May 3rd, 1919 to January 27th, 2014
May 3rd, 1919 to January 27th, 2014
"Pete Seeger dies aged 94"
Singer-songwriter inspired folk revival in the US and was blacklisted during McCarthy era for his leftwing views and lyrics
January 28th, 2014
Tributes have poured in honouring American troubadour, folk music singer and activist Pete Seeger, who has died in New York aged 94. Musicians, fans, campaigners and activists paid tribute to the singer of Where Have All The Flowers Gone and Turn, Turn, Turn, honouring his dedication to fighting for environmental and anti-capitalist issues.
Tom Morello, former guitarist with political rock act Rage Against the Machine, said he was “absolutely the best that humans can aspire to be – a courageous, kind, fearless soul”. British Radio 6 Music DJ Lauren Laverne posted a photograph on Instagram of Seeger toting his banjo, which was inscribed with the words: “This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender.” She wrote: “Still thinking abt Pete Seeger’s amazing century on earth. Loved & hated by precisely the right people. What a guy.”
Seeger’s grandson, Kitama Cahill-Jackson, said his grandfather died after spending six days in the New York Presbyterian Hospital. He passed away peacefully in his sleep at around 9.30pm surrounded by family members, he said, adding that right up to his death he was active and robust. “He was chopping wood 10 days ago,” he said.
Seeger was a key figure in the folk protest movement through the 1950s and 60s and protested against wars from Vietnam to Iraq; even in his 90s he could be seen marching with Occupy Wall Street protesters. “Be wary of great leaders,” he said two days after a 2011 Manhattan Occupy march. “Hope that there are many, many small leaders.”
And in November last year he wrote to Russian President Vladimir Putin requesting the release of Captain Peter Willcox and the Arctic 30.
With era-defining songs such as If I Had a Hammer and Kisses Sweeter Than Wine, it seemed little exaggeration when fellow folk artist Arlo Guthrie said: “Every kid who ever sat around a campfire singing an old song is indebted in some way to Pete Seeger.”
Folk star Cara Dillon described Seeger’s death as “the passing of a giant”, while Kathryn Williams said she was “so sorry” to hear of his death. Musician Neil Innes said: “We must never forget that he stood for all things Woody Guthrie.” Others simply tweeted quotes from Seeger himself, such as singer Eddi Reader who posted his words: “It’s a very important thing to learn to talk to people you disagree with.”
The banjo player was known as an affable protester and remained a proud socialist and left-wing campaigner throughout his life. Once a card-carrying Communist, he came under fire in the McCarthy era of the 50s. Summoned to give evidence about his political leanings and contacts to the the House of Representatives' Un-American Activities committee in 1955, Seeger refused to testify. He denied his views made him disloyal to his country. Asked repeatedly if he had sung for Communists, he retorted: “I love my country very dearly, and I greatly resent this implication that some of the places that I have sung and some of the people that I have known, and some of my opinions, whether they are religious or philosophical, or I might be a vegetarian, make me any less of an American.”
This led, in 1957, to an indictment for contempt of Congress, a prison sentence (later overturned) and a travel ban. In America's cold war blacklisting and red-baiting years, Seeger was unable to perform in many venues, was excluded from college campuses and kept off television for many years. All the while, though, he kept writing and singing.
Seeger was born in New York City in 1919. He came from artistic stock – his mother, Constance, was a violinist and his father, Charles, a musicologist, who worked as a consultant to the Resettlement Administration, which gave artists work during the Depression.
Seeger dropped out of Harvard and toured with Woody Guthrie in the 1940s, forming the group the Weavers in 1948. His work remained influential until his death - his 90th birthday tribute concert featured Bruce Springsteen, Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder and country star Emmylou Harris.
In January 2009 he performed at a gala concert in Washington two days before Barack Obama was inaugurated and was due to receive an award that honours those who embody the spirit of his legendary folk contemporary Woody Guthrie during an event on 22 February at the Peter Norton Symphony Space in New York.
Last year, Seeger performed at Farm Aid 2013, the annual benefit for America's family farmers, alongside Willie Nelson and Neil Young.
"Pete Seeger, Songwriter and Champion of Folk Music, Dies at 94"
January 28th, 2014
The New York Times
Pete Seeger, the singer, folk-song collector and songwriter who spearheaded an American folk revival and spent a long career championing folk music as both a vital heritage and a catalyst for social change, died Monday. He was 94 and lived in Beacon, N.Y.
His death was confirmed by his grandson, Kitama Cahill Jackson, who said he died of natural causes at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital.
Mr. 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.
