Accessibility links

Breaking News

Folk Music Icon Remains Troubadour for Peace and the Underdog

The music of virtuoso banjo player and exuberant singer Pete Seeger is steeped in social issues, politics, and history. Through his protest and union organizing songs, he has defended and exalted the working people of America and cried out for racial tolerance and peace.

Seeger has written more than 100 tunes, ranging from the freedom song, If I Had A Hammer to his arrangement of the civil rights rallying song We Shall Overcome, which he sang as he walked in several freedom marches.

"We Shall Overcome was originally the hymn I Shall Overcome," Seeger says. "Many Christian hymns became union songs. For instance, 'Jesus is my captain/I shall not be moved' became 'The union is behind us/We shall not be moved."

Pete Seeger's Where Have All the Flowers Gone? became an anti-war anthem.
"Where have all the soldiers gone?" he asks in the song.
"They're all in uniform.
"Oh, when will we ever learn? Oh when will we ever learn?"

Seeger was born in New York City to a musical family. His father was a noted musicologist and composer, his mother, a classical violinist.

Seeger's father became an activist for the unemployed during the steep economic depression of the 1930s. Pete learned protest songs written for the labor movement, like I am a Union Woman by Molly Jackson.

Pete Seeger studied at prestigious Harvard University, but he was far more interested in learning to play the five-string banjo. He met prominent folk singers of the Depression Era, such as Leadbelly and Woody Guthrie. He left college to tour the country with Guthrie, with whom he wrote a songbook titled, Hard-Hitting Songs for Hard-Hit People. "It's a good songbook," Seeger says. "It's not a good book. Woodie wrote off the top of his head and never re-wrote anything!"

Woodie Guthrie and Pete Seeger sang at concerts to benefit migrant farm workers and striking union members. Borrowed from Guthrie, This Land is Your Land became one of Pete Seeger's signature songs. It goes, in part:
"This land is your land. This land is my land.
"From California to the New York Island,
"From the redwood forest to the Gulf Stream waters,
"This land was made for you and me."

In 1948, Pete Seeger formed a quartet called The Weavers, giving an early start to a long folk music revival. The Weavers enjoyed commercial success, but their popularity came to a sudden halt in the Cold War Era (1952), when they were branded Communist sympathizers. All the while, Pete Seeger kept performing.

As the political tide turned in the 1960s, Seeger was embraced as a folk music hero. He became passionate about preserving the environment.

"We're filling up the seas with garbage!" he wrote in one of his songs. "What will we do when there's no place left to put all the garbage?" Along with his serious messages, Seeger delights young people with his fables and silly songs.

In 1994, Pete Seeger received the prestigious Kennedy Center Honor for achievement in the arts, a special tribute from the United States government to the man who was once blacklisted for his alleged political views.

"I have lived, now, my 88 years and been able to sing a wide range of songs," he observes. "And if the world is to survive, the whole human race must realize how important it is that we learn how to communicate with each other, even if we disagree strongly."

Pete Seeger continues to introduce audiences to his inexhaustible folk music repertoire. The motto engraved on his banjo still reads: "This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender."

[Brian Silver, chief of VOA's Urdu Service, who interviewed Pete Seeger earlier this year, contributed to this report.]

Previous American Profiles