New York (AFP) – A rail-thin New York radical who loved folk music, Pete Seeger loathed the business side and stuck by his principles, influencing younger stars like Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and Bruce Springsteen.
Seeger died on Monday at the age of 94, leaving behind classics like Where Have All the Flowers Gone and If I Had a Hammer, laying out his vision of what the United States can and should be.
Dubbed “America’s tuning fork” by poet Carl Sandburg, the bald and bearded banjo-playing tenor brought a feast of material to U.S. musical culture.
He adapted a Negro spiritual for the civil rights anthem We Shall Overcome and a passage from the book of Ecclesiastes for the Byrds hit Turn! Turn! Turn!
Briefly a communist and a life-long activist for social and environmental issues, he was indicted for contempt of Congress in 1957 while playing, recording and listening to songs by those at the bottom of the ladder.
“My job is to show folks there’s a lot of good music in this world and if used right it may help save the planet,” The New York Times quoted Seeger as saying.
Peter Seeger was born on May 3, 1919 to parents who were a musicologist and a concert violinist. After they divorced, his father remarried a composer.
Seeger’s first exposure to folk music and the banjo came at age 16, at a folk festival he attended with his father in Asheville, North Carolina.
He learned the ukulele and studied journalism at Harvard before dropping out and moving to New York where he met the blues singer Huddie Ledbetter, better known as Lead Belly.
In 1938 he hopped freight trains and hitchhiked across the United States, immersing himself in the music.
He collected songs and met some of the greats: Lead Belly, Woody Guthrie, and Earl Robinson, and became an assistant in the Archive of Folk Song at the Library of Congress.
In 1940, with Guthrie, he founded the Almanac Singers.
They sang at labor meeting and gatherings of migrant workers, composing pro-union and antifascist songs, often based on traditional folk music.
Seeger was drafted when the U.S. entered World War II, but in 1948 he formed another group, The Weavers, with Lee Hays, Ronnie Gilbert and Fred Hellerman.