in Brooklyn and other Caribbean neighborhoods.

U.S. Navy Steel Band at World Fair in Brussels, 1957
U.S. Navy Steel Band at World Fair in Brussels, 1957. Courtesy of the Nimitz Library, United States Naval Academy, Annapolis, Maryland.

Pete Seeger and Steel Drums

Seeger’s role as a steel drum advocate did not begin as steel drum consultant to the U.S. Navy Steel Band. Although the exact point at which Seeger first encountered steel drums is not known, we do know that his interest predated his work with Gallery and probably began in earnest during the winter of 1955, when Seeger started regularly performing on a steel drum as part of his folk instrumental repertoire. In January 1956, Seeger and his wife Toshi traveled to Port-of-Spain, Trinidad, and made the sixteen-minute film Music from Oil Drums, featuring Kim Loy Wong and the Highlanders Steel Orchestra. The film, released by Folkways Records in 1956, captures the entire process of making a steel drum over the course of one week. In the film, Seeger exposed the economic and cultural reality of steel drum makers by shooting the living conditions of lower-class Trinidadians. A contemporary review of the film by Caribbean music scholar Daniel Crowley praised Seeger’s efforts:
At a time when such commercial movies as “Fire Down Below” and “Island in the Sun” are seriously misrepresenting West Indian music and dance forms, Seeger promises the steel bandsmen that he will use their instrument to “tell the true story of Trinidad, as true as I can tell it, wherever I go.” Those who have seen his engaging stage presentation of the steel drum and its music know how well he has kept his word. (1959)
Seeger—as in his work with American folk and protest music—raised public awareness of this new musical genre. He advocated for the music and culture of Trinidad in his lectures while on tour in the United States during 1957 and helped start short-lived steel bands at UCLA and with his family and neighbors in New York.

Setting aside the U.S. Navy Steel Band, Seeger’s most notable legacy to the American steel band movement was his collaboration with Kim Loy Wong. Seeger arranged for the steel bandsman to immigrate to the United States in 1959 to establish a steel drum band and tuning facility in University Settlement, New York. Through this partnership Seeger recorded and produced a record for Folkways Records called The Steel Drums of Kim Loy Wong with the University Settlement Steel Band: An Instructional Record Supervised by Peter Seeger. This was a supplemental recording that accompanied an instructional manual of the same name, written in 1961 and published in 1964 by Oak Press.

The manual was an expanded and edited version of the original, which Seeger first wrote in 1956 and mailed to Gallery the next year. In it, Seeger comprehensively documented the entire process for making steel drums and included instructions and examples of traditional folk tunes appropriate to arrange and play with steel drum ensembles. As we turn to Seeger’s work with the U.S. Navy Steel Band, one can see that his interest in steel drums was not passive: his zealous proselytizing and genuine concern for the music and people of Trinidad colors the inherently problematic nature of his collaboration with Gallery.

An Improbable Partnership

Admiral Daniel V. Gallery, commandant of the Tenth Naval District, was a highly decorated naval officer, yet he is perhaps best known today as the founder of the first continuously running, non-Trinidadian American-based steel band. Gallery often lamented this legacy:
I never heard of the steel drum until I was in Trinidad at carnival time in 1957, when I heard hundreds of them in the fabulous carnival parade. The music just got inside me and shook me up. I bought a whole set of steel drums. . . . During my forty-three years of active duty in the Navy, I had a hand in a lot of things for which one might think I would be remembered, such as inventing new ordnance devices, flying jet airplanes, and capturing a German submarine. . . . But if you ask any Captain or Admiral on active duty now, “do you know Dan Gallery?” the chances are he will say, “Sure. He’s the guy who started that steel band in San Juan.” (1965, 273–5)
Gallery stationed his steel band at the naval base in Puerto Rico. The Pandamoniacs, as they were known, immediately took the island by storm, instilling enough confidence for Gallery to embark on a tour of the United States. The steel band’s early success was propelled by enthusiasts of the calypso craze championed by Harry Belafonte and the exotica craze promoted by Martin Denny. The first musicians of the U.S. Navy Steel Band were navy musicians stationed in San Juan who Gallery ordered to learn how to play the steel drums (Gallery, 1965). Gallery regularly flew in famed Trinidadian steel bandsmen Ellie Mannette from 1957 to the early 1960s for instruction, steel band tuning, and maintenance. Following Gallery’s departure, the U.S. Navy Steel Band remained stationed in San Juan until 1970, when the band was moved to the Algiers Naval Base in New Orleans, Louisiana. The U.S. Navy Steel Band cut several records and performed more than twenty thousand concerts worldwide, until it was disbanded in 1999.

