Pete Seeger, a seminal figure in American music who kept folk music alive and influenced generations of musicians from Bob Dylan to Bruce Springsteen, died Monday of natural causes in New York, his grandson confirmed to The New York Times. Seeger was 94.
As a solo performer, songwriter, interpreter, and member of the legendary folk band the Weavers, Seeger brought traditional and political songs to the mainstream over the course of his 70-year career. He wrote or co-wrote "If I Had a Hammer" (a hit for Peter, Paul and Mary) and "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?" (made famous by the Kingston Trio). The Byrds had a Number One hit with "Turn! Turn! Turn!," which Seeger had adapted from the Book of Ecclesiastes and set to music. In Seeger hands, songs from Cuba ("Guantanamera") and South Africa ("Wimoweh") became beloved sing-along standards around the world, and "We Shall Overcome," a traditional gospel song that Seeger heard early in his career, was a regular part of his repertoire and a staple of civil rights rallies for decades to come.
Although Seeger never scored a Top 40 hit on his own, the charts were never an indication of his overwhelming impact. His massive influence on music and message was never more obvious than at his 90th birthday concert at Madison Square Garden in 2009. Among those paying tribute to Seeger were Springsteen, Joan Baez, John Mellencamp, Dave Matthews, Emmylou Harris, Tom Morello, Ben Harper and Billy Bragg. "The history of Pete's life is the history of music changing the world," Tom Morello told RS in 2007.
A tall, strapping figure known for his crisp-as-a-mountain-stream singing and banjo playing, Seeger was also a walking, talking, strumming embodiment of the connection between folk song and leftist politics. Throughout his career, he participated in pro-union and civil rights events and protested wars and nuclear power. For his trouble — and his membership in the American Communist Party — Seeger was blacklisted by the House Un-American Activities Committee in the Fifties; to make ends meet, he had to play sometimes four concerts a day, for $25 each. "I still believe the only chance for the human raced to survive is to give up such pleasures as war, racism and private profit," Seeger told RS in 1979, beliefs he held until his death.
Born May 3rd, 1919, in New York, Seeger had music and politics in his blood from the start. His father, Charles Seeger, who died in 1979, was an ethnomusicologist who taught at Yale and Julliard and was a very vocal critic of World War I. Although Pete attended preppie boarding schools, he discovered the banjo as a teenager and, after dropping out of Harvard in the late Thirties, worked for folklorist Alan Lomax in cataloguing and preserving traditional songs. Over the next few years, Seeger and other friends in New York formed the Almanac Singers, living in an early version of a commune in Greenwich Village. During this time, Seeger met and befriended Woody Guthrie, another member of the short-lived Almanacs.
In 1948, Seeger, along with Ronnie Gilbert, Lee Hays and Fred Hellerman, formed the Weavers. With their suits (the men), pearls (Gilbert), and smooth harmonies, the Weavers weren't remotely rough and tumble. But that merger of folk and polish allowed them to connect with a mass audience: Their version of Leadbelly's "Goodnight, Irene" went on to sell a then-astonishing two million copies in 1950. The group's repertoire also included "Wimoweh" and an Israeli folk song ("Tzena, Tzena, Tzena"); it could be argued that the Weavers, in their way, invented world music.
The Weavers' heyday didn't last long. Along with many others in the entertainment world, the group was blacklisted by the HUAC "anti-communist" witchhunt in 1952, which crippled the group financially and creatively. They reunited three years later, but Seeger left in 1958 after he refused to join them in a cigarette commercial. Seeger himself was found guilty of contempt (he refused to answer questions about his political beliefs at a HUAC hearing in Manhattan). "Dangerous Minstrel Nabbed Here," blared a New York Post headline, although Seeger's conviction was overturned on a technicality a year later.
Thanks to the publicity from his conviction and a new contract with Columbia Records (the latter courtesy legendary A&R man John Hammond), Seeger's career and influence kicked back in during the Sixties. Dylan, Baez, Judy Collins and Peter, Paul and Mary were among the many new folk and socially conscious acts of the early 1960s who idolized Seeger. Songs like "Waist Deep in the Big Muddy," about the Vietnam War, showed Seeger still refused to shy away from politics in song. He was also incredibly prolific: Even before he left the Weavers, Seeger began recording on his own, and over the following decades, he released dozens of collection of folk ballads, children's tunes, and labor songs, along with guitar and banjo instructional discs and classic live albums like 1963's We Shall Overcome, recorded at Carnegie Hall.
