News / Arts & Entertainment

Remembering Pete Seeger

FILE - Musician Pete Seeger (C) performs during a concert celebrating his 90th birthday in New York, May 3, 2009.
FILE - Musician Pete Seeger (C) performs during a concert celebrating his 90th birthday in New York, May 3, 2009.
Katherine Cole
Pete Seeger, the legendary folk singer-songwriter who fought for social change and played a major role in the American folk revival, died Monday at the age of 94.

For many, Seeger will be remembered as America’s most-famous, and infamous, folk singer.

Banjo player Tony Trischka first heard Seeger’s banjo-playing and singing as child and later became his friend. When he was 14 years old, Trischka wrote Seeger a fan letter. He didn’t have an address, so he just addressed it to Pete Seeger, Beacon New York and hoped that it would reach his hero.

“I wrote something to the effect ‘Dear Pete, I think you’re the greatest banjo player who ever lived.’ Two weeks later, I received a postcard back from Pete Seeger saying ‘Dear Tony, music’s not like a horse race, there’s no such thing as best, but I’m glad you like my music.’ And he signed it Pete Seeger, as you would, and he drew a little banjo. And that just became a relic, this iconic thing that helped inspire me,” he said.

Remembering Pete Seeger
Remembering Pete Seegeri
|| 0:00:00
...    
🔇
X

Born in New York City in 1919, Seeger grew up believing that song has the power to change the world.  Seeger dropped out of Harvard College in 1938, and began working with music archivist Alan Lomax, assisting him on song-collecting trips through the American south.  In the early-1940s, he formed The Almanac Singers, a highly-politicized singing group known for recording union songs and anti-war anthems.

While the start of World War II meant the end of The Almanac Singers, a stint in the Army didn’t mean the end of Seeger’s singing career.  In 1948, he formed The Weavers, who soon became one of America’s favorite singing groups.  Poet Carl Sandberg wrote, “The Weavers are out of the grassroots of America.  When I hear America singing, The Weavers are there.”
    
One of the most-famous songs by The Weavers, “Tzena, Tzena, Tzena,”, makes an appearance on “Pete Seeger at 89,” albeit in a slightly different version.  The 21st Century version includes not only an English translation of the Israeli song, but also a translation in Arabic.  And as Seeger describes it, all the parts harmonize with each other.  

FILE - Folk singer Pete Seeger, left, performing at the Rally for Détente at Carnegie Hall in New York, May 13, 1975.FILE - Folk singer Pete Seeger, left, performing at the Rally for Détente at Carnegie Hall in New York, May 13, 1975.
x
FILE - Folk singer Pete Seeger, left, performing at the Rally for Détente at Carnegie Hall in New York, May 13, 1975.
FILE - Folk singer Pete Seeger, left, performing at the Rally for Détente at Carnegie Hall in New York, May 13, 1975.
​As popular as it was, “Tzena Tzena Tzena” and his other hit songs couldn’t rescue Seeger from the “Red Scare” of the early 1950s.  Three members of The Weavers were named as members of the Communist Party.  The group was soon ostracized.  Despite selling millions of records, The Weavers couldn’t get hired for concerts, and were dropped by their record label. 

In 1955, Seeger was called to Washington to testify before the U.S. House of Representatives Un-American Activities Committee, where he was questioned about his political associations. He told the committee, “I am not going to answer any questions as to my associations, my philosophical or my religious 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.”

Because of that, on July 26, 1956, the House of Representatives voted 373 to 9 to cite Pete Seeger, and seven others, for contempt. Five years later, Seeger’s case finally came to trial.  He was found guilty and sentenced to a year in prison, resulting in worldwide protests.  Although the verdict was overturned, that didn’t mean a return to business as usual for Seeger. He didn’t return to U.S. radio and television until the late 1960s.

