Pete Seeger: Champion of folk music and social change

Pete Seeger: Champion of folk music and social change

Pete Seeger: Champion of folk music and social change


Pete Seeger, who died in Manhattan on Monday, was a cult singer, folk-song collector and songwriter who spearheaded an American folk revival and spent a long career championing folk music as both a vital heritage and a catalyst for social change.

His career carried him from singing at labor rallies to the Top 10, from college auditoriums to folk festivals, and from a conviction for contempt of Congress (after defying the House Un-American Activities Committee in the 1950s) to performing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial at an inaugural concert for Barack Obama. For Seeger, folk music and a sense of community were inseparable, and where he saw a community, he saw the possibility of political action.

In his hearty tenor, Seeger, a beanpole of a man who most often played 12-string guitar or five-string banjo, sang topical songs and children’s songs, humorous tunes and earnest anthems, always encouraging listeners to join in. His agenda paralleled the concerns of the American left: He sang for the labor movement in the 1940s and 1950s, for civil rights marches and anti-Vietnam War rallies in the 1960s, and for environmental and anti-war causes in the 1970s and beyond. “We Shall Overcome,” which Seeger adapted from old spirituals, became a civil rights anthem.

Seeger was a prime mover in the folk revival that transformed popular music in the 1950s. As a member of the Weavers, he sang hits including Lead Belly’s “Goodnight, Irene” - which reached No 1 - and “If I Had a Hammer,” which he wrote with the group’s Lee Hays. Another of Seeger’s songs, “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” became an anti-war standard. And in 1965, the Byrds had a No 1 hit with a folk-rock version of “Turn! Turn! Turn!,” Seeger’s setting of a passage from the Book of Ecclesiastes.

Seeger was a mentor to younger folk and topical singers in the '50s and '60s, among them Bob Dylan, Don McLean and Bernice Johnson Reagon, who founded Sweet Honey in the Rock. Decades later, Bruce Springsteen drew from Seeger’s repertoire of traditional music about a turbulent America in recording his 2006 album, “We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions,” and in 2009 he performed Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land” with Seeger at the Obama inaugural. During a concert at New York’s Madison Square Garden celebrating Seeger’s 90th birthday, Springsteen introduced him as “a living archive of America’s music and conscience, a testament of the power of song and culture to nudge history along.”

Although he recorded dozens of albums, Seeger distrusted commercialism and was never comfortable with the idea of stardom. He saw himself as part of a continuing folk tradition, constantly recycling and revising music that had been honed by time.
During the McCarthy era Seeger’s political affiliations, including membership in the Communist Party in the 1940s, led to his being blacklisted and later indicted for contempt of Congress. The pressure broke up the Weavers, and Seeger disappeared from television until the late 1960s. But he never stopped recording, performing and listening to songs from ordinary people. Through the decades, his songs have become part of America’s folklore.

“My job,” he said in 2009, “is to show folks there’s a lot of good music in this world, and if used right it may help to save the planet.”

Peter Seeger was born in Manhattan on May 3, 1919, to Charles Seeger, a musicologist, and Constance de Clyver Edson Seeger, a concert violinist. His parents later divorced.

The fall and rise

In 1950 and 1951 the Weavers were national stars, with hit singles and engagements at major nightclubs. Their hits included “Kisses Sweeter Than Wine” and Guthrie’s “So Long (It’s Been Good to Know Yuh),” and they sold an estimated 4 million singles and albums.

Their commercial success was dampened, however, when “Red Channels,” an influential pamphlet that named performers with suspected Communist ties, appeared in June 1950 and listed Seeger, although by then he had quit the Communist Party. He later criticised himself for not having left the party sooner, though he continued to describe himself as a “communist with a small 'c.'”

By the summer of 1951, the “Red Channels” citation and leaks from FBI files had led to the cancellation of television appearances. In 1951, the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee investigated the Weavers for sedition. And in February 1952, a former member of People’s Songs testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee that three of the four Weavers were members of the Communist Party. As engagements dried up the Weavers disbanded, though they reunited occasionally in the mid-1950s. After the group recorded an advertisement for Lucky Strike cigarettes, Seeger left, citing his objection to promoting tobacco use.

Shut out of national exposure, Seeger returned primarily to solo concerts, touring college coffeehouses, churches, schools and summer camps, building an audience for folk music among young people. He started to write a long-running column for the folk-song magazine Sing Out! And he recorded prolifically for the independent Folkways label, singing everything from children’s songs to Spanish Civil War anthems.

In 1955 he was subpoenaed by the House Un-American Activities Committee. In his testimony, he said, “I feel that in my whole life I have never done anything of any conspiratorial nature.” Seeger was indicted in 1957 on 10 counts of contempt of Congress. He was convicted in 1961 and sentenced to a year in prison.

By then, the folk revival was prospering. In 1959, Seeger was among the founders of the Newport Folk Festival. The Kingston Trio’s version of Seeger’s “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” reached the Top 40 in 1962, soon followed by Peter, Paul and Mary’s version of “If I Had a Hammer,” which rose to the Top 10. Seeger was signed to a major label, Columbia Records, in 1961, but he remained unwelcome on network television.

As the United States grew divided over the Vietnam War, Seeger wrote “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy,” an anti-war song with the refrain “The big fool says to push on.” He performed the song during a taping of “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour” in September 1967, his return to network television, but it was cut before the show was broadcast. After the Smothers Brothers publicised the censorship, Seeger returned to perform the song for broadcast in February 1968.

In the 1980s and 1990s Seeger toured regularly with Arlo Guthrie, Woody’s son, and continued to lead singalongs and perform benefit concerts. Recognition and awards arrived. He was elected to the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1972, and in 1993 he was given a lifetime achievement Grammy Award. In 1994 President Bill Clinton handed him the National Medal of Arts, America’s highest arts honor, given by the National Endowment for the Arts. In 1999 he traveled to Cuba to receive the Order of Félix Varela, Cuba’s highest cultural award, for his “humanistic and artistic work in defense of the environment and against racism.”

Seeger was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, in the category of early influences, in 1996. Seeger won Grammy Awards for best traditional folk album in 1997, for the album “Pete” and, in 2009, for the album “At 89.” He won a Grammy in the children’s music category in 2011 for “Tomorrow’s Children.”

Seeger kept performing into the 21st century, despite a flagging voice; audiences happily sang along more loudly. Through the years, Seeger remained determinedly optimistic. “The key to the future of the world,” he said in 1994, “is finding the optimistic stories and letting them be known.”

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