Listening to Pete Seeger.
from Jack Humphries: With the sad announcement of the death of the great Pete Seeger this morning, the people of the world have lost not just a link in the chain in the struggle for a more just and peaceful world, but one of our cultural and political anchors.
Radio National devotes its ‘Inside Sleeve’ programme with Phil Gough this Wednesday afternoon(29/1) at 3pm to The Legacy of Pete Seeger.
Pete Seeger, the banjo-picking troubadour who sang for migrant workers, college students and star-struck presidents in a career that introduced generations of Americans to their folk music heritage, died on Monday at the age of 94.
Seeger’s grandson, Kitama Cahill-Jackson said his grandfather died at New York Presbyterian Hospital, where he’d been for six days. “He was chopping wood 10 days ago,” he said.
Seeger — with his a lanky frame, banjo and full white beard — was an iconic figure in folk music. He performed with the great minstrel Woody Guthrie in his younger days and marched with Occupy Wall Street protesters in his 90s, leaning on two canes. He wrote or co-wrote “If I Had a Hammer,” “Turn, Turn, Turn,” “Where Have All the Flowers Gone” and “Kisses Sweeter Than Wine.”
He lent his voice against Hitler and nuclear power. A cheerful warrior, he typically delivered his broadsides with an affable air and his banjo strapped on.
VIDEO: ‘Turn, Turn, Turn
“Be wary of great leaders,” he told The Associated Press two days after a 2011 Manhattan Occupy march. “Hope that there are many, many small leaders.”
With The Weavers, a quartet organized in 1948, Seeger helped set the stage for a national folk revival. The group — Seeger, Lee Hays, Ronnie Gilbert and Fred Hellerman — churned out hit recordings of “Goodnight Irene,” “Tzena, Tzena” and “On Top of Old Smokey.”
Seeger also was credited with popularizing “We Shall Overcome,” which he printed in his publication “People’s Song,” in 1948.
He later said his only contribution to the anthem of the civil rights movement was changing the second word from “will” to “shall,” which he said “opens up the mouth better.”
VIDEO: ‘This Land Is Your Land’ with Arlo Guthrie
“Every kid who ever sat around a campfire singing an old song is indebted in some way to Pete Seeger,” Arlo Guthrie once said.
His musical career was always braided tightly with his political activism, in which he advocated for causes ranging from civil rights to the cleanup of his beloved Hudson River. Seeger said he left the Communist Party around 1950 and later renounced it. But the association dogged him for years.
He was kept off commercial television for more than a decade after tangling with the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1955. Repeatedly pressed by the committee to reveal whether he had sung for Communists, Seeger responded sharply:
“I love my country very dearly, and I greatly resent this implication that some of the places that I have sung and some of the people that I have known, and some of my opinions, whether they are religious or philosophical, or I might be a vegetarian, make me any less of an American.”
He was charged with contempt of Congress, but the sentence was overturned on appeal.
Seeger called the 1950s, years when he was denied broadcast exposure, the high point of his career. He was on the road touring college campuses, spreading the music he, Guthrie, Huddie “Leadbelly” Ledbetter and others had created or preserved.
“The most important job I did was go from college to college to college to college, one after the other, usually small ones,” he told The Associated Press in 2006. “ … And I showed the kids there’s a lot of great music in this country they never played on the radio.”
His scheduled return to commercial network television on the highly rated Smothers Brothers variety show in 1967 was hailed as a nail in the coffin of the blacklist. But CBS cut out his Vietnam protest song, “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy,” and Seeger accused the network of censorship.
He finally got to sing it five months later in a stirring return appearance, although one station, in Detroit, cut the song’s last stanza:
“Now every time I read the papers/That old feelin’ comes on/We’re waist deep in the Big Muddy/And the big fool says to push on.”
Seeger’s output included dozens of albums and single records for adults and children.
He also was the author or co-author of “American Favorite Ballads,” “The Bells of Rhymney,” “How to Play the Five-String Banjo,” “Henscratches and Flyspecks,” “The Incompleat Folksinger,” “The Foolish Frog” and “Abiyoyo,” “Carry It On,” “Everybody Says Freedom” and “Where Have All the Flowers Gone.”