For Mr. Seeger, folk music and a sense of community were inseparable, and where he saw a community, he saw the possibility of political action.
In his hearty tenor, Mr. Seeger, a beanpole of a man who 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. His agenda paralleled 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. “We Shall Overcome,” which Mr. Seeger adapted from old spirituals, became a civil rights anthem.
Mr. Seeger was a prime mover in the folk revival that transformed popular music in the 1950s. As a member of the Weavers, he sang hits including Lead Belly’s “Goodnight, Irene” — which reached No. 1 — and “If I Had a Hammer,” which he wrote with the group’s Lee Hays. Another of Mr. Seeger’s songs, “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?,” became an antiwar standard. And in 1965, the Byrds had a No. 1 hit with a folk-rock version of “Turn! Turn! Turn!,” Mr. Seeger’s setting of a passage from the Book of Ecclesiastes.
Mr. 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. Decades later, Bruce Springsteen drew the songs on his 2006 album, “We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions,” from Mr. Seeger’s repertoire of traditional music about a turbulent American experience, 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, Mr. 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.”
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.
Mr. Seeger saw himself as part of a continuing folk tradition, constantly recycling and revising music that had been honed by time.
During the McCarthy era Mr. Seeger’s political affiliations, including membership in the Communist Party in the 1940s, led to his being blacklisted and later indicted for contempt of Congress. The pressure broke up the Weavers, and Mr. Seeger disappeared from television until the late 1960s. But he never stopped recording, performing and listening to songs from ordinary people. Through the decades, his songs have become part of America’s folklore.
“My job,” he said in 2009, “is to show folks there’s a lot of good music in this world, and if used right it may help to save the planet.”
Peter Seeger was born on May 3, 1919, to Charles Seeger, a musicologist, and Constance de Clyver Edson Seeger, a concert violinist. His parents later divorced.
He began playing the ukulele while attending Avon Old Farms, a private boarding school in Connecticut. His father and his stepmother, the composer Ruth Crawford Seeger, were collecting and transcribing rural American folk music, as were folklorists like John and Alan Lomax. He heard the five-string banjo, which would become his main instrument, when his father took him to a square-dance festival in North Carolina.
Young Pete became enthralled by rural traditions. “I liked the strident vocal tone of the singers, the vigorous dancing,” he is quoted in “How Can I Keep From Singing,” a biography by David Dunaway. “The words of the songs had all the meat of life in them. Their humor had a bite, it was not trivial. Their tragedy was real, not sentimental.”
Planning to be a journalist, Mr. Seeger attended Harvard, where he founded a radical newspaper and joined the Young Communist League. After two years, he dropped out and came to New York City, where Mr. Lomax introduced him to the blues singer Huddie Ledbetter, known as Lead Belly. Mr. Lomax also helped Mr. Seeger find a job cataloging and transcribing music at the Archive of American Folk Song at the Library of Congress.
Mr. Seeger met Mr. Guthrie, a songwriter who shared his love of vernacular music and agitprop ambitions, in 1940, when they performed at a benefit concert for migrant California workers. Traveling across the United States with Mr. Guthrie, Mr. Seeger picked up some of his style and repertory. He also hitchhiked and hopped freight trains by himself, trading and learning songs.
When he returned to New York later in 1940, Mr. Seeger made his first albums. He, Millard Lampell and Mr. Hays founded the Almanac Singers, who performed union songs and, until Germany invaded the Soviet Union, antiwar songs, following the Communist Party line. Mr. Guthrie soon joined the group.
During World War II the Almanac Singers’s repertory turned to patriotic, antifascist songs, bringing them a broad audience, including a prime-time national radio spot. But the group’s earlier antiwar songs, the target of an F.B.I. investigation, came to light, and the group’s career plummeted.
Before the group completely dissolved, however, Mr. Seeger was drafted in 1942 and assigned to a unit of performers. He married Toshi-Aline Ohta while on furlough in 1943.
When he returned from the war he founded People’s Songs Inc., which published political songs and presented concerts for several years before going bankrupt. He also started his nightclub career, performing at the Village Vanguard in Greenwich Village. Mr. Seeger and Paul Robeson toured with the campaign of Henry Wallace, the Progressive Party presidential candidate, in 1948.
Mr. Seeger invested $1,700 in 17 acres of land overlooking the Hudson River in Beacon and began building a log cabin there in the late 1940s. In 1949, Mr. Seeger, Mr. Hays, Ronnie Gilbert and Fred Hellerman started working together as the Weavers. They were signed to Decca Records by Gordon Jenkins, the company’s music director and an arranger for Frank Sinatra. With Mr. Jenkins’s elaborate orchestral arrangements, the group recorded a repertoire that stretched from “If I Had a Hammer” to a South African song, “Wimoweh” (the title was Mr. Seeger’s mishearing of “Mbube,” the name of a South African hit by Solomon Linda), to an Israeli soldiers’ song, “Tzena, Tzena, Tzena,” to a cleaned-up version of Lead Belly’s “Goodnight, Irene.” Onstage, they also sang more pointed topical songs.
