Pete Seeger Dead at 94

Posted by Mark Segal Kemp

One of the most vocal champions of acoustic folk traditions of myriad cultures, a powerful figure on the American political left, and an icon of American music, Pete Seeger died Monday after more than seven decades of collecting, teaching, performing, and recording the music of working people from all over the world. Seeger died of natural causes at New York-Presbyterian Hospital. He was 94.

Andrew Revkin, a New York Times environmental reporter, folk singer, and a friend and Hudson Valley, N.Y., neighbor of Seeger’s for many years, wrote in his Dot Earth blog today that he had spent time with Seeger at the hospital over the past week. “When I arrived on Monday afternoon,” Revkin wrote, “he was at the center of a healing circle of song once again. My friend Steve Stanne, an environmental educator and masterful musician, led in the singing of Bill Staine’s ‘River’ as the Hudson that Pete for so long worked to restore flowed by, icy and glinting, outside the windows.”

Seeger’s influence on American music and impact on social justice was strong and enduring, from his young years performing labor songs alongside other legendary American folk figures including Woody Guthrie and members of Seeger’s own earliest groups, the Almanac Singers and the Weavers, to his middle and later years singing with subsequent generations of folk artists including Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs, Odetta, Bruce Springsteen, and Ani DiFranco. From the 1940s to the present, Seeger plucked his Vega banjo or strummed an acoustic guitar as he sang against threats to humanity ranging from Hitler’s fascism to the U.S. invasion of Viet Nam, from the proliferation of nuclear arms to the toll human industry has taken on global climate change, from U.S. involvement in Latin American violence to more recent wars in the Middle East. He sang at civil rights rallies in the early ’60s and at an inaugural event in 2009 for the nation’s first black president, Barack Obama.

"For reminding us where we come from and showing us where we need to go, we will always be grateful to Pete Seeger," President Obama said today. "Michelle and I send our thoughts and prayers to Pete's family and all those who loved him.

"Over the years," the president continued, "Pete used his voice - and his hammer - to strike blows for worker's rights and civil rights; world peace and environmental conservation. And he always invited us to sing along."

Seeger was more modest about his importance in a 2002 interview with Acoustic Guitar magazine's Jeffrey Pepper Rodgers. “I’m a teacher trying to teach people to participate, whether it’s banjos or guitars or politics or whatever.”

A member of the religiously pluralistic Unitarian Universalist Church, Seeger long maintained that folk music and community were one and the same, and with both, everyday common people could effect progressive social change. "At some point, Pete Seeger decided he'd be a walking, singing reminder of all of America's history," said Bruce Springsteen during a 2009 Madison Square Garden concert celebrating Seeger's 90th birthday. Folk singer Janis Ian told AG in 2002, "His consummate dedication to bringing all music to all peoples has made our universe a larger one. His refusal to pander to fame, to stardom, to the trappings of ego and narcissism, have set the standard for folk musicians..."

Seeger's standard continued well into the '90s, when younger political folk singers including Ani DiFranco arrived on the scene. DiFranco remembers the first time Seeger contacted her—by written letter—to perform at an event. "First, I was like, holy cow, Pete Seeger wrote a letter to me, with pen on paper," she told AG this morning. "Then I got the larger lesson: If you want to be a great activist, you have to do it yourself. He didn’t ask someone else to write me a letter. He wrote it himself. And also, he would send it immediately. When I asked him to play on my last record, he had returned my phone call twice and written me a letter before I was able to get back to him. That's what I learned from him: As soon as the idea comes to you, that’s when you write the letter, that’s when you act."

Joan Baez stated it perhaps more succinctly when she said, “We all owe our careers to Pete Seeger.”

Seeger, born in 1919 to a musicologist father and violinist mother, gained his largest following among young people during the early-’60s civil rights and anti-Viet Nam War years, inspiring crowds with original music as well as his arrangements of traditional American folk songs and African-American spirituals including “We Shall Overcome,” “Rock Island Line,” Lead Belly’s “Goodnight Irene,” Seeger’s own “If I Had a Hammer” and “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?,” and a ballad he composed from scripture, “Turn, Turn, Turn,” which the Byrds took to No. 1 on the pop charts in 1965.

As important, but not as well-known, as Seeger’s social activism and songs were for younger folksingers and acoustic guitar players, he also was a strong proponent of teaching children and others how to play musical instruments. In 1954, Seeger recorded an album for the Folkways label called How to Play the 5-String Banjo; the following year he recorded The Folksinger's Guitar Guide, Vol. 1: An Instruction Record; and in 1962, three years before the Byrds’ chiming, 12-string-fueled version of “Turn, Turn, Turn,” Seeger recorded another instructional album, The 12-String Guitar as Played by Leadbelly.

"I purchased my first banjo from [The Weavers'] Erik Darling in 1955, and the only book that was available to teach me how to play it was Pete Seeger’s How to Play the 5-String Banjo," folk musician Happy Traum told AG. "For me, as for so many other youngsters in New York City who were discovering folk music in those days, Pete was the source of all good songs and the key to the world of traditional styles."

Nathan Bell, a Nashville-based singer-songwriter whose latest album, Blood Like a River, is well in keeping with Seeger’s tradition of making music for working Americans, had this to say of the singer’s influence on him: “When I was first starting out, Pete Seeger was a huge influence on how I wanted to be a writer. I made a lot of decisions based on that influence and those decisions led me to my interesting life and career as a political/topical writer instead of a co-writing hitmaker. I made less money, but made a wonderful, working, moral life.”

RELATED: Pete Seeger—How Can I Keep From Singing?

See more The Week in Acoustic Guitar: January 27 - February 2 articles.

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