Guy Rundle in Crikey
Last year he was playing at gatherings at the tail-end of the Occupy movement; he did the first of these in the late ’30s, a tall young man of ferocious energy, wielding a five-string banjo, the then somewhat obscure instrument he’d heard played at a square dance in North Carolina. Before the guitar went electric, the banjo was electrifying, its sharp strings and hard shell giving it an urgent intensity. Seeger sang and played it for strike parties, union benefits, hunger marches, peace rallies; later, for civil rights rallies, antiwar rallies, counterculture gatherings, anti-nuclear concerts, the global anti-capitalist movement, Iraq War rallies, and Occupy. He played protest songs and old folk ballads, songs of war and love, and thousands of children’s songs. He revived and sharpened We Shall Overcome, wrote Where Have All the Flowers Gone, Turn! Turn! Turn! and dozens more, made famous The Lion Sleeps Tonight and dozens more.
He was the straight and continent man to Woody Guthrie’s tempestuous, tormented — and tormenting — short existence, and the carrier of much of his memory to new generations. He was part of a vast undertaking, a movement as wide as the century, and his name stands for thousands less well known, or not at all. But he was also a leader, a regrouper, someone who pulled people together and sent things in a certain direction.
In the ’40s, he organised the Almanac singers, and then the Weavers, groups that took folk into the mainstream. Much of that music, smoothed out for commercial use, seems anodyne today — the Seekers, as the name maybe suggests, were pretty much a mildly rocked-up copy of the Weavers — but it introduced folk into the bloodstream of American culture. The Weavers reunion concert at Carnegie Hall in 1955 — after they had been blacklisted from TV and radio for several years — and the album that came from it pretty much marks the start of the folk boom that would explode in, and in part shape, the ’60s.
But Seeger was as much an activist pure and simple, as a musician who did benefit gigs. His politics were initially hard-Left. Coming from a prosperous liberal family — he was at that North Carolina square dance because his father was taping the music there, in a manner of many such at a time when genuine folk cultures were falling victim to highways, cities and radio — he went into the Communist Party in the late ’30s, at a time when Communism seemed to many to be the only movement capable of resisting fascism. That he stayed it in through its peregrinations in the ’40s — playing antiwar songs in the period of the Nazi-Soviet pact, and then Leftist patriotic ones after the USSR was invaded — was something he would later be rueful about. His seven years or so with the party will doubtless form the nub of much right-wing commentary. But retrospect is kind. Just as everyone who does past-life regression discovers themselves to be Cleopatra or Caesar, everyone who judges decades past imagines they would have been Orwell. Since there was only one of him, and not many more others like him, it is a rather self-serving delusion.
Feted in the anti-fascist ’40s, Seeger rapidly became a target of the blacklist. The process was altogether more brutal than it is often represented to be, since the intent was not merely to bar people from media access, but to deny them employment and destroy them psychologically. Families were targeted, and even extended families. The numerous resulting suicides were really homicides.
“Seeger was dubbed ‘Mr Saint’ by those around him. Unquestionably, it was not a simple compliment …”
Yet many at the time bore this and other dangers — beatings, and worse, at civil rights rallies — and stayed upright, and Seeger was one of them. After being jailed for refusing to name names before the House Un-American Activities Committee, he was banned from TV and many venues until the late 1960s. He began playing at colleges, effectively sparking off the college entertainment circuit, and writing and publishing musical how-to books. In the ’50s, he and his wife Toshi, who died last year after 70 years of marriage, built a cabin up the Hudson River and began campaigning for the clean-up of what had become an outfall pipe. Their campaign of sailing the river and raising awareness was an early model of a localised, site-specific campaign with a global message. He also created children’s music organisations for ghettoised urban kids to get to sing and play, funded by the royalties that came in from recordings that were adaptations of traditional songs.