The stage, not the studio, was Seeger's natural home. From the beginnings of his career, when he traveled around the South, Seeger was equally at home singing for African-American kids, summer campers, college students, and Colbert Report audiences (he appeared on the show in the summer 2012). Onstage, Seeger effortlessly wove together his vast repertoire of international songs, stories about his life, and his trademark audience sing-alongs. Seeger was never strident — a key to his longtime popularity — although he notoriously lost his cool at Bob Dylan's infamous Newport Folk Festival appearance in 1965. Seeing Dylan perform with an electric backup band, Seeger was incensed — either at the electricity or the overwhelming volume. (According to legend, Seeger grabbed an axe and tried to cut the cables, but others have disputed that account.) Later, Seeger called Dylan's performance "some of the most destructive music this side of hell."
Offstage Seeger helped clean up the Hudson River with his Clearwater Project, which began in the late '60s. In recent years, Seeger — who lived with his longtime wife Toshi at a house he built in New York's Hudson Valley — slowed down, but barely. He continued to record and tour. (In 2012, he released not one but two albums, one of them a tribute to Guthrie.) He also appeared at an Occupy rally last year.
Thanks, David, he will be missed.
I HAVE SAILED ON THE CLEAR WATER
when I got my first yacht as a teenager, straight out of college
( I started at 16,early admission), I docked right next to him on my first sail
Loved this guy, saw him often in concert. Often with Arlo Guthrie. I had googled his name recently (within the past year or two) and I believe he was still giving concerts in his 90s!
He wil definitely be missed.
Although I saw him several times over the last few years, the last time I had a chance to speak to him personally was more than 7 years ago around Christmas when his son Danny was visiting and we went over to Pete's house. I remember his Christmas tree was free of the lights most people put on their trees. Instead, he had very lifelike birds placed throughout the tree.
Pete was very sharp and he would think of something and grab a pad to write down his thoughts. He lived in a humble house that he built with help from friends and family. Every year Pete would tap the maples on his property across the river from where I live. He was always outdoors and active. Unlike with so many performers, what you saw with Pete was what he was. He was genuine.
Pete had a soul relationship with Toshi. I thought that he might move on soon after she passed. Often when this is the case, one of the partners passing draws the other into into the next life where they will live another together.
What a life this one was for Pete and Toshi!
.By Vincent Carroll
The Denver Post.
I listened to a few Pete Seeger tunes on my way to work Tuesday after hearing he'd died, my small tribute to this legendary champion of folk music and the banjo, and to his phenomenal durability.
My daughter saw him in concert in October 2009, when he was already 90. The sturdy old codger took to a cold outdoor college stage — red stocking hat, sweater and scarf — and stood there plucking the banjo, singing and telling stories.
Seeger of course is associated as much with politics and protest as with music, and some of the accolades in that regard are well deserved, too. He sang and demonstrated for civil rights and against the Vietnam War, and was not afraid to stand up to the abusive House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1955, refusing "to answer any questions as to my association, my philosophical or religious beliefs or my political 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, especially under such compulsion as this."
In part because of such fearless bluntness, he was blacklisted from radio and TV for 17 years.
Yet as much as I admire some of Seeger's legacy, I knew I was going to be irritated by the tributes I'd read once I got to work. And sure enough, it didn't take long to see the anticipated pattern of whitewash.
NPR, to cite a typical example, described Seeger as a "tireless campaigner for his own vision of a utopia marked by peace and togetherness." And while that's true up to a point, wasn't this advocate of peace and togetherness also an ardent supporter of the Soviet Union, whose policies, both at home and abroad, were anything but benign?
NPR disposes of Seeger's awkward political allegiances with a quick dismissal. "Seeger actually was a member of the Communist Party in those early days," it admitted, "though he later said he quit after coming to understand the evils of Josef Stalin."
It's not that easy. Seeger spent many years supporting the Soviet Union and other communist regimes — he visited North Vietnam in 1972, for example, and was quite taken with its virtues — and failed to repudiate their actual policies for decades. And as recently as 1999 he went to Cuba to receive a cultural award from that island prison camp.