The historical timing of Seeger and Gallery’s clandestine partnership could not have been more peculiar. Seeger is well known for his radical political views; from roughly 1942 to 1950, he was a member of the American Communist Party. Although never fully accepted by Communist Party brass, Seeger was nonetheless motivated by elements of the party’s mission and spoke out constantly as a labor activist and peace advocate. Increasingly disenchanted with the organizational instability of the Communist Party, Seeger campaigned for Progressive Party candidate Henry Wallace in 1948. Seeger—following in the footsteps of other activist-artists, such as Langston Hughes in 1953—was subpoenaed in 1955 by the House Un-American Activities Committee. In the spring of 1957, Seeger won on appeal an overturn of his conviction for “contempt of Congress” and accompanying one-year prison sentence. Despite his legal troubles, Seeger had many successes in the 1950s, including commercially popular folk recordings as a solo artist and with the Weavers. From the beginning of the decade, however, Seeger saw the consequences of his political affiliations strangle his career, as he was increasingly blacklisted by major performance venues. Largely responsible for the folk revival of the 1950s, Seeger found himself less and less able to participate as an artist, and consequently shifted his energy to civil rights issues and several folkloric preservation and dissemination projects, such as “how to build and play” manuals for the banjo, steel drum, and many other instruments.

Gallery’s political affiliations—diametrically opposed to Seeger’s—need little introduction. Besides his post as a senior flag-rank officer in the U.S. Navy, Gallery was friends with President Dwight D. Eisenhower, and his letters to friends suggest that he supported Senator Joseph McCarthy’s anti-Communist crusade. In 1957 Gallery, inspired by a recent visit to Trinidad, was nonetheless eager to start a steel drum ensemble and sought out help in doing so. In an effort to broaden his call for aid, Gallery wrote an article for the Chicago Tribune that spring telling the story of steel drums and announcing the organization of a U.S. Navy–sponsored ensemble. Seeger, who was on tour in Xenia, Ohio, responded to the article, sending Gallery the following letter:
Dear Admiral Gallery:
I have read with interest the article in the Chicago Tribune telling of your organizing a steel band. How I wish I could have been in Chicago August 24th to hear it! I am writing because I thought you might be interested in seeing a copy of the enclosed. During the last year I’ve given away several hundred copies to people who have heard me demonstrate the Ping Pong [lead steel drum]. In several colleges steel bands have now started . . . . I quite agree with you that this music will “sweep across the United States like a brush fire.”

Yours Very Sincerely,
Peter Seeger

President Eisenhower and Daniel Gallery
President Dwight D. Eisenhower (left) and Daniel Gallery (right), 1957. Admiral Gallery and Seeger: Correspondences. Courtesy of the Nimitz Library, United States Naval Academy, Annapolis, Maryland.

From this initial contact in 1957, the correspondence between Seeger and Gallery spanned four years; of particular interest, however, are the earliest letters. The men’s opposing political positions in 1957 complicate the seemingly mundance exchanges: Gallery was a U.S Navy admiral and commandant, while Seeger was a blacklisted supposed Communist. Their collaboration was, without a doubt, an improbable one.

Seeger was perhaps a bit weary of Gallery and his exploits, commenting that distribution of the initial two hundred copies of the steel drum manual had yielded little. One could only imagine his delight when he received the following letter of June 20 from Gallery, which began:
Dear Seeger:
I was very interested in your letter which arrived this morning. I was already quite familiar with the enclosure as one of the several hundred copies you mentioned had fallen into my hands, and I had made quite a study of it.

I am having a whale of a time with this band. My sailors have taken to it like natives. They want to raffle off their regular instruments and play nothing but steel drums now. I swear, I think they’re better than any band in Trinidad right now—after only two months experience.