In that respect, as much as being a radical, he was a conserving, conservative figure — a reminder that a section of the Left, over this century, did the work that many conservatives contributed little to, allied as they were with a nihilistic modernising liberalism. We conserved the cities, the buildings, the habitats, the folk culture and the commitment to serious art that the Right were happy to see swept away by market forces. Seeger was an essential part of that, because he and others saw the way in which the disappearance of a folk culture — dying from the late 19th century onwards, crowded out by an industrially produced culture — was theft, an alienation of our lives, of the immediate simplicity that such a culture offers. The effort to reintroduce it was part of a great cultural renewal in the 1960s, when we began to push back against the creation of monolithic suburbs, the destruction of living cities, the imposition of a drab and conformist lifestyle.
Too successful, perhaps; the folk revolution changed, above all, the way we do early schooling, the songs we learnt, the stories we heard, the forms of organised play. It fused itself with a philosophical search for authenticity in a commodified world and became, through a transformed popular music, the voice of that search.
It was inevitable that that would come to be the thing we would flee from, whether through Bob Dylan’s turn to electric music or the punk rendering in which the authentic was necessarily the pessimistic — or now, through our simple distancing from it, via a movie like Inside Llewyn Davis, which treats the era that Seeger helped create as one as distant as the Pharaohs. But by now, the historical work of its content has been done. We regained a dimension of life we had lost, even if endless primary school singalongs or Sesame Street rejigs make it impossible to now hear the rawness and exuberance that If I Had a Hammer or Guantanamera had on first hearing, among the lush and overproduced lounge music of the ’50s.Seeger was dubbed “Mr Saint” by those around him. Unquestionably, it was not a simple compliment, but neither was it purely sarcastic. He left the Weavers when they decided to do a cigarette commercial; he donated his fees on Lion Sleeps Tonight back to the composer, Solomon Linda, when he found out it was not a traditional song (the song’s US publishers, in turn, stole the fees back again). Like many who live long and are famous in this game, he was quite possibly impossible and imperious at times, may well have got credit due someone else.
The dust bowl aesthetic he took on — never as stagily as Guthrie — was no doubt as irritating to his contemporaries as Bruce Springsteen’s born-again fauxletarianism was in the ’70s. Time has elided the fact that he was the private school-educated son of a New England, New Deal family. Black-and-white film has done its work, rendering the past as authentic in a way that we feel we have lost. But of course that is a little true — Seeger and Guthrie, and others, were not trying on a new image, they were committing to a movement and a world; that world took them on and changed them, and Seeger at least lived long enough to be part of the years when everything turned, turned. That may be an occasion for nostalgia, but it can also be one for self-renewal.
In an era when the gains are small and the scope of change has become modest, it is easy to take refuge in a pessimism, a paranoia, an idea of a permanent dissidence that aims for no more than to make known its refusal of consent. Pete Seeger’s long life reminds us to think otherwise. When he began, at the tail-end of the Depression and the beginning of a total war, black people were being hanged from trees on a harsh word, on mistaken identity, on a whim; the world was carved up into a number of European and American empires; a casual and near universal anti-Semitism girded and protected its violent and vicious counterpart in Germany and Eastern Europe; a woman could be sacked from her half-pay job for getting married, for kicking back against a sexual shakedown; a child could die because no one could afford the price of a doctor. In whole areas of the world, these things do not happen now, not as a matter of course, and when they do it is an exception, not a rule, and the word goes out worldwide. When a gay man is killed in Idaho or a woman pack-raped in India, a synagogue attacked, or a footballer abused, there is outcry.
Some of it, maybe much of it, is self-serving and hypocritical, or silly, or feeds a sense of self-satisfaction. Some of it is actively used to obscure other acts that it is inconvenient to note — the burning and bombing of mosques, for example. Some things go backwards at a rapid clip. But the world where such things could get no more than a shrug of the shoulders is fading fast to sepia. If it feels sometimes that a radical spirit has departed the place, that is because we live after a great surge towards that new time, the period from World War II to the end of the ’60s, to be seen properly as a single unified period, a great social revolution.
If it often seems like we missed the best of it, well, we missed the worst of it, too, both the delusional pursuits of utopia — as such things are often portrayed — and the grim choice between armed camps, as they more often were. And if it looks like the one thing we did not achieve was a greater economic equality, some sort of democratic control over the means of how we live, then it’s worth remembering how poor poverty was for many, and how threadbare of opportunity was even prosperity; if it feels like we have exchanged those limits for a plenty that is immersing us in a culture of glut, surplus, waste, atomisation and spiritual damage, well, that is the next battle to be won, the next thing to make visible. If the struggle to stop lunatics from torching the planet feels like playing on defence, it isn’t — this battle was always going to come, not to simply restrain a bunch of criminals and psychopaths, but to reassert the global ownership of the shared resources of a finite existence.
