Pete Seeger, the man considered to be one of the pioneers of contemporary folk music who inspired legions of activist singer-songwriters, died Monday. He was 94. His grandson Kitama Cahill Jackson told CNN that the singer died of natural causes at New York Presbyterian Hospital on Monday evening.
Seeger’s best known songs include “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” (written with Joe Hickerson) and “Turn! Turn! Turn!” (based on a passage from the Book of Ecclesiastes). He also popularized “This Land is Your Land,” and “We Shall Overcome,” which he adapted from old spirituals, became a civil rights anthem.
In the 1940s, he co-founded The Weavers, who surprised everyone, including themselves, when they became the first group to bring folk music to the pop charts; which he wrote “If I Had A Hammer” with the group’s Lee Hays. The Weavers success lasted until they were black listed. Seeger refused to answer questions about his politics when he appeared before House Un-American Activities committee in 1955. His conviction for contempt of congress was eventually overturned on appeal. He kept singing and protesting right through 2011, when he joined a march in support of the Occupy Wall Street protests.
Seeger’s opinions didn’t always amuse the authorities. “From the start, he aspired to use folk music to promote his left-wing political views, and in times of national turmoil that brought him into direct confrontation with the U.S. government, corporate interests, and people who did not share his beliefs,” William Ruhlmann wrote in a biography on allmusic.com. “These conflicts shaped his career.”
His influence extended far beyond individual hits. In a career spanning more than 70 years, Seeger frequently invited controversy. “He lived at a time when so many things hadn’t been done yet, the idea of making music about something hadn’t really been done,” Jackson said. “And now people do it all the time.”
He inspired singers and songrwriters through the 1950s and 1960s, including Bob Dylan and Don
McLean. Many years later, Bruce Springsteen drew from Seeger’s repertory of traditional music about a tumultuous America in recording his 2006 album, “We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions,” and in 2009 he performed Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land” with Mr. Seeger at the Obama inaugural. At a Madison Square Garden concert celebrating Mr. Seeger’s 90th birthday, Springsteen introduced him as “a living archive of America’s music and conscience, a testament of the power of song and culture to nudge history along.”
In 2009, Seeger talked to CNN about the beginnings of his music career in the late 1930s.
“I come from a family of teachers, and I was looking for a job on a newspaper and not getting one,” he said in the interview. “I had an aunt who said, ‘Peter, I can get five dollars for you if you come and sing some of your songs in my class.’ Five dollars? In 1939, you would have to work all day or two days to make five dollars. It seemed like stealing.” But Seeger said he took his aunt up on the offer.
“Pretty soon I was playing school after school, and I never did work on a newspaper,” he said “You don’t have to play at nightclubs, you don’t have to play on TV, just go from college to college to college, and the kids will sing along with you.”
For Seeger, folk music and a sense of community were inseparable, and where he saw a community, he saw the possibility of political action.
He 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. The subjects he chose to discuss through his music echoed 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. One of his major interests later in life was the effort to clean up and maintain the Hudson River.
Although he recorded more than 100 albums, Mr. Seeger distrusted commercialism and was never comfortable with the idea of stardom. He invariably tried to use his celebrity to bring attention and contributions to the causes that moved him, or to the traditional songs he wanted to preserve.
Seeger’s wife, Toshi, died in 2013, just weeks before the couple’s 70th wedding anniversary.