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

Israelis Quietly Expand Enclave in Palestinian District of Jerusalem

Estimated 500 settlers, armed or protected by paramilitary police, live in Silwan among 50,000 Palestinians More

Video US, Iran Face Similar Challenges in Syrian Fight Against IS

Both Washington, Tehran back fighters battling Islamic State militants in Iraq -- but in Syria they support opposing sides in country’s civil war More

China Boosts Efforts to Help Afghan, Regional Stability

Observers say China’s increased regional involvement are due to concerns that Afghan instability and the presence of anti-China militants in Pakistani border areas could fuel Xinjiang troubles 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.
China Political Meeting Seeks to Improve Rule of Lawi
X
William Ide
October 20, 2014 10:23 AM
China’s communist leaders will host a top level political meeting this week, called the Fourth Plenum, and for the first time in the party’s history, rule of law will be a key item on the agenda. Analysts and Chinese media reports say the meetings could see the approval of long-awaited measures aimed at giving courts more independence and include steps to enhance an already aggressive and high-reaching anti-corruption drive. VOA’s Bill Ide has more from Beijing.
Video

Video China Political Meeting Seeks to Improve Rule of Law

China’s communist leaders will host a top level political meeting this week, called the Fourth Plenum, and for the first time in the party’s history, rule of law will be a key item on the agenda. Analysts and Chinese media reports say the meetings could see the approval of long-awaited measures aimed at giving courts more independence and include steps to enhance an already aggressive and high-reaching anti-corruption drive. VOA’s Bill Ide has more from Beijing.
Video

Video Ebola Orphanage Opens in Sierra Leone

Sierra Leone's first Ebola orphanage has opened in the Kailahun district. Hundreds of children orphaned since the beginning of the Ebola outbreak face stigma and rejection with nobody to care for them. Adam Bailes reports for VOA about a new interim care center that's aimed at helping the growing number of children affected by Ebola.
Video

Video Latinas Converting to Islam for Identity, Structure

Latinos are one of the fastest growing groups in the Muslim religion. According to the Pew Research Center, about 6 percent of American Muslims are Latino. And a little more than half of new converts are female. VOA’s Carolyn Presutti travelled to Miami, Florida -- where two out of every three residents is Hispanic -- to learn more.
Video

Video Nigeria Agrees to Cease-Fire With Boko Haram

Islamist militant group Boko Haram and the Nigerian government have agreed to a cease-fire. The Nigerian government issued an order Friday, telling all military chiefs "to comply with the cease-fire agreement in all theaters of operations. Why now and the significance of the agreement are questions on some people’s minds. VOA's Mariama Diallo reports.
Video

Video Kobani Fighting Sends 400,000 Refugees to Turkey

The offensive by Islamic State militants against the northern Syrian city of Kobani has caused hundreds of thousands of residents to flee to Turkey. They receive help from Turkish authorities and individuals, but say much more is needed. VOA’s Scott Bobb reports from the town of Suruc a few kilometers from the border.
Video

Video Exclusive: American Joins Kurds' Anti-IS Fight

The United States and other Western nations have expressed alarm about their citizens joining Islamic State forces in Syria and Iraq. In a rare counterpoint to the phenomenon, an American has taken up arms with the militants' Syrian Kurdish opponents. Elizabeth Arrott has more in this exclusive profile by VOA Kurdish reporter Zana Omer in Ras al Ayn, Syria.
Video

Video South Korea Confronts Violence Within Military Ranks

Every able-bodied South Korean male between 18 and 35 must serve for 21 to 36 months in the country’s armed forces, depending upon the specific branch. For many, service is a rite of passage to manhood. But there are growing concerns that bullying and violence come along with the tradition. Reporter Jason Strother has more from Seoul.
Video

Video Comanche People Maintain Pride in Their Heritage

The Comanche (Indian nation) once were called the “Lords of the Plains,” with an empire that included half the land area of current day Texas, large parts of Oklahoma, New Mexico, Kansas and Colorado.The fierceness and battle prowess of these warriors on horseback delayed the settlement of most of West Texas for four decades. VOA’s Greg Flakus reports from Lawton, Oklahoma, that while their warrior days are over, the 15,000 members of the Comanche Nation remain a proud people.
Video

Video Turkey Campus Attacks Raise Islamic Radicalization Fears

Concerns are growing in Turkey of Islamic radicalization at some universities, after clashes between supporters of the jihadist group Islamic State (IS) or ISIS, and those opposed to the extremists. Pro-jihadist literature is on sale openly on the streets of Istanbul. Critics accuse the government of turning a blind eye to radicalism at home, while Kurds accuse the president of supporting IS - a charge strongly denied. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
Video

Video Syrian Defector Leaks Shocking Photos of Torture Victims

Shocking photographs purporting to show Syrian torture victims are on display at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington. The museum says the graphic images are among thousands of photographs recently smuggled out of Syria by a military policeman-turned-defector. As VOA reporter Julie Taboh reports, the museum says the photos provide further evidence of atrocities committed by the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad against its own people.
Video

Video Drought-Stricken California Considers Upgrading Water System

A three-year drought in California is causing a water shortage that is being felt on farms and cities throughout the state. As VOA's Mike O’Sullivan reports, water experts, consumers and farmers say California needs to make changes to cope with an uncertain future.
Video

Video TechShop Puts High-tech Dreams Within Reach

Square, a business app and card reader, makes it possible to do credit card transactions through cell phones. But what made Square possible? VOA’s Adrianna Zhang and Enming Liu have the answer.

All About America

AppleAndroid

New in Music Alley

Border Crossings

Joe Taylor sits down with "Border Crossings" host Larry London to talk about his distinction as New York’s “Subway Idol,” and how he beat out thousands for that title. Joe performs several songs from his new CD, “Anything’s Possible.”