All this is encompassed by Pete Seeger’s long life — all that, and the thousands, less well known or not at all, who worked with him, influenced him, taught him. There are times when the image of someone like Pete Seeger — standing ramrod-tall, singing defiance, before a crowd over six decades, all over YouTube — seems impossible to live up to. But the example is there, not to allow us reproach ourselves for the time when the strength or the vision fails; it is there to encourage us to stand back up again when we have fallen or been knocked down, with as much spine as we can muster. No one can ask more of us or themselves than that; we cannot give more than that because that is all that is in our power to give.
That is what I take from Pete Seeger’s life, and we shall overcome, someday.
Mr. Seeger’s 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 Mr. Seeger, folk music and a sense of community were inseparable, and where he saw a community, he saw the possibility of political action.
Pete Seeger in 1975, protesting the dumping of PCBs in the Hudson River, sang to a group of children as the sloop Clearwater rode at anchor.The Man Up the Hill in His Log Cabin Who Sang and Sailed to Save His RiverJAN. 28, 2014
A protest singer for all times: a 92-year-old Pete Seeger joins the Occupy Wall Street movement in a march in 2011.
Toshi and Pete Seeger in 1992. Ms. Seeger helped bring many of his ideas to fruition during their seven-decade marriage.Toshi Seeger, Wife of Folk-Singing Legend, Dies at 91JULY 11, 2013
In his hearty tenor, Mr. 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 antiwar causes in the 1970s and beyond. “We Shall Overcome,” which Mr. Seeger adapted from old spirituals, became a civil rights anthem.
Frank Franklin Ii/Associated Press
Pete Seeger on Climate Change in 2007 In 2007, Pete Seeger performed in Beacon, N.Y. and spoke with The Times’s Andrew C. Revkin about climate change. Mr. Seeger died on Monday at age 94.
Mr. 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 Mr. Seeger’s songs, “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?,” became an antiwar standard. And in 1965, the Byrds had a No. 1 hit with a folk-rock version of “Turn! Turn! Turn!,” Mr. Seeger’s setting of a passage from the Book of Ecclesiastes.
A Generation’s Mentor
Mr. 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 Mr. Seeger’s repertory 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 Mr. Seeger at the Obama inaugural.
At a Madison Square Garden concert celebrating Mr. Seeger’s 90th birthday, Mr. 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, Mr. Seeger distrusted commercialism and was never comfortable with the idea of stardom. He invariably tried to use his celebrity to bring attention and contributions to the causes that moved him, or to the traditional songs he wanted to preserve.
Mr. Seeger saw himself as part of a continuing folk tradition, constantly recycling and revising music that had been honed by time.
During the McCarthy era Mr. 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 Mr. Seeger disappeared from commercial 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.”
Mr. Seeger met Guthrie, a songwriter who shared his love of vernacular music and agitprop ambitions, in 1940, when they performed at a benefit concert for migrant California workers. Traveling across the United States with Guthrie, Mr. Seeger picked up some of his style and repertory. He also hitchhiked and hopped freight trains by himself, learning and trading songs.
When he returned to New York later in 1940, Mr. Seeger made his first albums. He, Millard Lampell and Hays founded the Almanac Singers, who performed union songs and, until Germany invaded the Soviet Union, antiwar songs, following the Communist Party line. Guthrie soon joined the group.
During World War II the Almanac Singers’ repertory turned to patriotic, anti-fascist songs, bringing them a broad audience, including a prime-time national radio spot. But the singers’ earlier antiwar songs, the target of an F.B.I. investigation, came to light, and the group’s career plummeted.
Before the group completely dissolved, however, Mr. Seeger was drafted in 1942 and assigned to a unit of performers. He married Toshi-Aline Ohta while on furlough in 1943. She would become essential to his work: he called her “the brains of the family.”
