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.