At 90, Pete Seeger has lived many lives, from protest singer to a blacklisted figure of suspicion during the McCarthy years, to environmentalist and folk hero. Even if you don't know his name, you've almost certainly heard Seeger's music. Over the last 70 years, Seeger has written songs - Turn, Turn, Turn, and If I Had A Hammer, are two examples - that seem like part of the American landscape. His version of Woody Guthrie's This Land is Your Land, which he performed at the Lincoln Memorial concert to celebrate President Obama's inauguration, is almost an unofficial national anthem. Seeger led the crowd of thousands in a sing-along, as he does wherever he goes.
On his 90th birthday, the legendary folk singer and songwriter Pete Seeger was honored at a concert at New York's Madison Square Garden. Fellow musicians of all ages joined him on stage, singing the folk and protest songs that Seeger made popular decades ago. "If I didn't think music could help save the human race, I wouldn't be making music," Seeger said.
Pete Seeger first came to fame in the 1940s as a member of the Almanac Singers, then of the Weavers, and then on his own. He was a founder of the Newport Folk Festival, where his performances in the early 1960s were captured by filmmaker Murray Lerner.
Seeger's parents were intellectuals and classical musicians. "My mother was a very good violinist. She gave miniature fiddles to my two older brothers," he said in an interview in Beacon, New York, where he has lived since 1949. "But they rebelled. I came along and my father said, 'Oh let Peter enjoy himself.' But he left music instruments around the house. And by the time I was five, I could pick out a tune on the petty-whistle, or marimba, or squeezebox, or piano or organ."Yet as a teenager, Seeger says, he didn't aspire to music, but to live in the woods. "I said I'm going to be a hermit. That's the only way you can be honest in this world of hypocrisy. And I really meant it. I remember wondering, could I be a forest ranger? I went to a school where you learned to use an axe. And three days a week I was out there chopping trees."
When Seeger did take up music, it was to advance his political ideals, especially for civil rights and social justice, peace and the environment. He said he believes he made his greatest contribution before 1960, as an example for younger singers. "I showed a generation of young people, you don't have to be a hypocrite yourself," he said. "You can find people who would like to sing with you and to listen to your songs. And now there are tens of thousands of us, not getting rich, but they're singing their songs."
Seeger still chops wood almost every day on the mountain where he and his wife, Toshi, built a log cabin in 1949. They were living there in 1955 when, as a radical and former Communist, Seeger was called to testify about his political associations before the House Un-American Activities Committee. He refused, saying the demand violated his First Amendment rights."I will be glad to tell what songs I have ever sung, because singing is my business," he told the Committee. "But I decline to say who has ever listened to them, who has written them, or other people who have sung them. I am proud that I have sung for Americans of every political persuasion, and I have never refused to sing for anybody because I disagreed with their political opinion."
Seeger downplays the risk he took. "I felt in a much stronger position than the average person," he said. "There wasn't any job I could be fired from, and they were giving me all this free publicity." Six years later, he was found guilty of contempt of Congress and sentenced to a year in prison - although, after a legal battle, the case was dismissed.
These days, Seeger often sings with his grandson, musician Tao Rodriguez-Seeger, as at a festival last summer in Beacon, recorded by the Hudson Valley Music Channel. It was one of many events to benefit Clearwater sloops, tall ships that are free environmental classrooms that sail the Hudson River. Seeger launched Clearwater in 1969 to publicize the need to clean up polluted rivers. Today, the Hudson around Beacon is safe for swimming. Seeger is proud that he worked with community members from of every political stripe to accomplish that. "If there is a world here in a hundred years, it will be because millions, hundreds of millions of people used the brains God gave us. And they may do a simple little thing every day, like putting the trash in the right place, or finding a way not to use a car," he said.