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

At International AIDS Conference One Goal, Many Paths

The 12,000 delegates attending 20th International AIDS Conference in Melbourne have vastly different visions about how to eradicate disease More

Disasters May Doom Malaysia’s Flag Carrier

Even before loss of two jets loaded with passengers on international flights, company had been operating in red for three years, accumulating deficit of $1.3 billion More

Afghan Presidential Vote Audit Continues Despite Glitches

Process has been marred by walkouts by representatives of two competing candidates, Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani 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.
Nature of Space Exploration Enters New Agei
X
Elizabeth Lee
July 20, 2014 2:36 AM
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.
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.
Video

Video Chicago’s Argonne Lab Developing Battery of the Future

In 2012, the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science awarded a $120 million grant to a new technology center focused on battery development - headquartered at Argonne National Laboratory in suburban Chicago, Illinois. As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, there scientists are making the next technological breakthroughs in energy storage.
Video

Video In NW Pakistan, Army Offensive Causes Massive Number of Displaced

Pakistan’s army offensive in North Waziristan has resulted in the large-scale displacement of the local population. VOA's Ayaz Gul reports from northwest Pakistan where authorities say around 80 percent of the estimated 1 million internally displaced persons [IDPs] have settled in Bannu district, while much of the remaining 20 percent are scattered in nearby cities.
Video

Video Kurdish Peshmerga Force Secures Kirkuk, Its Oil

The Kurdistan regional government has sent its Peshmerga troops into the adjacent province of Kirkuk to drive out insurgents, and to secure the area's rich oil fields. By doing this, the regional government has added a fourth province to the three it officially controls. The oil also provides revenue that could make an independent Kurdistan economically strong. VOA’s Jeffrey Young went out with the Peshmerga and filed this report.
Video

Video Malaysia Reeling: Second Air Disaster in Four Months

Malaysia is reeling from the second air disaster in four months involving the country’s flag carrier. Flight 340 vanished in March and despite an extensive search, no debris has been found. And on Thursday, Flight 17, likely hit by a surface-to-air missile, came apart over eastern Ukraine. The two incidents together have left more than 500 people dead. VOA Correspondent Steve Herman reports from Kuala Lumpur.
Video

Video Diplomatic Crisis Grows Over MH17 Plane Crash

The Malaysia Airlines crash in eastern Ukraine is drawing reaction from leaders around the world. With suspicions growing that a surface-to-air missile shot down the aircraft, there are increasing tensions in the international community over who is to blame. Henry Ridgwell reports for VOA from London.
Video

Video Undocumented Immigrants Face Perilous Journey to US, No Guarantees

Every day, hundreds of undocumented immigrants from Central America attempt the arduous journey through Mexico and turn themselves over to U.S. border patrol -- with the hope that they will not be turned away. But the dangers they face along the way are many, and as Ramon Taylor reports from the Rio Grande Valley in Texas, their fate rests on more than just the reception they get at the US border.
Video

Video Scientists Create Blackest Material Ever

Of all the black things in the universe only the infamous "black holes" are so black that not even a tiny amount of light can bounce back. But scientists have managed to create material almost as black, and it has enormous potential use. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video Fog Collector Transforming Maasai Water Harvesting in Kenya

The Maasai people of Kenya are known for their cattle-herding, nomadic lifestyle. But it's an existence that depends on access to adequate water for their herds and flocks. Lenny Ruvaga reports for VOA, on a "fog collector."

AppleAndroid

New in Music Alley

Soul Lounge

New Orleans-based Water Seed joins Shawna Renee inside the "Soul Lounge" where they introduce listeners to their latest album, a wonderful fusion of jazz, soul and rhythm & blues. The group also explains how the heart of New Orleans influences each of them as musicians and songwriters.