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.
They sparked an urban folk song revival and were the model for protest songwriters in the 1960s. The Weavers performed at picket lines, union meetings, and at the Village Vanguard in New York.
A two-week engagement at the iconic club led to a six-month booking and a recording contract.
Their songlist included a South African tune Wimoweh, Kisses Sweeter Than Wine and a cleaned-up version of the Lead Belly classic Goodnight, Irene that reached number one on the charts.
The group was attacked as subversive however, and Seeger refused to answer questions about communist affiliations, leading to an indictment for contempt of Congress that was later dismissed.
But the McCarthy-era blacklist kept the Weavers out of concert halls and off television and the group disbanded, though they occasionally played together later on.
Seeger began a solo career, was a founder in 1959 of the Newport Folk Festival and was active in the 1960s civil rights and anti-war movements, marching alongside Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
He became an icon on college campuses, and at a Madison Square Garden concert celebrating Seeger’s 90th birthday, Springsteen called him “a living archive of America’s music and conscience, a testament of the power of song and culture to nudge history along.”
Seeger and Springsteen also played Guthrie’s This Land is Your Land in 2009 a day before Barack Obama’s inauguration, at a Lincoln Memorial event attended by the president-elect.
Seeger penned more than 100 songs including some for children, and became active in the environmental movement, highlighting pollution of the Hudson River which runs past the New York home he built himself.
In 1966, Seeger founded the Clearwater organization to work for the river’s clean-up. A Clearwater festival raised money for the construction of a boat modeled after the Dutch windships that once sailed the Hudson.
The sloop continues to sail, educating the public about the river’s history and ecology.
Seeger won four Grammy Awards, and in 1996 was inducted into The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, as an early influence.
Editor’s Note: Click here to read Seeger’s 1955 testimony before the House Committee on Un-American Activities.
Photo via Wikimedia Commons