Obit of the Day: Pete Seeger, Folk Legend
Pete Seeger was described by Bruce Springsteen as “a living archive of America’s music and conscience, a testament of the power of song and culture to nudge history along.” And through his over 100 albums, you can document more than 70 years of the progressive movement’s history.
Mr. Seeger, who was the son of musicologist and violinist, became interested in rural music when his father, Charles Seeger and his step-mother Ruth Crawford Seeger, collected rural music from across the country. It was where he first heard the sound of a five-string banjo, which would become Mr. Seeger’s signature instrument, along with his 12-string guitar.
A student at Harvard, Mr. Seeger dropped out after two years and headed to New York city where he was introduced to the famed signer “Lead Belly” (Huddie Ledbetter) who introduced Mr. Seeger to another uniquely American musical genre - the blues. It was during this time that Mr. Seeger also befriended folk icon Woody Guthrie.
Mr. Seeger and Mr. Guthrie founded The Almanac Singers who would put on concerts in New York for unions and workers, with a left-leaning political message. Their 1940 “Grapes of Wrath” concert for migrant workers is considered, by some, to be the “renaissance of the American folk song.”
At this time, Mr. Seeger became active in the Communist Party. This led to a period of anti-war songs during the first two years of World War II as the Germans invaded Europe and bombarded England. His tone changed after the invasion of the Soviet Union by the Nazis in June 1941, but his popularity suffered because of the original songs. This did not stop the Army Special Services from recruiting Mr. Seeger as a performer for the war’s duration.
After the war, Mr. Seeger formed The Weavers along with Ronnie Gilbert, Lee Hays, and Fred Hellerman. The group, which performed together from 1948-1952, was Mr. Seeger’s first taste of popular success as the group’s cover of Lead Belly’s “Goodnight Irene” reached #1 on the charts in June 1950 and remained there for 25 weeks.
The group dissolved however when they came under investigation by the House Un-American Activities Committees (HUAAC) in 1952, after a witness testified that Mr. Seeger and two other members of the Weavers were Communists. The climate of fear built up around Communism at the time signaled the end of the Weavers.
Three years later, Mr. Seeger was brought before HUAAC to testify. Although he appeared before the committee Mr. Seeger refused to answer questions, saying:
“I am not going to answer any questions as to my association, my philosophical or religious beliefs or my political beliefs, or how I voted in any election, or any of these private affairs. I think these are very improper questions for any American to be asked, especially under such compulsion as this.”
He was cited with contempt, found guilty and sentenced to one year in prison. An appeals court later overturned the conviction.
During the 1950s and ’60s, Mr. Seeger became committed in the civil rights movement, writing songs that were popular among the movement’s leaders. Most famously, he co-wrote “We Shall Overcome” with Frank Hamilton, Zilphia Horton, and Guy Carawan, which was adapted from the spiritual, “I’ll Overcome.” Mr. Carawan taught the song to the Student Non-violent Coordinating Commission who adopted it as an anthem for the civil rights movement.
Note: All the royalties from “We Shall Overcome” are placed in a designated fund to give grants to black community organizers in the American South.
While keeping himself firmly committed to civil rights, Mr. Seeger also took on the Vietnam War during the 1960s and ’70s. He performed in numerous anti-war concerts and even played his original song, “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy,” on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. Unfortunately CBS censored the song in September 1967, cutting it from the show, but re-broadcast it the following February.
Mr. Seeger remained politically active for the rest of his life performing for causes political, social, and environmental. Sometimes singing with Woody Guthrie’s son, Arlo (with whom he sang “We Shall Overcome” at Occupy Wall Street in 2011) and collaborating with other music stars, most famously Bruce Springsteen in January 2009, when the duo sang “This Land is Your Land” at President Barack Obama’s inauguration.
He received a lifetime achievement Grammy award in 1993 and the National Medal of the Arts from President Clinton the following year. Late in his career he would earn three recording Grammys: 1996, Best Traditional Folk Album, Pete; 2008, Best Traditional Folk Album, At 89; 2010, Best Children’s Album, Tomorrow’s Children: Pete Seeger and the Rivertown Kids and Friends. In 1996 he was also inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a pioneer.
His political activity brought him recognition as well. He received the Felix Valera Award from Cuba, the Peace Abbey Courage of Conscience Award, and The Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize.
Pete Seeger, who wanted to be journalist when he first enrolled at Harvard, died on January 27, 2014 at the age of 94.
Sources: NY Times, LA Times, and Wikipedia
(“If I Had a Hammer” was written by Mr. Seeger and Lee Hays in 1949. The cover of the song by Peter, Paul, and Mary in 1962 made it a top ten hit. The song and If I had a Hammer” Songs of Hope and Struggle is copyright of Smithsonian American Folkways Recordings, 1998.)