Pete Seeger, the 94-year-old activist-singer-songwriter who tried to change the world with every note he uttered, has died, and we are all the poorer for it.
A longtime friend whose letters I treasured for their hand-drawn embellishments and whose words of encouragement urged me to keep on fighting, Seeger belonged to a dying breed of Americans who cared more about making a difference using whatever resources were available to them than luxuriating in creature comforts and basking in the glow of their greatness.
Long before the Beatles or the Rolling Stones, Jim Hendrix or Bob Dylan, there was Pete Seeger, a lone ranger fighting injustice with little more than a five-string banjo in hand and a gift for putting words to music. Unarguably one of the most important musical influences of the 20th century, Seeger helped to lay the foundation for American protest music, singing out about the plight of everyday working folks and urging listeners to political and social activism.
Born in New York City on May 3, 1919, Seeger, whose father was a pacifist musicologist, was plunged into the world of music and politics from an early age. He studied sociology at Harvard University until 1938, when he dropped out and spent the summer bicycling through New England and New York, painting watercolors of farmers’ houses in return for food. In 1940, Seeger met Woody Guthrie at a Grapes of Wrath migrant-worker benefit concert. Seeger, Guthrie, Lee Hays and Millard Lampell joined together to form the Almanac Singers, which became known for its political radicalism and support of communism.
In 1942, Seeger was drafted by the U.S. Army and sent to Saipan in the Western Pacific. After the war, he helped start the People’s Songs Bulletin, later Sing Out! magazine, which combined information on folk music with social criticism. In 1950, Seeger formed The Weavers with Lee Hays, Ronnie Gilbert and Fred Hellerman. Targeted for the political messages behind some of their songs, the group was blacklisted and banned from television and radio.
In 1955, the House Committee on Un-American Activities subpoenaed Seeger to appear before them (read his testimony here). During the hearings, Seeger refused to disclose his political views and the names of his political associates. He was sentenced to one year in jail but, quoting the First Amendment, successfully appealed the decision after spending four hours behind bars. Nevertheless, he was blacklisted most of his life from normal radio and television work.
In 1963, Seeger recorded the now-famous gospel song “We Shall Overcome.” In 1965, he sang it on the 50-mile walk from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, with Martin Luther King, Jr. and 1,000 other marchers. That song would go on to become the anthem for the civil rights movement and be translated into many languages. Seeger also turned his attention to cleaning up the Hudson River that ran past his home. In 1966, he helped form Clearwater, an organization dedicated to educating the public on environmental concerns such as pollution and protecting the river. …read more
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