Peter "Pete" Seeger (May 3, 1919 – January 27, 2014) was an American folk singer. A fixture on nationwide radio in the 1940s, he also had a string of hit records during the early 1950s as a member of The Weavers, most notably their recording of Lead Belly's "Goodnight, Irene", which topped the charts for 13 weeks in 1950. Members of The Weavers were blacklisted during the McCarthy Era. In the 1960s, he re-emerged on the public scene as a prominent singer of protest music in support of international disarmament, civil rights, counterculture and environmental causes.
As a song writer, he was the author or co-author of "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?" (with Joe Hickerson), "If I Had a Hammer (The Hammer Song)" (composed with Lee Hays of The Weavers), and "Turn, Turn, Turn!", which have been recorded by many artists both in and outside the folk revival movement and are still sung throughout the world. "Flowers" was a hit recording for The Kingston Trio (1962); Marlene Dietrich, who recorded it in English, German and French (1962); and Johnny Rivers (1965). "If I Had a Hammer" was a hit for Peter, Paul & Mary (1962) and Trini Lopez (1963), while The Byrds popularized "Turn, Turn, Turn!" in the mid-1960s, as did Judy Collins in 1964 and The Seekers in 1966.
Seeger was one of the folksingers most responsible for popularizing the spiritual "We Shall Overcome" (also recorded by Joan Baez and many other singer-activists) that became the acknowledged anthem of the 1960s American Civil Rights Movement, soon after folk singer and activist Guy Carawan introduced it at the founding meeting of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in 1960. In the PBS American Masters episode "Pete Seeger: The Power of Song", Seeger stated it was he who changed the lyric from the traditional "We will overcome" to the more singable "We shall overcome".
Pete Seeger, a seminal figure in American music who kept folk music alive and influenced generations of musicians from Bob Dylan to Bruce Springsteen, died Monday of natural causes in New York, his grandson confirmed to The New York Times. Seeger was 94.
As a solo performer, songwriter, interpreter, and member of the legendary folk band the Weavers, Seeger brought traditional and political songs to the mainstream over the course of his 70-year career. He wrote or co-wrote "If I Had a Hammer" (a hit for Peter, Paul and Mary) and "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?" (made famous by the Kingston Trio). The Byrds had a Number One hit with "Turn! Turn! Turn!," which Seeger had adapted from the Book of Ecclesiastes and set to music. In Seeger hands, songs from Cuba ("Guantanamera") and South Africa ("Wimoweh") became beloved sing-along standards around the world, and "We Shall Overcome," a traditional gospel song that Seeger heard early in his career, was a regular part of his repertoire and a staple of civil rights rallies for decades to come.
Although Seeger never scored a Top 40 hit on his own, the charts were never an indication of his overwhelming impact. His massive influence on music and message was never more obvious than at his 90th birthday concert at Madison Square Garden in 2009. Among those paying tribute to Seeger were Springsteen, Joan Baez, John Mellencamp, Dave Matthews, Emmylou Harris, Tom Morello, Ben Harper and Billy Bragg. "The history of Pete's life is the history of music changing the world," Tom Morello told RS in 2007.
A tall, strapping figure known for his crisp-as-a-mountain-stream singing and banjo playing, Seeger was also a walking, talking, strumming embodiment of the connection between folk song and leftist politics. Throughout his career, he participated in pro-union and civil rights events and protested wars and nuclear power. For his trouble — and his membership in the American Communist Party — Seeger was blacklisted by the House Un-American Activities Committee in the Fifties; to make ends meet, he had to play sometimes four concerts a day, for $25 each. "I still believe the only chance for the human raced to survive is to give up such pleasures as war, racism and private profit," Seeger told RS in 1979, beliefs he held until his death.
Born May 3rd, 1919, in New York, Seeger had music and politics in his blood from the start. His father, Charles Seeger, who died in 1979, was an ethnomusicologist who taught at Yale and Julliard and was a very vocal critic of World War I. Although Pete attended preppie boarding schools, he discovered the banjo as a teenager and, after dropping out of Harvard in the late Thirties, worked for folklorist Alan Lomax in cataloguing and preserving traditional songs. Over the next few years, Seeger and other friends in New York formed the Almanac Singers, living in an early version of a commune in Greenwich Village. During this time, Seeger met and befriended Woody Guthrie, another member of the short-lived Almanacs.
In 1948, Seeger, along with Ronnie Gilbert, Lee Hays and Fred Hellerman, formed the Weavers. With their suits (the men), pearls (Gilbert), and smooth harmonies, the Weavers weren't remotely rough and tumble. But that merger of folk and polish allowed them to connect with a mass audience: Their version of Leadbelly's "Goodnight, Irene" went on to sell a then-astonishing two million copies in 1950. The group's repertoire also included "Wimoweh" and an Israeli folk song ("Tzena, Tzena, Tzena"); it could be argued that the Weavers, in their way, invented world music.
Pete Seeger was a good man. There aren't many musicians you can say that about without seeming simplistic. Music is often progressed by flawed, volatile, glamorous egotists, and thank God for them. But Seeger carved out his place in history with a quieter, rarer set of qualities: nobility, generosity, humility and, when things got rough, breathtaking courage. Perhaps uniquely, he became one of the most important singers in America without ever being a star, because he believed in the song rather than the singer.
Seeger was born into privilege but not convention. His father Charles, an Ivy League professor and composer, was a pacifist and founding member of the leftwing Composers' Collective, and he came to embrace the radical potential of folk music. Pete was an intense, idealistic Harvard dropout when, in 1940, the folklorist Alan Lomax introduced him to Woody Guthrie. Said Lomax: "You can date the renaissance of American folk song from that night."
