News / Arts & Entertainment

US Folk Singer, Political Activist Pete Seeger Dies

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.
Bernie Bernard
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.

Pete Seeger Obit, narrated by Carla Babb
Pete Seeger Obit, narrated by Carla Babbi
|| 0:00:00
...
 
🔇
X

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."

Error rendering storify.

You May Like

Is Air Travel Safe?

Aviation expert says despite tragic losses of Malaysian Airlines flights 370 and 17, industry experienced lowest fatality rate in recorded history last year More

Multimedia 100 Days Later, Nigerian Girls Still Held

Activists holding rallies in Nigeria and several other countries to mark 100th day of captivity for more than 200 schoolgirls being held by Boko Haram More

Chocolate Too Bitter? Swap Sugar for Mushrooms

US food technology company develops fermentation process using mushrooms to reduce bitterness in cocoa beans, believes it will cut sugar content in candy More

This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
Comments
     
by: Anthonybellchambers
January 28, 2014 4:07 AM
What an inadequate obituary for one of the 'greats' of American folk music whose songs reached around the world and brought strength and resolve to hundreds of thousands on campus, in the civil rights movement and organised labor. A man worth five Obamas and at least 20 Bushes. RIP

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
US Carriers Suspend Travel to Israeli
X
Carolyn Presutti
July 23, 2014 1:21 AM
The United States is prohibiting American carriers from flying to Israel's airport in Tel Aviv for 24 hours, because of rising violence between Israel and Hamas militants. The action was announced on Tuesday, after a rocket fired by Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip landed near the airport. As VOA's Carolyn Presutti tells us, international officials soon may have to determine which combat zones are too dangerous for commercial flights.
Video

Video US Carriers Suspend Travel to Israel

The United States is prohibiting American carriers from flying to Israel's airport in Tel Aviv for 24 hours, because of rising violence between Israel and Hamas militants. The action was announced on Tuesday, after a rocket fired by Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip landed near the airport. As VOA's Carolyn Presutti tells us, international officials soon may have to determine which combat zones are too dangerous for commercial flights.
Video

Video NASA Focuses on Earth-Like Planets

For decades, looking for life elsewhere in the universe meant listening for signals that could be from distant civilizations. But recent breakthroughs in space technology refocused some of that effort toward finding planets that may harbor life, even in its primitive form. VOA’s George Putic reports on a recent panel discussion at NASA’s headquarters, in Washington.
Video

Video IAEA: Iran Turns its Enriched Uranium Into Less Harmful Form

Iran has converted its stockpiles of enriched uranium into a less dangerous form that is more difficult to use for nuclear weapons, according to the United Nations’ Atomic Energy Agency. The move complies with an interim deal reached with Western powers on Iran's nuclear program last year, in exchange for easing of sanctions. Henry Ridgwell reports for VOA from London.
Video

Video Relic of Saint Draws Catholics Worried About Immigration Issue

A Roman Catholic saint who is a figure of devotion for those crossing the border into the United States is attracting believers concerned about the plight of undocumented immigrants. Mike O'Sullivan reports from Los Angeles, where a relic of Saint Toribio has drawn thousands to local churches.
Video

Video US Awards Medal of Honor for Heroics in Bloodiest of Afghan Battles

U.S. combat troops are withdrawing from Afghanistan, on pace to leave the country by the end of this year. But on Monday, U.S. President Barack Obama took time to honor a soldier whose actions while under fire in Afghanistan earned him the Medal of Honor. VOA's Jeff Seldin has more from the Pentagon.
Video

Video Ukraine Rebels Surrender MH17 Black Boxes

After days of negotiations, a senior separatist leader handed over two black boxes from an airliner downed over eastern Ukraine to Malaysian experts early Tuesday. While on Monday, the U.N. Security Council unanimously demanded that armed groups controlling the crash site allow safe and unrestricted access to the wreckage.
Video

Video In Cambodia, HIV Diagnosis Brings Deadly Shame

Although HIV/AIDS is now a treatable condition, a positive diagnosis is still a life altering experience. In Cambodia, people living with HIV are often disowned by friends, family and the community. This humiliation can be unbearable. We bring you one Cambodian woman’s struggle to overcome a life tragedy and her own HIV positive diagnosis.
Video

Video Nature of Space Exploration Enters New Age

Forty-five years ago this month, the first humans walked on the moon. It was during an era of the space race between the United States and the Soviet Union. World politics have changed since then and -- as Elizabeth Lee reports -- so has the nature of space exploration.

AppleAndroid

New in Music Alley

The Hamilton Live

Acclaimed jazz saxophonist Tia Fuller has made a name for herself appearing with such high-profile artists as Beyonce, Esperanza Spalding, and Terri Lyne Carrington. Tia and her quartet performed music from her CD “Angelic Warrior” on our latest edition of "The Hamilton Live."