When he returned from the war he founded People’s Songs Inc., which published political songs and presented concerts for several years before going bankrupt. He also started his nightclub career, performing at the Village Vanguard in Greenwich Village. Mr. Seeger and Paul Robeson toured with the campaign of Henry Wallace, the Progressive Party presidential candidate, in 1948.
Forming the Weavers
Mr. Seeger invested $1,700 in 17 acres of land overlooking the Hudson River in Beacon, N.Y., and began building a log cabin there in the late 1940s. (He lived in Beacon for the rest of his life.) In 1949, Mr. Seeger, Hays, Ronnie Gilbert and Fred Hellerman started working together as the Weavers. They were signed to Decca Records by Gordon Jenkins, who was the company’s music director and an arranger for Frank Sinatra. With Jenkins’s elaborate orchestral arrangements, the group recorded a repertoire that stretched from “If I Had a Hammer” and a South African song, “Wimoweh” (the title was Mr. Seeger’s mishearing of “Mbube,” the name of a South African hit by Solomon Linda), to an Israeli soldiers’ song, “Tzena, Tzena, Tzena,” and a cleaned-up version of Lead Belly’s “Goodnight, Irene.” Onstage, they also sang more pointed topical songs.
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 four 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 Mr. Seeger, although by then he had quit the Communist Party. He later criticized 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 F.B.I. 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, Mr. Seeger left, citing his objection to promoting tobacco use.
Shut out of national exposure, Mr. 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.” He also stated: “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.”
Mr. Seeger offered to sing the songs mentioned by the congressmen who questioned him. The committee declined.
Mr. Seeger was indicted in 1957 on 10 counts of contempt of Congress. He was convicted in 1961 and sentenced to a year in prison, but the next year an appeals court dismissed the indictment as faulty. After the indictment, Mr. Seeger’s concerts were often picketed by the John Birch Society and other rightist groups. “All those protests did was sell tickets and get me free publicity,” he later said. “The more they protested, the bigger the audiences became.”
The Folk Revival Years
By then the folk revival was prospering. In 1959, Mr. Seeger was among the founders of the Newport Folk Festival. The Kingston Trio’s version of Mr. 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.
Mr. Seeger was signed to a major label, Columbia Records, in 1961, but he remained unwelcome on network television. “Hootenanny,” an early-1960s show on ABC that capitalized on the folk revival, refused to book Mr. Seeger, causing other performers (including Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and Peter, Paul and Mary) to boycott it. “Hootenanny” eventually offered to present Mr. Seeger if he would sign a loyalty oath. He refused.
He toured the world, performing and collecting folk songs, in 1963 and returned to serenade civil rights advocates, who had made a rallying song of his “We Shall Overcome.”
Like many of Mr. Seeger’s songs, “We Shall Overcome” had convoluted traditional roots.
It was based on old gospel songs, primarily “I’ll Overcome,” a hymn that striking tobacco workers had sung on a picket line in South Carolina.
A slower version, “We Will Overcome,” was collected from Lucille Simmons, one of the workers, by Zilphia Horton, the musical director of the Highlander Folk School in Monteagle, Tenn., which trained union organizers.
Ms. Horton taught it to Mr. Seeger, and her version of “We Will Overcome” was published in the People’s Songs newsletter. Mr. Seeger changed “We will” to “We shall” and added verses (“We’ll walk hand in hand”). He taught it to the singers Frank Hamilton, who would join the Weavers in 1962, and Guy Carawan, who became musical director at Highlander in the ’50s. Mr. Carawan taught the song to the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee at its founding convention.
The song was copyrighted by Mr. Seeger, Mr. Hamilton, Mr. Carawan and Ms. Horton. “At that time we didn’t know Lucille Simmons’s name,” Mr. Seeger wrote in his 1993 autobiography, “Where Have All the Flowers Gone.” All of the song’s royalties go to the “We Shall Overcome” Fund, administered by what is now the Highlander Research and Education Center, which provides grants to African-Americans organizing in the South.
Along with many elders of the protest-song movement, Mr. Seeger felt betrayed when Bob Dylan set aside protest songs for electric rock.