FILE - Activist musician Pete Seeger, 92, left, marches with nearly a thousand demonstrators sympathetic to the Occupy Wall Street protests for a brief acoustic concert in Columbus Circle in New York, Oct. 21, 2011.FILE - Activist musician Pete Seeger, 92, left, marches with nearly a thousand demonstrators sympathetic to the Occupy Wall Street protests for a brief acoustic concert in Columbus Circle in New York, Oct. 21, 2011.
x
FILE - Activist musician Pete Seeger, 92, left, marches with nearly a thousand demonstrators sympathetic to the Occupy Wall Street protests for a brief acoustic concert in Columbus Circle in New York, Oct. 21, 2011.
FILE - Activist musician Pete Seeger, 92, left, marches with nearly a thousand demonstrators sympathetic to the Occupy Wall Street protests for a brief acoustic concert in Columbus Circle in New York, Oct. 21, 2011.
Which makes it all the more remarkable that in 1994, Seeger returned to Washington to receive the Presidential Medal of the Arts, the nation’s highest artistic honor.  Two years later he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. And in 2009, he performed at the Lincoln Memorial in a concert to celebrate the presidency of Barack Obama.

Andrew Revkin writes the “Dot-Earth” blog for the New York Times, and is also a professional musician who played with Seeger many times over the past 20 years. He says that while there are still many people who think of Seeger in only political terms, his songs will live on.

FILE - U.S. singers Pete Seeger (L) and Bruce Springsteen (R) performing during the “We are One” Inaugural Celebration at the Lincoln Memorial on Jan. 18, 2009, in Washington, D.C.FILE - U.S. singers Pete Seeger (L) and Bruce Springsteen (R) performing during the “We are One” Inaugural Celebration at the Lincoln Memorial on Jan. 18, 2009, in Washington, D.C.
x
FILE - U.S. singers Pete Seeger (L) and Bruce Springsteen (R) performing during the “We are One” Inaugural Celebration at the Lincoln Memorial on Jan. 18, 2009, in Washington, D.C.
FILE - U.S. singers Pete Seeger (L) and Bruce Springsteen (R) performing during the “We are One” Inaugural Celebration at the Lincoln Memorial on Jan. 18, 2009, in Washington, D.C.
“I think he’ll always be there in the sense that so many musicians have been influenced by him, even if the next generations coming forward may not know his name," he said. "Some of the best known renditions of his songs were by the Byrds. And more recently, Bruce Springsteen did an album “The Seeger Sessions,” they weren’t Pete Seeger songs, but they were songs Bruce learned through Pete. You know the great old hymn and folk song ‘Will the Circle Be Unbroken?’ The circle created through his music is unbroken.”

When he died, Seeger had a list of honors longer than the neck on his famed banjo; not bad for a man who says he never planned to make music his career.

“I did not want to be a professional musician.  I liked to sing, but I thought the music business was full of hypocrisy," he said. "I did, though, go sing in the schools and in summer camps.  And then some of the kids grew up and went to college.  And I, during the ‘frightened ‘50s’ when the blacklist was in the popular music business, I just went from college to college to college to college to college to college to college.  The most important job I ever did. I could have kicked the bucket [died] in 1960.  My job was done!  After me, a whole bunch of young people came along:  Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs, and a whole lot of others.  And now, it’s out of control.”

It was Pete Seeger who changed the words of an old spiritual from “We Will Overcome” to “We Shall Overcome”, and then sang it to American civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr., who went on to make it an anthem of the civil right movement in the 1960s.  That optimism endured in his music.

You May Like

UN Fears Rights Violations in China-backed Projects

UNHCHR investigates link between financing development and ignoring safeguards for human rights More

Boko Haram Violence Tests Nigerians’ Faith in Buhari

New president has promised to stem insurgency; he’s scheduled to meet with President Obama at White House July 20 More

Social Media Network Wants Privacy in User’s Hands

Encryption's popularity in messaging is exploding; now it's the foundation of a new social network More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Making Music, Fleeing Bombs: New Film on Sudan’s Internal Refugeesi
X
Carolyn Weaver
July 06, 2015 6:47 PM
In 2012, Sudanese filmmaker Hajooj Kuka went to make a documentary among civil war refugees in Sudan’s Blue Nile and Nuba Mountains region. What he found surprised him: music was helping to save people from bombing raids by their own government. VOA’s Carolyn Weaver has more.
Video