This impassioned trio brought folk music to the cities and the airwaves. Lomax was the song collector and facilitator, Guthrie the charismatic Dust Bowl poet, and Seeger the man who got America singing. He didn't have a remarkable voice but it was clear and strong and it never got in the way of the material, which was the point. A great believer in the power of communal singing, he saw himself as just a catalyst: a means to an end. He crafted songs – both his own compositions (If I Had a Hammer, Where Have All the Flowers Gone?) and existing ones that he adapted – so that anyone could sing them. Describing We Shall Overcome, which he adapted and popularised, he said: "It's the genius of simplicity. Any damn fool can get complicated."
Even if he had wanted to be a star, America's politics were against him. His first group, the Almanac Singers, collapsed during the second world war when their previous role as entertainers at Communist meetings was exposed. Returning to America after serving in the Pacific, Seeger saw two cherished projects fail: his organisation People's Songs, an organisation to "get America singing", and the presidential campaign of the Progressive Party's Henry Wallace. He was hounded, sometimes violently, by the right. His new band, the Weavers, briefly became sensations, but the Red Scare ripped them apart in 1952. And there was worse to come.
Musician, singer, songwriter, folklorist, labor activist, environmentalist, and peace advocate, Seeger was born in Patterson, New York, son of Charles and Constance Seeger, whose families traced their ancestry back to the Mayflower. Seeger grew up in an unusually politicized environment. His father, Charles, had been a music professor at the University of California at Berkeley, where his pacifism won him so many enemies that he quit teaching in the fall of 1918.
At thirteen, Pete Seeger became a subscriber to the New Masses. His heroes were Lincoln Steffens and Mike Gold, and he aspired to a career in journalism. In 1936 he heard the five-string banjo for the first time at the Folk Song and Dance Festival in Asheville, North Carolina, and his life was changed forever.
Seeger spent two unhappy years at Harvard and left before final exams in the spring of 1938. He made his way to New York, where he eventually landed a job with the Archives of American Folk Music. Seeger spent 1939 and 1940 seeking out legendary folk-song figures such as the blues singer Leadbelly and labor militant Aunt Molly Jackson. By 1940 he had become quite an accomplished musician, thanks in no small part to his enormous self-discipline and Puritan rectitude.
On March 3, 1940, a date folklorist Alan Lomax once said could be celebrated as the beginning of modern folk music, Seeger met Woody Guthrie at a “Grapes of Wrath” migrant-worker benefit concert. In 1940 the duo helped form the Almanac Singers, a loosely organized musical collective that included Lee Hays, Millard Lampell, Sis Cunningham, Sonny Terry, Brownie McGhee, and others.
The Almanac Singers initially recorded labor songs like “The Talking Union Blues,” which they created as an organizing song for the CIO. The Almanacs also recorded pacifist tunes like “The Ballad of October 16,” in retrospect an embarrassingly shrill attack on Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt and the effort to prepare for the war against fascism.
With the entry of the United States into World War II and the creation of the U.S.-Soviet alliance, the Almanacs suddenly attained respectability. They appeared on a coast-to-coast radio broadcast, the William Morris Advertising Agency offered to help with publicity, and the group was invited to sing in some of New York’s poshest nightclubs. The allure of success posed a problem for Seeger and the Almanacs that has been a particularly nettlesome one for him and artists on the Left: What concessions can or should an artist make to a mass audience without loss of artistic integrity and political radicalism?
By the time Seeger was drafted in 1942, however, critics had called attention to the Almanacs’ ties, and the FBI had already begun to fill what is no doubt a very fat file on the tall, skinny balladeer. While on his first leave from the Army, Seeger also married Toshi Ohta, who virtually all of their friends agree played a crucial role in organizing Seeger’s career and managing his finances.
Seeger was apparently not entangled in the sectarian squabbling that contributed to the Communist Party’s weakness at the end of WW II. He had joined the Party in 1942 and would depart about 1950, but like many artists within the Party orbit, he was often viewed as unreliable.
Pete Seeger, the legendary American folk musician and social activist, died of natural causes on Monday. He was 94.
A major influence to dozens of musicians, including Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen, Seeger transformed American music and helped bring folk, with its emphasis on tradition and politics, to the mainstream.
As a member of the Weavers in the 1950s, his cover of Lead Belly's "Goodnight, Irene" hit number one. Other songs that he wrote, co-wrote, or adapted include "If I Had a Hammer," "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?", "Turn! Turn! Turn!," and "We Shall Overcome." In total, he recorded more than 100 albums. He was also popular presence on television in the early 1950s.
His popularity was temporarily derailed, however, when he was blacklisted by McCarthy's House Un-American Activities Committee because of his membership in the Communist Party during the 1940s. In 1955, a defiant Seeger was called to testify before the committee.
"I feel that in my whole life I have never done anything of any conspiratorial nature," he said. "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 also offered to sing the songs that the congressmen mentioned.
For this, he was indicted on 10 counts of contempt of congress. He was convicted in 1961 and sentenced to one year in prison, though the charges were later dismissed. To survive the blacklisting, he played up to four shows a day at colleges, coffee houses, and churches around the country, often for just $25 a show.
A dedicated political activist, Seeger performed for the labor movements of the 1940s and 1950s, the civil rights battles of the 1950s and 1960s, and the anti-Vietnam War protests in the late 1960s and early 1970s.