In 1950 and 1951 the Weavers were national stars, with hit singles and engagements at major nightclubs. Their hits included “Kisses Sweeter Than Wine” and Mr. Guthrie’s “So Long (It’s Been Good to Know Yuh),” and they sold an estimated four million singles and albums.
But “Red Channels,” an influential pamphlet listing performers with suspected Communist ties, appeared in June 1950 and listed Mr. Seeger, although by then he had quit the Communist Party. He would later criticize himself for having not left the party sooner, though he continued to describe himself as a “communist with a small ‘c.’ ”
Despite the Weavers’ commercial success, by the summer of 1951 the “Red Channels” citation and leaks from F.B.I. files had led to the cancellation of television appearances. In 1951, the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee investigated the Weavers for sedition. And in February 1952, a former member of People’s Songs testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee that three of the four Weavers were members of the Communist Party.
As engagements dried up the Weavers disbanded, though they reunited periodically in the mid-1950s. After the group recorded an advertisement for Lucky Strike cigarettes, Mr. Seeger left, citing his objection to promoting tobacco use.
Shut out of national exposure, Mr. Seeger returned primarily to solo concerts, touring college coffeehouses, churches, schools and summer camps, building an audience for folk music among young people. He started to write a long-running column for the folk-song magazine Sing Out! And he recorded prolifically for the independent Folkways label, singing everything from children’s songs to Spanish Civil War anthems.
In 1955 he was subpoenaed by the House Un-American Activities Committee, where he testified, “I feel that in my whole life I have never done anything of any conspiratorial nature.” He also stated: “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.”
Mr. Seeger offered to sing the songs mentioned by the congressmen who questioned him. The committee declined.
Mr. Seeger was indicted in 1957 on 10 counts of contempt of Congress. He was convicted in 1961 and sentenced to a year in prison, but the next year an appeals court dismissed the indictment as faulty. After the indictment, Mr. Seeger’s concerts were often picketed by the John Birch Society and other rightist groups. “All those protests did was sell tickets and get me free publicity,” he later said. “The more they protested, the bigger the audiences became.”
By then, the folk revival was prospering. In 1959, Mr. Seeger was among the founders of the Newport Folk Festival. The Kingston Trio’s version of Mr. Seeger’s “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” reached the Top 40 in 1962, soon followed by Peter, Paul and Mary’s version of “If I Had a Hammer,” which rose to the Top 10.
Mr. Seeger was signed to a major label, Columbia Records, in 1961, but he remained unwelcome on network television. “Hootenanny,” an early-1960s show on ABC that capitalized on the folk revival, refused to book Mr. Seeger, causing other performers (including Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and Peter, Paul and Mary) to boycott it. “Hootenanny” eventually offered to present Mr. Seeger if he would sign a loyalty oath. He refused.
He toured the world, performing and collecting folk songs, in 1963, and returned to serenade civil rights advocates, who had made a rallying song of his “We Shall Overcome.”
Like many of Mr. Seeger’s songs, “We Shall Overcome” had convoluted traditional roots. It was based on old gospel songs, primarily “I’ll Overcome,” a hymn that striking tobacco workers had sung on a picket line in South Carolina. A slower version, “We Will Overcome,” was collected from one of the workers, Lucille Simmons, by Zilphia Horton, the musical director of the Highlander Folk School in Monteagle, Tenn., which trained union organizers.
Ms. Horton taught it to Mr. Seeger, and her version of “We Will Overcome” was published in the People’s Songs newsletter. Mr. Seeger changed “We will” to “We shall” and added verses (“We’ll walk hand in hand”). He taught it to the singers Frank Hamilton, who would join the Weavers in 1962, and Guy Carawan, who became musical director at Highlander in the ‘50s. Mr. Carawan taught the song to the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee at its founding convention.
The song was copyrighted by Mr. Seeger, Mr. Hamilton, Mr. Carawan and Ms. Horton. “At that time we didn’t know Lucille Simmons’s name,” Mr. Seeger wrote in his 1993 autobiography, “Where Have All the Flowers Gone.” All of the song’s royalties go to the “We Shall Overcome” Fund, administered by what is now the Highlander Research and Education Center, which provides grants to African-Americans organizing in the South.
