[Marxism] Pete Seeger, Champion of Folk Music and Social Change, Dies at 94

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Wed Jan 29 08:18:56 MST 2014


NY Times, Jan. 29, 2014
Pete Seeger, Champion of Folk Music and Social Change, Dies at 94
By JON PARELES

Pete Seeger, the singer, folk-song collector and songwriter who 
spearheaded an American folk revival and spent a long career championing 
folk music as both a vital heritage and a catalyst for social change, 
died on Monday in Manhattan. He was 94.

His death, at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital, was confirmed by his 
grandson Kitama Cahill Jackson.

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.

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.”

Peter Seeger was born in Manhattan on May 3, 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 attending Avon Old Farms, a private 
boarding school in Connecticut. His father and his stepmother, the 
composer Ruth Crawford Seeger, collected and transcribed rural American 
folk music, as did folklorists like John and Alan Lomax. He heard the 
five-string banjo, which would become his main instrument, when his 
father took him to a square-dance festival in North Carolina.

Young Pete became enthralled by rural traditions. “I liked the strident 
vocal tone of the singers, the vigorous dancing,” he is quoted as saying 
in “How Can I Keep From Singing,” a biography by David Dunaway. “The 
words of the songs had all the meat of life in them. Their humor had a 
bite, it was not trivial. Their tragedy was real, not sentimental.”

Planning to be a journalist, Mr. Seeger attended Harvard, where he 
founded a radical newspaper and joined the Young Communist League. After 
two years he dropped out and went to New York City, where Alan Lomax 
introduced him to the blues singer Huddie Ledbetter, known as Lead 
Belly. Lomax also helped Mr. Seeger find a job cataloging and 
transcribing music at the Archive of American Folk Song at the Library 
of Congress.

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.”




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