The letter continued with a long story of how Gallery had tried to build a steel drum. The story culminates with Gallery creating a primitive two-note steel drum that cost him several blisters in his right hand (from swinging a hammer) and a bloody smashed thumb (from being pounded). But more importantly, Gallery’s sincerity and willingness to experiment with the unfamiliar drums greatly impressed Seeger and instilled an instant respect for the admiral. This is evidenced by Seeger’s reply, dated July 8:
Dear Admiral:
All I can say is that my admiration for the U.S. Navy could not be higher after reading your letter. I feel I owe you deep apologies for your mashed thumb and weekend effort. If I had only had the sense to put into those mimeographed directions the information that there were different types of oil barrels and to steer clear of ones that are too thick or made out of too highly tempered steel!
Seeger ended this letter with the salute, “With my hat off to you and the Navy, Sir. Respectfully, Peter Seeger,” and it is clear that for a moment Gallery’s mashed thumb has softened Seeger’s ongoing disappointment with the U.S. government. In this case, Seeger’s love and enthusiasm for folk music—specifically steel drums and the folk music of Trinidad—transcended the political, aligning with a history of generosity and sharing that aptly characterize the folklorist. Gallery was equally impressed with Seeger’s enthusiasm, pragmatism, and candor, replying in a letter dated July 13:
Dear Pete:
You owe me no apologies for the mashed thumb. I think it’s on the first page of your screed that you say “you’ll wind up with a mashed thumb” if you try to make a steel drum. It turned out so precisely like you said it would, that I have complete confidence in all the rest of your directions from here on.
Gallery addressed the letter to the less formal “Pete,” rather than “Seeger,” and also closed with “Regards,” rather than his usual “Sincerely.” From this point, the baggage of each man’s position in life was cast aside, and the conversations took on the relaxed quality of two friends chatting about music.

Although Gallery and Seeger had different motives—Gallery was interested in a new recruiting tool for the U.S. Navy, whereas Seeger hoped to aid in the proliferation of a folk instrument accessible to and playable by all, regardless of socioeconomic situation— both men recognized the benefit of working together to launch the navy’s steel band. Interestingly, Gallery’s initial expectations for steel bands in the United States tower over the more modest and grassroots inklings of Seeger. Gallery’s high military rank brought him considerable clout. The admiral had recently hosted a party at his base in Puerto Rico, for example, and engaged Harry Belafonte for the event. Based on this calypso performance, Gallery was convinced that steel drum bands could attain the widespread popularity of the contemporary calypso craze. Gallery’s infectious enthusiasm pervaded his June 20 letter to Seeger, which closed with the following:
I am very much interested in this steel band idea. I really believe this band of mine might start something big. We may be on [Arthur] Godfrey’s show next month. I would appreciate very much anything you can tell me about the present state of arts both making and playing steel drums in the United States.
Poster or New York City calypso club, 1950s
Poster for New York City calypso club, 1950s. Ray and Stuempfle, “Calypso: A World Music” exhibition, 2007. Courtesy of the Historical Museum of Southern Florida (online).

The possible appearance of the U.S. Navy Steel Band on Arthur Godfrey’s television variety show was a major opportunity for steel drums in the United States. The press and visibility for such an appearance would be significant, and Seeger eagerly acknowledged this, immediately responding to Gallery:
If your steel band can get on Arthur Godfrey’s show that is exactly what is needed to give the whole thing a great kick off. There will be thousands of people in America begging to know where they can buy them and begging to know how to make them. I agree with you 100% that the instrument is liable to spread around the world. It is unbeatable on parade.
The appearance on Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts never came to fruition, but Gallery arranged for the U.S. Navy Steel Band to make many other arguably more prestigious appearances, including the Ed Sullivan Show in 1958 and 1959 and CBS’s Adventure Tomorrow series in 1960. The band also made a short feature film, Admiral Dan’s Pandamonics, and had a brief background appearance in the 1961 film Seventy Times Seven, starring Eartha Kitt. Through these and many other national appearances, the U.S. Navy Steel Band did enjoy an eclectic, though brief, moment of popularity in mainstream American pop culture of the late 1950s, but the band’s success never fulfilled the expectations of either man.

Gallery admittedly hated rock and roll music, suggesting in a 1957 letter to a fellow admiral that steel drum bands “might knock Rock n’ Roll and Elvis Presley into the ash can (where they belong).” Gallery’s desire to expand steel drums’ popularity in American certainly struck a chord with Seeger, who had considered the subject in depth. He wrote in his 1956 steel drum manual, annotated for Gallery’s own use:
Once you are familiar with how steel bands are used in the West Indies, you should start considering how you want to adapt them to other music familiar to your own friends and neighbors in your home town. It seems to me there is no reason why many popular or folk melodies of the U.S.A. could not be played by a good steel band. Try any square dance tune such as “Old Joe Clark” or “Arkansas Traveler,” and try also rhythms such as an Irish Jig. The only problem I have found here is that rhythmically they sound rather over simple, after you are used to the complex counter rhythmic effects of Caribbean music.

