Pete Seeger, the great political and environmental activist and folk singer, died January 27, 2014 at the age of 94, just six months after the death of Toshi, his wife of 70 years. Born in Paterson, NY, he was the great-grandson of an abolitionist physician. His mother was a concert violinist, his father a socialist and musicologist. Seeger fell in love with American folk music early on. “The words of the songs had all the meat of life in them,” he told his biographer. “Their humor had a bite, it was not trivial. Their tragedy was real, not sentimental.” He left Harvard after two years, met the singer-songwriters Huddie Ledbetter (“Lead Belly”) and Woody Guthrie, and traveled the country by rail during the Depression, gathering songs. With Guthrie he formed a group called the Almanac Singers that played in union halls and work camps. After WWII he formed a new group, The Weavers, with Lee Hays, Ronnie Gilbert and Fred Hellerman. The group had several hits during the early Fifties, including covers of Lead Belly’s “Goodnight, Irene” and Guthrie’s “So Long, It’s Been Good to Know You” as well as compositions and adaptations by Seeger such as “If I Had a Hammer,” “Wimoweh,” and “Kisses Sweeter Than Wine.” The Weavers helped launch the folk song revival that was integral to the peace, civil rights, and environmental movements of the Sixties. His adaption of an old spiritual, “We Shall Overcome,” was the anthem of the civil rights movement. Seeger stayed active, singing and leading sing-alongs at concerts and demonstrations for the rest of his life. With his grandson and Bruce Springsteen, he led a rousing version of Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land” at President Barack Obama’s 2009 inauguration.
Though he served as an inspiration to Sixties activists and musicians such as Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, the Freedom Singers, and Peter, Paul and Mary, he was a musical traditionalist and famously balked when Dylan went electric at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, a festival Seeger had helped found six years earlier. These minor musical differences never prevented Seeger from being a bridge between the Old Left and the New. His family’s roots in the labor and anti-slavery struggles of 19th century America and his own journey from membership in the Young Communist League to nonsectarian radicalism (“communist with a small ‘c,’” as he put it) meant he continued to be a North Star to generations of activist youth. His resolute stand against the McCarthy witch-hunt and the good humor with which he took it are still inspirational. When called before the House Un-American Activities Committee, he gave the committee a lesson in American democracy. “I feel,” he said, “that in my whole life I have never done anything of any conspiratorial nature. …I am not going 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.” Then he offered to sing some of the songs the congressmen had found objectionable. The committee declined.
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