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US Folk Singer, Political Activist Pete Seeger Dies

  • Bernie Bernard

FILE - Pete Seeger performing on stage during the Farm Aid 2013 concert at Saratoga Performing Arts Center in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.

FILE - Pete Seeger performing on stage during the Farm Aid 2013 concert at Saratoga Performing Arts Center in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.

Pete Seeger, regarded as the most influential folk artist in America, died Monday of natural causes in New York. He was 94 years old. A skilled banjo and guitar player, he was particularly famous for his themes of racial tolerance and peace.


During his career, Seeger wrote more than 100 songs, ranging from the freedom cry of "If I Had A Hammer," to his arrangement of the civil rights rallying song "We Shall Overcome," to his anti-war anthem, "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?"

He was born in New York City. His father was a musicologist and composer and his mother a classical violinist and teacher.

The younger Seeger studied at Harvard University, but seemed more interested in learning to play the five-string banjo, and left college in the late 1930's.

Later, he met singer-songwriter Woody Guthrie, who became his mentor and greatest influence. They sang at concerts to benefit migrant farm workers and striking labor union members, becoming popular among left-wing and radical groups.

Seeger often credited Guthrie with giving him a musical road map that guided his career.

"I figure the most important job I ever did in my life was passing on to a younger generation of songwriters the lessons I learned from him," he said. "That is, you take an old tune and you add new words to it."

In 1948, Seeger formed a quartet called The Weavers, giving an early start to the folk music revival. The Weavers had commercial success with songs such as "Goodnight, Irene" and the Seeger composition "If I Had A Hammer."

Although the group sold more than four million records, their popularity came to a sudden halt in the Cold War era, as McCarthyism pointed an accusing finger at those who were branded Communist sympathizers. The Weavers were blacklisted in the music industry and their recording contract was canceled.

But as the political tide turned in the 1960's, Seeger was embraced by a new generation as a folk music hero.

A civil rights activist, Seeger sang and marched with Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. His arrangement of the Baptist hymn, "We Shall Overcome," became theme of the early civil rights movement. Seeger explained why music always seems to be associated with protest.

"It may be because it is a little less threatening than talking, singing is, and you can get away with things singing that you cannot get away with talking. I think, in every country in the world, there is a tradition of singing at periods of crisis. When there is a war, you get war songs, and when somebody falls in love, we write love poetry," Seeger said.

In the mid-1960's, Seeger started a campaign to clean up the polluted Hudson River in New York State.

In later years, he turned to encouraging nuclear disarmament and closing nuclear power plants. He also was a campaigner for AIDS research and the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa.

In the tradition of Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger sang of the American experience, and how the struggle for change can be a painful process. In concert, he had the power to charm audiences into singing along with him. Once, during a show in Moscow, he taught 10,000 Russians who did not know a word of English to sing "Michael, Row The Boat Ashore" in four-part harmony. Seeger would always introduce each song with a bit of historical perspective or tell of his inspiration. He especially delighted young people with his tales and fables, and his many recordings for children are still popular.

After the death of his old friend and colleague, Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger often hit the concert trail with Woody's son, Arlo, a pop and folksinger in his own right. Both were featured on the 1988 album Folkways: A Vision Shared, A Tribute to Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly.

In 1994, Seeger received the Kennedy Center Honor for achievement in the arts, a special tribute to the man who was blacklisted for his alleged political views. Seeger once commented why he lived his life as an activist.

"I have tried to combine social action with music all my life, whether it is peace or war or unions or civil rights or the women's movement or the gay liberation movement, I have participated in all of them," he explained. " I am convinced they are all different sides of one huge crisis that is either going to wipe out the human race or we will solve it."

Seeger lived by the motto engraved on his banjo, "This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender."

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