Along with many elders of the protest-song movement, Mr. Seeger felt betrayed when Bob Dylan appeared at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival with a loud electric blues band. Reports emerged that Mr. Seeger had tried to cut the power cable with an ax, but witnesses including the producer George Wein and the festival’s production manager, Joe Boyd (later a leading folk-rock record producer), said he did not go that far. (An ax was available, however. A group of prisoners had used it while singing a logging song.)
As the United States grew divided over the Vietnam War, Mr. Seeger wrote “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy,” an antiwar song with the refrain “The big fool says to push on.” He performed the song during a taping of “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour” in September 1967, his return to network television, but it was cut before the show was broadcast. After the Smothers Brothers publicized the censorship, Mr. Seeger returned to perform the song for broadcast in February 1968.
During the late 1960s Mr. Seeger started an improbable project: a sailing ship that would crusade for cleaner water on the Hudson River. Between other benefit concerts he raised money to build the Clearwater, a 106-foot sloop that was launched in June 1969 with a crew of musicians. The ship became a symbol and a rallying point for antipollution efforts and education.
In May 2009, after decades of litigation and environmental activism led by Mr. Seeger’s nonprofit environmental organization, Hudson River Sloop Clearwater, General Electric began dredging sediment containing PCBs it had dumped into the Hudson. Mr. Seeger and his wife also helped organize a yearly summer folk festival named after the Clearwater.
In the ‘80s and ‘90s Mr. Seeger toured regularly with Arlo Guthrie, Woody’s son, and continued to lead singalongs and perform benefit concerts. Recognition and awards arrived. He was elected to the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1972, and in 1993 he was given a lifetime achievement Grammy Award. In 1994, President Bill Clinton handed him the National Medal of Arts, America’s highest arts honor, given by the National Endowment for the Arts. In 1999, he traveled to Cuba to receive the Order of Félix Varela, Cuba’s highest cultural award, for his “humanistic and artistic work in defense of the environment and against racism.”
In 1996, Mr. Seeger was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as an early influence. Arlo Guthrie, who paid tribute at the ceremony, mentioned that the Weavers’ hit “Goodnight, Irene” reached No. 1, only to add, “I can’t think of a single event in Pete’s life that is probably less important to him.” Mr. Seeger made no acceptance speech, but he did lead a singalong of “Goodnight, Irene,” flanked by Stevie Wonder, David Byrne and members of the Jefferson Airplane.
Mr. Seeger won Grammy Awards for best traditional folk album in 1997, for the album “Pete,” and in 2009, for the album “At 89.” He also won a Grammy in the children’s music category in 2011 for “Tomorrow’s Children.”
Mr. Seeger kept performing into the 21st century, despite a flagging voice; audiences happily sang along more loudly. He celebrated his 90th birthday, on May 3, 2009, at a Madison Square Garden concert — a benefit for Hudson River Sloop Clearwater — with Mr. Springsteen, Dave Matthews, John Mellencamp, Joan Baez, Ani DiFranco, Roger McGuinn of the Byrds, Emmylou Harris and dozens of other musicians paying tribute. In August he was back in Newport for the 50th anniversary of the Newport Folk Festival.
Mr. Seeger’s wife, Toshi, died in 2013, days before the couple’s 70th anniversary. Survivors include his son, Daniel; his daughters, Mika and Tinya; a half-sister, Peggy; and six grandchildren, including the musician Tao Rodriguez-Seeger, who performed with him at the Obama inaugural. His half-brother Mike Seeger, a folklorist and performer who founded the New Lost City Ramblers, died in 2009.
Through the years, Mr. Seeger remained determinedly optimistic. “The key to the future of the world,” he said in 1994, “is finding the optimistic stories and letting them be known.”
"Pete Seeger: 'Bruce Springsteen blew my cover'"
Pete Seeger has died aged 94. Here's one of our final interviews with the great folk singer, from 2007, in the wake of Bruce Springsteen's Seeger Sessions album
January 31st, 2007
On the first Friday of the month, in fine weather and sometimes foul, you will find Pete Seeger, the folk-singing legend and pioneering environmentalist, in a small wooden clubhouse by the Hudson river, 70 miles north of Manhattan.
At 87, and only slightly stooped by age, he looks much as he did 40 years ago, when he was the voice of the left, and an inspiration to young folk singers like Bob Dylan. Here at his beloved Beacon Sloop Club, in jeans and with shirt sleeves rolled up, he is still the driving force for a weekly dinner that draws a few dozen similarly conscientious folk at the river's edge.
"The town gave us use of the building 45 years ago," recalls Seeger. "My wife suggested we call it a pot-luck dinner and we've been busy ever since."