Ronald Radosh, a historian who was also a banjo student of Seeger's in the 1950s, has described just how slavish Seeger's devotion to the communist linewas at one time. In a 1941 album with the Almanac Singers, "Seeger accused FDR of being a warmongering fascist working for J.P. Morgan" — because that was the position of the Soviets, who were in a cozy pact with Hitler at the time.
Of course, no sooner had the Nazis attacked the USSR than Seeger, like every other communist, pivoted 180 degrees and began to push for war.
The Washington Post once called Seeger "America's best-loved Commie," as if it were somehow cute or rakish to fall in step with a totalitarian empire. Who would America's best-loved Nazi be, pray tell?
Still, Seeger did eventually acknowledge he'd been a dupe. He apologized in the 1990s "for once believing Stalin was just a hard driver, not a supremely cruel dictator." And in 2007, Radosh wroteof being stunned to receive a letter from Seeger in which the singer admitted, "I think you're right — I should have asked to see the gulags when I was in [the] USSR."
For years I stayed away from Seeger's albums because of his perverse blind spot, but gave up finally and got a couple of CDs. No one sings "Michael Row the Boat Ashore" like Seeger. And when he reminded me this morning that "Jordan's river is chilly and cold ... Chills the body, but not the soul," all I could think of was how much I hope he gets to keep his banjo once he gets across.
The Penguin Encyclopedia of Popular Music described the politics of Pete Seeger, the folk-singer, songwriter, and antiwar activist who died last week at the age of 94, as “naïve but honest.” They were certainly honest—not even Seeger’s worst enemies would dispute that—but what was naïve about Seeger’s socialist conservatism?
Seeger was the authentic voice of the old American left and understood that conservatism, far from being inimical to socialism, was actually an essential component of it. In an interview with the New York Times in 1995 he declared, “I like to say I’m more conservative than [Barry] Goldwater. He just wanted to turn the clock back to when there was no income tax. I want to turn the clock back to when people lived in small villages and took care of each other.”
Seeger’s vision of the ideal society was not some high-tech futuristic metropolis but was rooted firmly in the past. America’s past. “When I was a boy, I read every single book by naturalist Ernest Thompson Seton,” he said in a 1982 interview.
Seton held up the Indian as an ideal … for strength and dignity, morality, selflessness, and living in tune with nature. Anthropologists call the period of Indian history that he described ‘tribal communism’ … I like to think I’m about as much a communist as the average American Indian was… .
Seeger was described in the New York Times interview as a man “so far left politically he has probably never been called a liberal.” It’s a wonderful compliment, which any genuine socialist would be proud of. Me-first liberalism—both the economic and social variety—infected the Western Left from the 1960s onwards, but Seeger wasn’t fooled.
The late Eugene Genovese wrote of “the irrational embrace by the Left of a liberal program of personal liberation.” But the irrationality served the Wall Street money men and the serial warmongers well, as it got large sections of the left to ditch their socialism, their unionism, and their opposition to imperialist wars of aggression and to focus instead on issues that did not disturb or threaten the citadels of power.
Seeger campaigned for civil rights, but he rejected culture wars and futile intergenerational battles. Socialism for him wasn’t about a battle between teenagers and their parents (one of his songs was called “Be Kind to Your Parents,” instructing to “treat them with patience and kind understanding” ) but about people coming together, regardless of their age, sex, color, or creed, to build a kinder and more caring society where people—and the planet—came before profits. Seeger’s Old Left politics were about countering the forces in our society that were encouraging selfishness and materialism and pushing us towards perpetual war and environmental destruction.
While the New Left embarked on its cultural revolution and sought to destroy everything from the past, Pete wanted us to rediscover and reconnect with the simpler lives our ancestors lived. “I can only say that I’m more distrustful of technology now than I have been at any point in my life,” he said in 1982. “I honestly believe that if I’d been around when some person was inventing the wheel, I’d have said, ‘Don’t, don’t. Life may be nasty, short, and brutish … but you just can’t know where technology is going to lead.’ Well, we do know where it’s leading now … it’s heading us toward disaster.”
In the same interview he gave his thoughts on the word “ progressive”:
I guess the idea of progress has been oversimplified. Someone will say, ‘We must be progressive … we must have [flush] toilets. Don’t use the backyard privy anymore.’ Well, the backyard privy isn’t the only alternative to the flush toilet. How about composting toilets or methane digesters? I think one of the most ‘ progressive’ events that’s taken place in America in the last ten years is the rediscovery—on the part of millions of people—that it’s fun to grow and cook their own food instead of opening a can from the supermarket.
