Nation & World News

Pete Seeger, Folk Music Icon And Activist, Dies At 94

By Mark Memmott on January 28th, 2014

Pete Seeger, “a tireless campaigner for his own vision of a utopia marked by peace and togetherness,” died Monday at the age of 94.

As former NPR broadcaster Paul Brown adds in an appreciation he prepared for Morning Edition, Seeger’s tools “were his songs, his voice, his enthusiasm and his musical instruments.”

The songs he’ll be long remembered for include “If I Had a Hammer,” “Turn, Turn, Turn” and “Where Have All the Flowers Gone.”

Paul is not just a newsman, but also a banjo player himself. Here’s more from his look back at Seeger’s long life:

“Seeger came by his beliefs honestly. His father, Charles Seeger, was an ethnomusicologist and pioneering folklorist whose left wing views got him in trouble at the University of California. Charles Seeger introduced his son to some of the most important musicians of the Depression era, including Lead Belly and Woody Guthrie. Seeger and Guthrie became fast friends, though they didn’t agree on all things. They crisscrossed the country performing together. …

“As early as 1941, they found themselves blacklisted. Seeger was a member of the Communist Party in those early days, though he later said he quit after coming to understand the evils of Stalin. …

“Following World War II and service entertaining the troops, Seeger teamed up with Lee Hays, Ronnie Gilbert and Fred Hellerman to form the astonishingly successful folk group The Weavers. …

“If The Weavers hit an emotional and cultural sweet spot in postwar America, the ‘red scare’ quickly soured it. In 1955, Seeger refused to answer questions before Congress about his political beliefs and associations. He was held in contempt and nearly served a jail sentence before charges were finally dropped in 1962 on a technicality.

“But the troubles with Congress finished The Weavers. …

“Shut out of the big gigs, he played coffeehouses, union halls and college campuses to support his family. … He co-founded and wrote for Sing Out, one of the first and most important magazines to grow out of the folk revival. He produced children’s songs and books. But his commitment to causes never waned.

“Seeger sang and marched nationwide for civil rights and against the Vietnam War. In 1968, he went local … but in a big way. Upset at the filth clogging the Hudson River near his home, he spearheaded the building of the sloop Clearwater, which volunteers sailed up and down the Hudson. Politicians and polluters had to take notice.

“For all of his social activism, Seeger said more than once that if he had done nothing more than write his slim book How to Play the Five String Banjo, his life’s work would have been complete. …

“If Pete Seeger didn’t save the world, he certainly did change the lives of millions of people by leading them to sing, to take action and to at least consider his dream of what society could be.”

The New York Times says Seeger’s career “carried him from singing at labor rallies to the Top 10 to college auditoriums to folk festivals, and from a conviction for contempt of Congress (after defying the House Un-American Activities Committee in the 1950s) to performing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial at an inaugural concert for Barack Obama.”

And the Times notes that Seeger “was a mentor to younger folk and topical singers in the ’50s and ’60s, among them Bob Dylan, Don McLean and Bernice Johnson Reagon, who founded Sweet Honey in the Rock.”

Seeger’s influence went well beyond folk music. He’s a member of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, which says that in Seeger’s “capable hands, from the ’40s to the present day, a concert isn’t regarded as a one-way proceeding but a group singalong.”

According to The Associated Press, “Seeger’s grandson, Kitama Cahill-Jackson said his grandfather died peacefully in his sleep around 9:30 p.m. at New York Presbyterian Hospital, where he had been for six days. Family members were with him.”

There’s much more about Seeger in this archive of NPR’s coverage of him over the years.

Update at 11 a.m. ET. Seeger Stood Up For What’s Right, Spoke Out Against What’s Wrong, Obamas Say.

The White House just released this statement from the president:

“Once called ‘America’s tuning fork,’ Pete Seeger believed deeply in the power of song. But more importantly, he believed in the power of community – to stand up for what’s right, speak out against what’s wrong, and move this country closer to the America he knew we could be. Over the years, 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. For reminding us where we come from and showing us where we need to go, we will always be grateful to Pete Seeger. Michelle and I send our thoughts and prayers to Pete’s family and all those who loved him.”

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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