By Jeremy D. Larson
Pete Seeger, the genesis of folk in America who helped revolutionize the song and the story in popular music, has died. He was 94.
The New York Times reports that his death was confirmed by his grandson, Kitama Cahill Jackson, who said he died of natural causes at New York Presbyterian Hospital.
Seeger’s range of influence is incalculable in folk music and beyond. Bruce Springsteen idolized him, Bob Dylan called him a saint and Joan Baez said that, “We owe all our careers to him.” Seeger wrote some of the 20th century’s most indelible songs, including “If I Had a Hammer,” “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” and “Turn! Turn! Turn!” to name a few, all collected in numerous volumes throughout his life.
In total, Seeger’s albums numbered well into the hundreds.
Seeger entered the world already in the throes of traditional music. Born in 1919 in New York City, his father was a Professor of musicology and his mother was a classical violinist. Seeger learned to play the ukulele, guitar and banjo as a teenager and took a job assisting folk archivist Alan Lomax to transcribe and record the traditional music of the American South. It would be Seeger’s legacy to unearth the songs that were embedded deep within the soil of American history.
Equal with his passion for music and anthropology, was Seeger’s passion for politics and social justice. He was an ur-activist in the folk tradition, a street-fighting man in the truest sense. Wherever there was injustice, there would be the rail-thin Seeger with his 5-string banjo or his 12-string guitar.
He appeared at major political and social crossroads throughout the decades: For the labor movement in the 1940s and 1950s, he was singing protest and union songs with Woody Guthrie, and his first group, The Almanac Singers. After the Almanacs disbanded, Seeger joined The Weavers, the folk quartet Seeger founded with Lee Hays. Their cover of Lead Belly’s “Goodnight Irene” was a massive hit, and went to No. 1 in 1950.
As was fitting for any pro-labor activist in the ’50s, Seeger became embroiled in McCarthy’s anti-Communist witch hunt. Seeger was called to testify before the HUAC committee in 1955. When asked if he had ever sung for the Communist Party, Seeger famously replied:
“I have sung for Americans of every political persuasion, and I am proud that I never refuse to sing to an audience, no matter what religion or color of their skin, or situation in life. I have sung in hobo jungles, and I have sung for the Rockefellers.”
As America started to shake off more conservative ideas, Seeger still followed injustice at its heels. “We Shall Overcome,” which Seeger adapted from old spirituals, became the anthem of the civil rights movement. He marched beside Martin Luther King, Jr. at civil rights marches and played anti-Vietnam War rallies in the 1960s.
He would go on to sing for environmental and anti-war causes in the 1970s. Even when he was in his 90s, his aging voice was as loud as ever, as he sang to the environmental concerns and farmer’s rights while playing at Neil Young’s Farm Aid last year.
Seeger may not have been a pop star, but he was the definition of populist musician. He possessed the ability to reach all sects, all creeds, all walks, all races and all classes. He embodied the American Dream, fractured and cracked but grounded in perseverance, shifting with the times.
Among his many tribute albums, Bruce Springsteen released We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions in 2006. In the liner notes, Springsteen called Seeger’s music, “street corner music, parlor music, tavern music, wilderness music, circus music, church music, gutter music.” Few greater descriptions of the Seeger canon exist.
In an interview with NPR in 2013, Seeger keyed into the reason his music has held so much power for years in America, and for his legacy to continue for many decades to come. The folk tradition is about telling stories and passing those stories on to the next generation. Folk music and Pete Seeger are symbiotic, and, definitively, they are about the people: “We’d like people to sing our songs. We don’t want a melody that’s so difficult, an ordinary person couldn’t sing it.”