In the twenties and early thirties, Crawford Seeger wrote atonal works influenced by Alexander Scriabin. These works favored dissonance and post-tonal harmonies; they also utilized irregular rhythms and meters. Her technique may have been influenced by the music of Schoenberg, although they met only briefly during her studies in Germany. She was encouraged and guided by her teacher-then-husband Charles Seeger's dissonant counterpoint, as well and also developed her own methods of composing.
Ruth Crawford was born in East Liverpool, Ohio, and began her music education at age 6 with her first piano lesson. Later she studied with her mother. She studied with Madame Valborg Collett later on, who was a student of Agathe Groendahl. Later, she continued at the American Conservatory of Music in Chicago with Heniot Levy and Louise Robyn. She learned composition from Adolf Weidig, whose instruction accelerated her skill. But her study under Djane Lavoie Herz, a disciple of Scriabin, was important for the social and intellectual world it opened for her. During this time, she met Cowell, Rudhya, and the leading Chicago poet Carl Sandburg whose writings she eventually set to music.
Later that year she became the first woman to receive the Guggenheim Fellowship and went to Berlin. (Hisama 2001, p. 3). Despite being in the heart of German modernism, she chose to study and compose alone. Yet, through letters, Seeger's ideas were crucial to the development of her style and selections. She and Seeger married in 1932 after her second Guggenheim award and subsequent trip to Paris. Notably, at the ISCM Festival in Amsterdam (1933) her Three Songs for voice, oboe, percussion and strings was the only piece by an American performed that year.
The family, including Mike Seeger, Peggy Seeger, Barbara, Penny, and stepson Pete Seeger, moved to Washington D.C. in 1936 after Charles' appointment to the music division of the Resettlement Administration. While in Washington D.C. Crawford Seeger worked closely with John and Alan Lomax at the Archive of American Folk Song at the Library of Congress to preserve and teach American folk music. Her arrangements and interpretations of American Traditional folk songs are among the most respected including transcriptions for: American Folk Songs for Children, Animal Folksongs for Children (1950) and American Folk Songs for Christmas (1953) Our Singing Country and Folk Song USA by John and Alan Lomax. However she is most well known for Our Singing Country (1941.) She also composed Rissolty Rossolty, an American Fantasia for Orchestra based on folk tunes, for the CBS radio series American School of the Air.
She briefly returned to her modernist roots in early 1952 with Suite for Wind Quintet
She died the following year, from intestinal cancer, in Chevy Chase, Maryland.
Crawford began her career as an experimental composer, but the label only truly applies to her early works. Her work in traditional music preservation may have come from her interest in Eastern mysticism and the musical complexities of Native American music. Her conceptual palette was affected by American literary transcendentalism as well. As a composer, she may be thought of as the musical bridge between the modern and transcendental movements.