Seeger has won many awards, including the National Medal for the Arts, but his main concern these days is teaching children about the natural life of the Hudson. Ecology is so much his passion that sometimes he likes to be called a river singer. Indeed, along with raising anti-war consciousness in the 1960s, he played a key role in the movement to clean up the Hudson, which forced General Electric to pay half a billion dollars for the removal of toxic substances.
"I still call myself a failed communist," says Seeger, preparing the club's stage for a late afternoon sing-song. And it's true that his most famous compositions, Where Have All the Flowers Gone? (adapted from an old Russian song about Cossacks going off to war) and Turn, Turn, Turn (a big hit for the Byrds) don't sound as revolutionary as they did.
Seeger's banjo once sported the message: "This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender" (an echo of the message on Woody Guthrie's guitar: "This machine kills fascists"). The anti-fascist, union anthems he sang with Guthrie and later with his own band, the Weavers, placed him at the forefront of the action. He was targeted as a communist sympathiser in the 1950s (he was called before the McCarthy hearings after being warned that If I Had a Hammer would go down badly with the authorities, found guilty of contempt of Congress and sentenced to a year in prison). During the civil rights movement of the 1960s, he led a crowd, with Martin Luther King, in a rendition of We Shall Overcome.
Nowadays, Seeger doesn't play before large audiences, partly because he fears his voice is no longer strong enough. But he'll spend hours in the club, mischievously giving out bumper stickers reading "Gravity - it's just a theory" and encouraging people to send them to anyone in Kansas, heartland of the anti-Darwinism, creationist movement. He'll sing along at the club and tell stories for hours - but his best story is his own.
Born in 1919, and immersed in music by his teacher parents, Seeger got his big break in 1940. His parents were helping famous folk team John and Alan Lomax to transcribe songs recorded in the south. Woody Guthrie was persuaded to come to Washington to record them and Seeger accompanied him in the studio. The results were eventually published as a book: Hard Hitting Songs for Hard Hit People. "I went out west with Woody," says Seeger. "He taught me how to sing in saloons, how to hitch-hike, how to ride freight trains. Then I went out on my own."
Guthrie, he says, taught him how to busk. "He'd say put the banjo on your back, go into a bar and buy a nickel beer and sip it as slow as you can. Sooner or later, someone will say, 'Kid, can you play that thing?' Don't be too eager, just say, 'Maybe, a little.' Keep on sipping beer. Sooner or later, someone will say, 'Kid, I've got a quarter for you if you pick us a tune.' Then you play your best song." With that advice, Seeger supported himself on his travels.
Last year, Bruce Springsteen - a friend since the 1990s - released an album of songs Seeger had performed over the years. We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions put Seeger back in the spotlight. "I wish he hadn't used my name," says Seeger. "I've managed to survive all these years by keeping a low profile. Now my cover's blown. If I had known, I'd have asked him to mention my name somewhere inside."
While he likes Springsteen's renditions ("They're not my songs, they're old songs, I just happened to sing 'em,"), he says the renewed attention has added to the admin work that falls to his wife of more than 60 years, Toshi. "Most men chain their wives to a sink. Mine is chained to a table covered with correspondence. 'Oh, Mr Seeger, won't you listen to my record? Read my book, come over here and accept this award ...'" He refuses almost all such requests.
The business of the mighty river comes first nowadays. He's the enduring, seemingly ageless, folk-singing socialist-ecologist, and a fervent believer in thinking globally and acting locally. And down by the river, after the monthly pot-luck dinner, there's always time to take out the old five-string banjo and sing a song. "The real revolution will come when people realise the danger we're in," he offers in parting. "I'm not as optimistic as people think I am. I think we have a 50-50 chance of there being a human race in 100 years".
Pete Seeger [Wikipedia]
One of the most influential performers in country music history, Johnny Cash is featured with his wife June Carter in this rare early 1960s appearance which focuses on his country roots. Cash offers heartfelt performances of some his most famous songs, talks about his early years growing up in Arkansas and sheds light on the sources of his music.
1. Pete Seeger opening medley
2. Johnny Cash: I Am A Pilgrim
3. June Carter: Worried Man Blues
4. Johnny Cash: There's A Mother Always Waiting
5. Johnny Cash: Five Feet High and Rising
6. Johnny Cash: Pickin' time
7. Pete Seeger: Ki-Yo-Ti
8. Johnny Cash: As Long as the Grass Shall Grow
9. Pete Seeger: Little Birdie / Cripple Creek
10. June Carter: I'm Thinking Tonight of My Blue Eyes