When Mr. Dylan appeared at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival with a loud electric blues band, some listeners booed, and reports emerged that Mr. Seeger had tried to cut the power cable with an ax. But witnesses, including the festival’s producer, George Wein, and production manager, Joe Boyd (later a leading folk-rock record producer), said he did not go that far. (An ax was available, however. A group of prisoners had used it while singing a logging song.)
In later recountings, Mr. Seeger said he had grown angry because the music was so loud and distorted that he couldn’t hear the words.
As the United States grew divided over the Vietnam War, Mr. Seeger wrote “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy,” an antiwar 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 publicized the censorship, Mr. Seeger returned to perform the song for broadcast in February 1968.
Fighting for the Hudson River
During the late 1960s Mr. Seeger started an improbable project: a sailing ship that would crusade for cleaner water on the Hudson River. Between other benefit concerts he raised money to build the Clearwater, a 106-foot sloop, which was launched in June 1969 with a crew of musicians. The ship became a symbol and a rallying point for antipollution efforts and education.
In May 2009, after decades of litigation and environmental activism led by Mr. Seeger’s nonprofit environmental organization, Hudson River Sloop Clearwater, General Electric began dredging sediment containing PCBs it had dumped into the Hudson. Mr. Seeger and his wife also helped organize a yearly summer folk festival named after the Clearwater.
In the 1980s and ’90s Mr. 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 he received a Kennedy Center Honor and, from President Bill Clinton, the National Medal of Arts, America’s highest arts honor, awarded 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.”
Mr. Seeger was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, in the category of early influences, in 1996.
Arlo Guthrie, who paid tribute at the ceremony, mentioned that the Weavers’ hit “Goodnight, Irene” had reached No. 1, only to add, “I can’t think of a single event in Pete’s life that is probably less important to him.” Mr. Seeger made no acceptance speech, but he did lead a singalong of “Goodnight, Irene,” flanked by Stevie Wonder, David Byrne and members of the Jefferson Airplane.
Mr. 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.”
Mr. Seeger kept performing into the 21st century, despite a flagging voice; audiences happily sang along more loudly.
He celebrated his 90th birthday, on May 3, 2009, at a Madison Square Garden concert — a benefit for Hudson River Sloop Clearwater — with Mr. Springsteen, Dave Matthews, John Mellencamp, Ms. Baez, Ani DiFranco, Roger McGuinn of the Byrds, Emmylou Harris and dozens of other musicians paying tribute. That August he was back in Newport for the 50th anniversary of the Newport Folk Festival.
Mr. Seeger’s wife, Toshi, died in 2013, days before the couple’s 70th anniversary. Survivors include his son, Daniel; his daughters, Mika and Tinya; two half-sisters, Peggy, also a folk singer, and Barbara; eight grandchildren, including Mr. Jackson and the musician Tao Rodriguez-Seeger, who performed with him at the Obama inaugural; and four great-grandchildren. His half-brother, Mike Seeger, a folklorist and performer who founded the New Lost City Ramblers, died in 2009.
Through the years, Mr. 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.”
Gerry Mullany, Emma G. Fitzsimmons and Daniel E. Slotnik contributed reporting.
Pete Seeger: 10 great songs
By Martin Chilton
Seeger, who has died at the age of 94, received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award and a National Medal of Arts, and, in 1996, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. When Seeger’s 90th birthday was celebrated, Bruce Springsteen hailed him as “a living archive of America’s music and conscience, a testament of the power of song and culture to nudge history along.”
Here are 10 of his greatest songs:
• WE SHALL OVERCOME
We Shall Overcome, which became a key song in the civil rights movement in the Sixties, has complex roots. Seeger (along with Frank Hamilton and Guy Carawan) adapted their version from several old gospel songs and a hymn, I’ll Overcome, which had been sung by striking tobacco workers in South Carolina. They copyrighted their version and dictated that all of the song’s royalties went to the “We Shall Overcome” Fund, administered by what is now the Highlander Research and Education Centre. Seeger once said: “Nobody knows exactly who wrote the original. The original was faster.” In August 1963, Joan Baez led a crowd of more than a quarter of a million people in singing We Shall Overcome at the Lincoln Memorial, during the famous March on Washington.