Video Making Music, Fleeing Bombs: New Film on Sudan’s Internal Refugees

In 2012, Sudanese filmmaker Hajooj Kuka went to make a documentary among civil war refugees in Sudan’s Blue Nile and Nuba Mountains region. What he found surprised him: music was helping to save people from bombing raids by their own government. VOA’s Carolyn Weaver has more.
Video

Video Rice Farmers Frustrated As Drought Grips Thailand

A severe drought in Thailand is limiting the growing season of the country’s important rice crop. Farmers are blaming the government for not doing more to protect a key export. Steve Sandford reports from Chiang Mai, Thailand.
Video

Video 'From This Day Forward' Reveals Difficult Journey of Transgender Parent

In her documentary, "From This Day Forward", filmmaker Sharon Shattuck reveals the personal journey of her transgender father, as he told his family that he always felt he was a woman inside and decided to live as one. VOA’s Penelope Poulou has more.
Video

Video Floodwaters Threaten Iconic American Home

The Farnsworth House in the Midwest State of Illinois is one of the most iconic homes in America. Thousands of tourists visit the site every year. Its location near a river inspired the design of the house, but, as VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, that very location is now threatening the existence of this National Historic Landmark.
Video

Video Olympics Construction Scars Sacred Korean Mountain

Environmentalists in South Korea are protesting a Winter Olympics construction project to build a ski slope through a 500-year-old protected forest. Brian Padden reports that although there is strong national support for hosting the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, there are growing public concerns over the costs and possible ecological damage at the revered mountain.
Video

Video Xenophobia Victims in South Africa Flee Violence, Then Return

Many Malawians fled South Africa early this year after xenophobic attacks on African immigrants. But many quickly found life was no better at home and have returned to South Africa – often illegally and without jobs, and facing the tough task of having to start over. Lameck Masina and Anita Powell file from Johannesburg.
Video

Video Family of American Marine Calls for Release From Iranian Prison

As the crowd of journalists covering the Iran talks swells, so too do the opportunities for media coverage.  Hoping to catch the attention of high-level diplomats, the family of American-Iranian marine Amir Hekmati is in Vienna, pleading for his release from an Iranian prison after nearly 4 years.  VOA’s Heather Murdock reports from Vienna.
Video

Video UK Holds Terror Drill as MPs Mull Tunisia Response

After pledging a tough response to last Friday’s terror attack in Tunisia, which came just days before the 10th anniversary of the bomb attacks on London’s transport network, British security services are shifting their focus to overseas counter-terror operations. VOA's Henry Ridgwell has more.
Video

Video Obama on Cuba: This is What Change Looks Like

President Barack Obama says the United States will soon reopen its embassy in Cuba for the first time since 1961, ending a half-century of isolation. VOA White House correspondent Luis Ramirez reports.
Video

Video Hate Groups Spread Influence Via Internet

Hate groups of various kinds are using the Internet for propaganda and recruitment, and a Jewish human rights organization that monitors these groups, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, says their influence is growing. The messages are different, but the calls to hatred or violence are similar. VOA's Mike O’Sullivan reports.
Video

Video Blind Somali Journalist Defies Odds in Mogadishu

Despite improving security in the last few years, Somalia remains one of the most dangerous countries to be a journalist – even more so for someone who cannot see. Abdulaziz Billow has the story of journalist Abdifatah Hassan Kalgacal, who has been reporting from the Somali capital for the last decade despite being blind.
Video

Video Rabbi Hits Road to Heal Jewish-Muslim Relations in France

France is on high alert after last week's terrorist attack near the city Lyon, just six months after deadly Paris shootings. The attack have added new tensions to relations between French Jews and Muslims. France’s Jewish and Muslim communities also share a common heritage, though, and as far as one French rabbi is concerned, they are destined to be friends. From the Paris suburb of La Courneuve, Lisa Bryant reports about Rabbi Michel Serfaty and his friendship bus.

VOA Blogs

New in Music Alley

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Harry Wayne Casey – “KC” of KC and the Sunshine Band – comes to VOA’s Studio 4 to talk with "Border Crossings" host Larry London and perform songs from his new album, “Feeling You! The 60s.”