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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.