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.
TEXT SIZE - +
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

Multimedia Anti-Keystone XL Protests Continue

Demonstrators are worried about pipeline's effect on climate change, their traditional way of life, health and safety More

Thailand's Political Power Struggle Continues

Court gave Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra until May 2 to prepare her defense over abuse of power charges but uncertainty remains over election timing More

Malaysia Plane Search Tests Limits of Ocean Mapping Technology

Expert tells VOA existing equipment’s maximum operating depth is around 6 kilometers as operation continues on ocean bed for any trace of MH370 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.
Pet Kangaroo Helps Spread Environmental Messagei
X
Penelope Poulou
April 22, 2014 5:53 PM
Children’s author Julia Heckathorn travels the world to learn about different ecosystems and endangered animals. She pours her knowledge into children’s books, hoping the next generation will right the environmental wrongs of our times. As in many children's books, the main character in Heckathorn's stories is an animal. Unlike those other characters, though, this one is real - a kangaroo, that lives in the author’s backyard. VOA’s Penelope Poulou has more.
Video

Video Pet Kangaroo Helps Spread Environmental Message

Children’s author Julia Heckathorn travels the world to learn about different ecosystems and endangered animals. She pours her knowledge into children’s books, hoping the next generation will right the environmental wrongs of our times. As in many children's books, the main character in Heckathorn's stories is an animal. Unlike those other characters, though, this one is real - a kangaroo, that lives in the author’s backyard. VOA’s Penelope Poulou has more.
Video

Video Pro-Russian Separatists Plan 'Federalization Referendum' in Eastern Ukraine

Pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine say they plan to move forward next month with a referendum vote for greater autonomy, despite the Geneva agreement reached with Russia, the U.S. and Ukraine to end the political conflict. VOA's Brian Padden reports from the city of Donetsk in Eastern Ukraine.
Video

Video Pope Francis Hopes Dual Canonizations Will Reconcile Church

On April 27, two popes - John the XXIII and John Paul II - will be made saints in a ceremony at St. Peter’s Square. VOA religion correspondent Jerome Socolovsky says the dual canonization is part of the current pope’s program to reconcile liberals and conservatives in the Roman Catholic Church.
Video

Video In Capturing Nature's Majesty, Film Makes Case for Its Survival

French filmmaker Luc Jacquet won worldwide acclaim for his 2005 Academy Award-winning documentary "March of the Penguins". Now Jacquet is back with a new film that takes movie-goers deep into the heart of a tropical rainforest - not only to celebrate its grandeur, but to make the case for its survival. VOA's Rosanne Skirble reports.
Video

Video Boston Marathon Bittersweet for Many Runners

Monday's running of the Boston Marathon was bittersweet for many of the 36,000 participants as they finished the run that was interrupted by a double bombing last year. Many gathered along the route paid respect to the four people killed as a result of two bombings near the finish line. VOA's Carolyn Presutti returned to Boston this year to follow two runners, forever changed because of the crimes.
Video

Video International Students Learn Film Production in World's Movie Capital

Hollywood - which is part of Los Angeles - is the movie capital of the world, and many aspiring filmmakers go there in hopes of breaking into the movie business. Mike O'Sullivan reports that regional universities are also a magnet for students who hope to become producers or directors.
Video

Video Pacific Rim Trade Deal Proves Elusive

With the U.S.-led war in Iraq ended and American military involvement in Afghanistan winding down, President Barack Obama has sought to pivot the country's foreign policy focus towards Asia. One aspect of that pivot is the negotiation of a free-trade agreement among 12 Pacific Rim nations. But as Obama leaves this week on a trip to four Asian countries he has found it very difficult to complete the trade pact. VOA's Ken Bredemeier has more from Washington.
Video

Video Autistic Adults Face Housing, Job Challenges

Many parents of children with disabilities fear for the future of their adult child. It can be difficult to find services to help adults with disabilities - physical, mental or emotional - find work or live on their own. The mother of an autistic boy set up a foundation to advocate for the estimated 1.2 million American adults with autism, a developmental disorder that causes communication difficulties and often social difficulties. VOA's Faiza Elmasry reports.
AppleAndroid

New in Music Alley

Beyond Category

Saxophonist Craig Handy has an exciting new band called 2nd Line Smith, which combines the organ-jazz repertoire of Jimmy Smith with the “second line” rhythms of New Orleans parade music. Craig Handy joins "Beyond Category" host Eric Felten at Washington’s Bohemian Caverns jazz club to talk about the music and perform with the band.