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Seeger rejected the egotism of the modern elbow society which neoliberal capitalism has created. “There was no ‘I’ in Seeger’s music, only a big, broad encompassing ‘we’” writes Jody Rosen. Seeger never liked to talk in terms of his career. “I hate the word ‘career’ because it implies one is searching after fame and fortune—two of the silliest things to want,” he said. He abhorred commercialism. When he was given a microphone he used it to forward the causes he believed in—and not push a new album or CD.
Seeger was passionate about the causes he believed in, but his politics were based on love and not hate. “The shortsighted people say, ‘We know how to solve the problems. We get the proper explosive in the right place, and they’ll learn.’ I say, ‘All they’ll learn is how to be violent.’ To quote Martin Luther King, the weakness of violence is that it always creates more violence. Darkness cannot drive out darkness. Only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate. Only love can do that,” he said.
While the “ progressive” liberal left—having made their attacks on “the forces of conservatism”—linked up with the neocons to launch a series of wars boosting Wall Street profits under a fraudulent humanitarian banner, Pete kept on asking: “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” He knew that a humanitarian military intervention was a contradiction in terms.
He was a better socialist than the Trotskyite ideologues who accused him of being a Stalinist, and he was a better conservative than the McCarthyites who persecuted him. He understood, probably better than any other figure on the American Left, that in order for the human race to go forward we need to go back. Way, way, back.
Of all the many tributes we’ve heard to Seeger on his death, it’s this one by Robert Foxx in the Guardian that I think tells us the most: “He always said hello when I passed him on the street at the river’s landing. I will always remember him as a gentle and kind man, singing with his face raised to the sky.”
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Dom Flemons is noted for his time with the group Carolina Chocolate Drops..
I generally resist being politically charged. I use my music to convey
different pieces of the American Experience as I interpret them. You can talk to me about my politics in person if you might find it necessary. But… since I’m writing about Black History Month, I feel the use of the words “Black,” “History” and “Month” all together are pretty politically charged anyway – I figure the kid gloves are off. So here goes.
I remember the first time I learned that the 5-string banjo was an instrument rooted in the black community. It was on a VHS tape of To Hear Your Banjo Play, which is a 1947 film produced by Alan Lomax starring Pete Seeger. It also features music by Woody Guthrie, Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry, Texas Gladden, and Margot Mayer’s Square Dance Troupe.
Anyone not familiar with these people’s work please go and watch this film and buy their music and books, you won’t be disappointed. When Pete Seeger passed away last week I was in the studio recording my new album. I placed a bunch of LPs around the studio to draw inspiration; I had two of Pete’s records as well as many others. I believe it was one of Pete’s songbooks that mentioned that the banjo was from Africa as well; he’s been saying that all along. I dedicate this Black History Month to him.
I first became interested in playing the banjo from listening to Pete’s demo recording of “If I Had A Hammer,” from one of his Folkways Records. I was playing guitar already and one day I got a banjo and never looked back.
Pete was also a political hero! He was a person who fought for the Civil Rights I enjoy today. He stood with Paul Robeson, Martin Luther King Jr., Harry Belafonte, Odetta, Leadbelly, Josh White, Big Bill Broonzy, Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry, Lord Invador, Guy Davis, Len Chandler and countless other black entertainers and black spokespeople fighting for the things I can almost… almost… take for granted, with politics AND the arts. Pete was there with the banjo, the quintessential instrument of the American African diaspora, leading the charge.
Some people might find it odd that I would celebrate a white man on Black History Month but I feel that I would not be celebrating my heritage as a black songster without Pete Seeger. He worked with many of the black and white musicians, folklorists and advocates that have shaped my musical development. He also helped to develop the business that I am in now.
So I dedicate this particular Black History Month to Pete Seeger. Anyone interested in my music might find something of their own in Pete’s work. He left quite a musical legacy. A great American Legacy.
The American Songster
PS. One of the Pete records in the studio was “How to Play The 5-string Banjo,” signed by both Pete and Toshi when I went to see the Seeger Family (Pete, Mike and Peggy) play in Silver Spring, MD several years ago. The other was Pete Seeger and Arlo Guthrie’s Concert album “Together.” Arlo and Pete did their last performance at Carnegie Hall several weeks ago. Arlo was also a huge influence on me! Both albums are fantastic!