To solve this problem will be the problem of young people who start playing steel pans in every country. . . . What I am sure of is that right now the steel band can fill a niche unoccupied in American life since the decline of the fife and drum corps. Here is something for a gang of young people to latch on to, and let the whole world know that they are around. Steel pans are cheap, hard to break, and can be played in the rain or snow. Everyone can participate on his or her own level.
Although Gallery did not specifically address the subject of repertoire in later letters, the admiral must have concurred with Seeger’s conclusion that any popular folk melody could be adapted for steel drums, for the U.S. Navy Steel Band archives include arrangements of “Yankee Doodle,” “Old Joe Clark,” “Marianne,” and “Guantanamara.” Yet it is notable that Seeger addressed the subject of repertoire within the context of the public good: that is, reaching young people, inclusion and participation by all, and the elevation of the poor and working class. Seeger was keenly aware of the political nature of steel drums in Trinidad and their function as a vehicle for protest and cultural awareness for the oppressed classes, and he never missed an opportunity to draw attention to such issues—even in correspondence with a navy admiral.

In July 1960, the U.S. Navy issued new orders to the admiral, and Gallery vacated his post as commandant of the Tenth Naval District, turning over control of his beloved steel band to chief musician Franz Grissom. Gallery’s enthusiasm for steel drums waned slightly in the following years, and ill health and other circumstances limited his contact with the band, yet it should be noted that each successive leader of the U.S. Navy Steel Band kept Gallery informed with letters about the performance schedule and activities of the group. For Seeger, the passing years yielded a similar fate: following the publication of his steel drum manual in 1964, he too moved on to other projects. Yet the activities of both men laid the groundwork for the steel band movement in America today. With literally hundreds of college, primary school, and community-based steel drum ensembles spread throughout the country, the legacy of Gallery and Seeger’s labors are witnessed in American steel bands on a daily basis. Considering the political climate of the 1950s, the remarkable unlikelihood of this relationship is a testament to the genuine character of each man. The diplomatic grace and humility embraced by Gallery and Seeger during the correspondences of 1957 illuminate a fascinating example of a shared admiration for folk music and culture. For Seeger, this interesting episode only adds to the already vast legend of a true American folklorist.


Andrew Martin is assistant professor of music at Inver Hills Community College in Inver Grove Heights, Minnesota, and a doctoral candidate in ethnomusicology at the University of Minnesota. His research focuses on intersections between American and Trinidadian steel pan music and American popular music. He served as a guest lecturer at the University of Trinidad and Tobago during the January 2008 carnival season.

But perhaps Seeger’s most important—and unlikely—contribution to the steel band movement in the United States was as consultant to Admiral Daniel Gallery, founder of the United States Navy Steel Band. From 1957 to 1961 Gallery and Seeger exchanged a series of letters that describe in great detail methods for steel drum construction, opinions on proper repertoire for the U.S. Navy Steel Band, and the contemporary state of folk and popular music in the United States.


All cited letters between Gallery and Seeger are part of the papers of Admiral Daniel V. Gallery, held in the Special Collections Division, Nimitz Library, United States Naval Academy, Annapolis, Maryland.

Crowley, Daniel J. 1959. Reviewed Works: Music from Oil Drums, by Pete Seeger. Ethnomusicology 3.1:33-4.

Funk, Ray, and Stephen Stuempfle. 2007. Calypso: A World Music. An Exhibition of Photographs and Illustrations of the International History of Calypso, 1930–1970. Historical Museum of Southern Florida online: http://www.calypsoworld.org/noflash/ introduction.htm.>

Gallery, Daniel. 1965. Eight Bells, and All’s Well. New York: Norton.

Hurley, Andrew. 2001. Diners, Bowling Alleys, and Trailer Parks: Chasing the American Dream in the Postwar Consumer Culture. New York: Basic Books.

This article appeared in Voices Vol. 34, Spring-Summer 2008. Voices is the membership magazine of the New York Folklore Society. To become a subscriber, join the New York Folklore Society today.

TO PURCHASE A BACK ISSUE of Voices, visit our online book store.

TO PURCHASE A SINGLE ARTICLE from Voices, use the form below:

Voices: The Journal of New York Folklore

To order a single article, please enter volume number, issue (“fall-winter” or “spring-summer”), and title of the article you wish and click on an order button below to purchase through Paypal or with your credit card. We will send you a PDF of the article via e-mail upon receipt of your order.

ITEM #603
Single Article $3.00
Volume No. & Issue

Member Price  $2.00
Volume No. & Issue

NEW YORK FOLKLORE SOCIETY ♦ 129 Jay Street ♦ Schenectady, NY 12305 ♦ 518.346.7008 ♦ Fax 518.346.6617 ♦ nyfs@nyfolklore.org