• WAIST DEEP IN THE BIG MUDDY
Pete Seeger wrote Waist Deep in the Big Muddy in protest at the conflict in Vietnam (a line about a dissenting sergeant being a ‘nervous Nelly’ was a veiled attack on President Lyndon Johnson). Seeger performed the song on the television show The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour in September 1967 but it was cut by the CBS network. The Smothers Brothers (comedians and musicians Tommy and Dick) kicked up a fuss about the censorship, and Seeger was allowed to return and sing it on the show in February 1968. There have been fine cover versions by Dick Gaughan and Richard Shindell.
• IF I HAD A HAMMER (THE HAMMER SONG)
An activist song written in 1949 by Pete Seeger and his band-mate from The Weavers, Lee Hays. It is one of Seeger’s most covered songs, with versions by Trini Lopez, Sam Cooke, Peter, Paul and Mary, The Four Tops, Luther Vandross and even Leonard Nimoy.
• OH, I HAD A GOLDEN THREAD
The song was written by Pete Seeger in 1958 and is often mistaken for a traditional song. Eva Cassidy said it was her favourite song and recorded a live version. Seeger said: “A rather gentle song came to me as I was fooling around on the guitar. Years later I realised that I had rewritten the melody of ‘Nearer My God to Thee.’ Once again, you can see how the folk process has been aided by a bad memory.”
• WHERE HAVE ALL THE FLOWERS GONE?
A song Pete Seeger originally wrote in 1955 and to which additional verses were added by a teacher called Joe Hickerson in 1960. Seeger gave him 20 per cent of the royalties. Where Have All the Flowers Gone? was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2002. Seeger recalled about the song: “I had been reading a long novel – And Quiet Flows the Don – about the Don River in Russia and the Cossacks who lived along it in the 19th century. It describes the Cossack soldiers galloping off to join the Tsar’s army, singing as they go. Three lines from a song are quoted in the book: ‘Where are the flowers?/The girls plucked them/Where are the girls?/They’re all married/Where are the men?/They’re all in the army.’ I never got around to looking up the song, but I wrote down those three lines. Later, in an airplane, I was dozing, and it occurred to me that the line “long time passing” – which I had also written in a notebook – would sing well. Then I thought, ‘When will we ever learn’. Suddenly, within 20 minutes, I had a song.”
Earth, Wind & Fire – Where Have All The Flowers Gone (Audio) on MUZU.TV.
• BRING ‘EM HOME
Bruce Springsteen hailed Pete Seeger’s “stubborn, nasty, defiant optimism” and Springsteen recorded Seeger’s anti-Vietnam war anthem Bring ‘Em Home, which includes the lines:
“For defence you need common sense/Bring them home, bring them home/They don’t have the right armaments/Bring them home, bring them home.”
Pete Seeger was a master at reinterpreting old spiritual and protest songs. With Wimoweh, which Seeger sang and adapted with The Weavers, he took a South African song written and recorded by Solomon Linda (the title was Seeger’s mishearing of Mbube) and turned it into a modern folk classic.
Pete Seeger conducts an instrument making session on Children’s Day at the 1966 Newport Folk Festival
• KISSES SWEETER THAN WINE
Pete Seeger and Lee Hays re-worked a Lead Belly song called If It Wasn’t for Dicky, turning it into a love song called Kisses Sweeter Than Wine in 1951. The version by The Weavers reached No19 on the US hit parade. Numerous singers have covered the song, including Jimmie Rodgers, Frankie Vaughan and Jackson Browne. There was even a version by Marlene Dietrich.
• MY RAINBOW RACE
Pete Seeger wrote My Rainbow Race as a children’s folk song in 1973. The song was a hit in the Seventies in Norway and came to prominence there again in 2012 when it was sung by a crowd of more than 40,000 people as a protest against statements by mass murderer Anders Behring Breivik.
• TURN! TURN! TURN!
The Byrds has a No1 hit in 1965 with Pete Seeger’s beautiful song Turn! Turn! Turn!, which is adapted from a passage from chapter three of the Book of Ecclesiastes. The song includes the lines: “To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven.” Seeger said he had remained an optimistic person throughout his life, saying in 1994, “The key to the future of the world is finding the optimistic stories and letting them be known.”