Voice of political protest for over 50 years
Pete Seeger: May 3rd, 1919-January 27th, 2014
The singer, song collector and songwriter Pete Seeger, who has died aged 94, spearheaded the American folk music revival of the 1960s and spent a long career championing folk music as a vital heritage and catalyst for social change.
Seeger’s career carried him from singing at labour rallies to the Top 10, from college auditoriums to folk festivals, and from a conviction for contempt of Congress (after defying the witch-hunting House Un-American Activities Committee in the 1950s) to performing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial at an inaugural concert for Barack Obama.
A beanpole of a man who most often played 12-string guitar or five-string banjo, Seeger 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 labour 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.
Seeger was born in Manhattan in 1919, to Charles Seeger, a musicologist, and Constance de Clyver Edson Seeger, a concert violinist. His parents later divorced.
He began playing the ukulele while at school and later added the five-string banjo, which would become his main instrument, when his father took him to a square-dance festival in North Carolina.
Young Communist League
Seeger attended Harvard University, where he founded a radical newspaper and joined the Young Communist League. But after two years he dropped out and went to New York, where he met the blues singer Huddie Ledbetter, known as Lead Belly.
In 1940 he performed at a benefit concert for migrant California workers with Woody Guthrie and picked up some of his songs and his style. He later travelled across the United States with Guthrie, and hitchhiked and hopped freight trains by himself, learning and trading songs.
Back in New York in 1940 he recorded his first albums and performed union songs and anti-war songs, until the Communist Party changed its line following the invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941.
Seeger was drafted in 1942 and assigned to a unit of performers. While on leave in 1943 he married Japanese-American Toshi-Aline , whom he later referred to as “the brains of the family”.
When he returned from the war he founded People’s Songs Incorporated, 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.
At the end of the 1940s Seeger’s group, The Weavers, was signed to Decca Records and recorded a repertoire that stretched from If I Had a Hammer and the South African song Wimoweh to a cleaned-up version of Lead Belly’s Goodnight, Irene.
Charged with contempt
Seeger had by this time quit the Communist Party; he was later to criticise himself for not having left sooner. In the 1980s he performed at a benefit for the Polish Solidarity resistance movement and expressed the view that the most lasting revolutions were those that take a long time.
Marking out a difference perhaps with Woody Guthrie, whose guitar was famously inscribed with the slogan “This machine kills fascists”, Seeger had his banjo emblazoned with the motto “This Machine Surrounds Hate and Forces It to Surrender”.
In spite of his clear retreat from the Communist Party 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 refused to name any of his friends or associates to the committee and 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 the verdict was overturned on appeal.
At a time when Seeger himself was not welcome on US television, the Kingston Trio’s version of his 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. In 1965 the Byrds had a hit with Turn, Turn, Turn, Seeger’s setting of verses from the Book of Ecclesiastes.
In the early 1960s Seeger and other folk singers like Joan Baez popularised a traditional gospel song with a new title, We Shall Overcome. In the following years it was to become an anthem of the American and Northern Ireland civil rights movements.
Throughout the 1960s and 1970s he 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 then president Bill Clinton presented him with the National Medal of Arts.
‘A living archive’
At a New York concert on the occasion of his 90th birthday he was introduced by Bruce Springsteen as 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”.
Pete Seeger’s wife, Toshi, died in 2013, days before the couple’s 70th anniversary. He is survived by his son, Daniel; his daughters, Mika and Tinya; two half-sisters, Peggy, also a folk singer, and Barbara and eight grandchildren.