Pete Seeger, 'living archive of America’s music and conscience' was 94

Pete Seeger leads the crowd in "Amazing Grace" at his 90th birthday concert at Madison Square Garden.

pete-seeger-rrhof.jpgPete Seeger, a champion of American folk music and social change since the 1940s, died Monday in a New York hospital at age 94. Seeger recorded more than 100 albums, traveled with Woody Guthrie, mentored young folk singers such as Bob Dylan, and performed on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial at a concert for Barack Obama's inauguration — 50 years after he was blacklisted from television and prosecuted for his earlier Communist Party ties and refusal to cooperate with Congress.

Seeger got the National Medal of Arts in 1994 from President Bill Clinton, a lifetime achievement Grammy Award, and belongs to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1972. Finally, he adapted the song that became the civil rights movement anthem, "We Shall Overcome." It was Bruce Springsteen who called Seeger "a living archive of America’s music and conscience."

From the New York Times obituary:

In his hearty tenor, Mr. Seeger, a beanpole of a man who most often played 12-string guitar or five-string banjo, sang topical songs and children’s songs, humorous tunes and earnest anthems, always encouraging listeners to join in. His agenda paralleled the concerns of the American left: He sang for the labor movement in the 1940s and 1950s, for civil rights marches and anti-Vietnam War rallies in the 1960s, and for environmental and antiwar causes in the 1970s and beyond....

Mr. Seeger was a prime mover in the folk revival that transformed popular music in the 1950s. As a member of the Weavers, he sang hits including Lead Belly’s “Goodnight, Irene” — which reached No. 1 — and “If I Had a Hammer,” which he wrote with the group’s Lee Hays. Another of Mr. Seeger’s songs, “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?,” became an antiwar standard. And in 1965, the Byrds had a No. 1 hit with a folk-rock version of “Turn! Turn! Turn!,” Mr. Seeger’s setting of a passage from the Book of Ecclesiastes.


During the McCarthy era Mr. Seeger’s political affiliations, including membership in the Communist Party in the 1940s, led to his being blacklisted and later indicted for contempt of Congress. The pressure broke up the Weavers, and Mr. Seeger disappeared from television until the late 1960s. But he never stopped recording, performing and listening to songs from ordinary people. Through the decades, his songs have become part of America’s folklore.

“My job,” he said in 2009, “is to show folks there’s a lot of good music in this world, and if used right it may help to save the planet.”

Seeger celebrated his 90th birthday in 2009 at a Madison Square Garden concert with Bruce Springsteen, Dave Matthews, John Mellencamp, Joan Baez, Ani DiFranco, Roger McGuinn of the Byrds, Emmylou Harris and dozens of other musicians.

"Pete Seeger’s contribution to folk music, both in terms of its revival and survival, cannot be overstated," the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame says:

With the possible exception of Woody Guthrie, Seeger is the greatest influence on folk music of the last century. Born in New York City, he was the son of musicologist Charles Seeger. He took up the banjo in his teens and in 1938, at the age of 19, assisted noted folk archivist and field recorder Alan Lomax on his song-collecting trips through the American South. He soon began performing on banjo, guitar and vocals. In 1940, he formed a highly politicized folk trio, the Almanac Singers, which recorded union songs and antiwar anthems. They toured the country, performing at union halls for gas money, and recorded three albums. Woody Guthrie joined in 1941.

The Almanac Singers broke up with the advent of World War II. After a short stint in the army, Seeger formed the Weavers in 1948. They were a popular concert attraction who were at one point America’s favorite singing group. Their best-known numbers include such singalongs as “The Roving Kind,” “On Top of Old Smoky,” “Kisses Sweeter than Wine,” “Goodnight Irene” and “Wimoweh” (a.k.a. “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”). Their popularity cut across all boundaries. As American poet Carl Sandberg attested, “The Weavers are out of the grassroots of America. When I hear America singing, the Weavers are there.”

During the communist witch-hunts of the early Fifties, however, the Weavers were blacklisted, resulting in canceled concert dates and the loss of their recording contract with Decca Records. Under congressional subpoena to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee, Seeger asserted his First Amendment rights, scolding 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.” Unlike many entertainers and writers who careers were ruined in the McCarthy era, Seeger stood his ground and persevered – even though he was sent to jail, albeit briefly, for defending his beliefs.

After leaving the Weavers in 1959, Seeger was signed to Columbia Records. He recorded prolifically for the label. His popularity hit a new peak with We Shall Overcome, a live album recorded at Carnegie Hall that is estimated to have sold half a million copies. Seeger is responsible for such folk standards as “If I Had a Hammer” (originally written by Seeger and Lee Hays of the Weavers as “The Hammer Song”) and “Where Have All the Flowers Gone.” Seeger’s one dalliance with the pop charts came in 1964, when his version of folksinger Malvina Reynolds’ exercise in suburban mockery, “Little Boxes,” reached #70. Seeger’s songs were also popularized by others, principally Peter, Paul and Mary (“If I Had a Hammer,” “Where Have All the Flowers Gone”) and the Byrds (“Turn! Turn! Turn!,” “The Bells of Rhymney”).

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