Pete Seeger, who used his voice as a musician, folk song curator, environmentalist and humanitarian to demand justice for less-privileged, died Jan. 27 at New York-Presbyterian Hospital.
He touched lives by singing for unions, children and presidents, performing mining camps, folk festivals and Carnegie Hall. He turned a Bible verse and an African chant into hit records, traveled with Woody Guthrie and Lead Belly and championed Bob Dylan, adapted a gospel song to sing for union workers and wound-up creating an anthem for the civil rights movement in “We Shall Overcome.” Later in life he made the clean-up of the Hudson River a reality, toured with Arlo Guthrie and saw musicians such Bruce Springsteen, Ani DiFranco and Sweet Honey in the Rock embrace his work and ethos.
Springsteen, DiFranco, Dave Matthews, John Mellencamp, Joan Baez and dozens more celebrated his 90th birthday in 2009 with a Madison Square Garden concert that benefited the Hudson River Sloop Clearwater, his environmental project that began in the 1960s. He lived along the river since the 1940s.
In the 1950s, he had hit records and a TV series until U.S. decision-makers deemed him un-American and crippled his career. With his band the Weavers, he hit No. 1 with “Goodnight, Irene” and a song he co-wrote with Lee Hays, “If I Had a Hammer,” was recorded by a diverse group of artists, among them Trini Lopez, Sam Cooke and the Coasters. “Turn! Turn! Turn!,” Seeger musical adaptation of a passage from the Book of Ecclesiastes, was a No. 1 hit for the Byrds in the 1960s. His “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” was one of the more popular songs sung at anti-Vietnam War rallies and a top 40 hit for the Kingston Trio.
He recorded for Columbia Records and Decca Records as well as independents such as Folkways and Appleseed; he won Grammys in 1997, 2009 and 2011.
The five-string banjo was his primary instrument and on the banjo head he had inscribed the words “This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender,” a twist on Guthrie’s guitar sign “this machine kills fascists.” He used the banjo, and on occasion the 12-string guitar, to educate while entertaining. Concert audiences sang while they listened, learning about far-off cultures, struggles of the common man, war and love. Topical songs, some of which told age-old stories that could have been taken from the day’s newspaper, filtered through every set list.
It was those concerts — and when you bought a ticket you knew you would be part of the performance — where the impact Seeger made on America could be felt most deeply. He sang about injustice and hope, giving the audience a chance to celebrate with joy in one song and listen to a story of wrong-doing on the next. He had a command of audiences that matched his command of stories and songs. It can be heard in a diverse collection of live recordings – his 1960 album with Willie Dixon at the Village Gate, his 1963 “Carnegie Hall” album, and the 1975 “Together In Concert” with Arlo Guthrie being prime examples.
Seeger’s father was a musicologist who collected rural American folk music and he was taken by the seriousness of the music, both in its lyrics and the way it was sung. His half-siblings Mike and Peggy Seeger followed the folk music path as well and on rare occasions the three would perform together. In those shows, though, Pete was the galvanizing force, the one who united the audience and the performer.
He started recording in 1940 with the Almanac Singers, performing union songs and anti-war songs. When World War II broke out, the Almanac Singers’ anti-fascist material made them sound patriotic, even if Seeger was a Communist. An F.B.I. Investigation wound up crushing the group and while it was breaking up, Seeger was drafted into the Army.
Seeger’s post-Army band, the Weavers was formed in 1949 and signed to Decca, where they had recorded repertoire of “If I Had a Hammer,” the South African song,“Wimoweh,” “Kisses Sweeter Than Wine” and Woody Guthrie’s “So Long (It’s Been Good to Know Yuh)” sold in the millions.
Despite having left the Communist Party, FBI and the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee investigations got Seeger and his band blacklisted. Jobs became scarce and after the group accepted a job to record a jingle for Lucky Strike cigarettes, Seeger quit over his objection to promoting smoking.
Without nightclubs to perform in, Seeger turned to coffee houses, schools and camps. In 1955, he refused to answer the questions of the House Un-American Activities Committee and two years later indicted on 10 counts of contempt of Congress. Convicted in 1961, the indictment was overturned a year later and he never spent time in jail.
In 1959, Mr. Seeger was among the founders of the Newport Folk Festival. While versions of his songs were becoming hits and he had a fatherly role in a folk scene that gave the world Dylan, Joan Baez and Peter, Paul and Mary, he still was not able to perform on television.
In 1963, the civil rights movement embraced his “We Shall Overcome,” a song that had its roots in gospel and history on picket lines in the South.
In 1965 and ’66, Seeger, and his wife Toshi made 39 episodes of a TV program, “Rainbow Quest,” for a UHF station where Seeger would talk folk, blues and bluegrass and perform with musicians such as Johnny Cash, Mississippi John Hurt and Doc Watson.
Awards were plentiful in his life: Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1972; lifetime achievement Grammy in 1993; the National Medal of Arts in 1994; Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction as an early influence in 1996.
Seeger, whose wife died last year, is survived by his son, Daniel; daughters, Mika and Tinya; Peggy; and six grandchildren, including Tao Rodriguez-Seeger, who performed with him at the Obama inaugural.