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Folk singer, activist Pete Seeger dies in New York

NEW YORK: Buoyed by his characteristically soaring spirit, the surging crowd around him and a pair of canes, Pete Seeger walked through the streets of Manhattan leading an Occupy Movement protest in 2011.

He later admitted the attention embarrassed him but the moment brought back many feelings and memories as he instructed yet another generation of young people how to effect change through song and determination – as he had done over seven decades as a history-sifting singer and ever-so-gentle rabble-rouser.

“Be wary of great leaders,” he told AP two days after the march. “Hope that there are many, many small leaders.”

The banjo-picking troubadour who sang for migrant workers, college students and star-struck presidents in a career that introduced generations of Americans to their folk music heritage died Monday at the age of 94. 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.

“He was chopping wood 10 days ago,” Cahill-Jackson recalled.

With his time-worn banjo and white beard, Seeger was an iconic figure in folk music who outlived his peers. He performed with the great minstrel Woody Guthrie in his younger days and wrote or co-wrote “If I Had a Hammer,” “Turn, Turn, Turn,” “Where Have All the Flowers Gone” and “Kisses Sweeter Than Wine.” He sang against Hitler and nuclear power. A cheerful warrior, he typically delivered his broadsides with an affable air and his fingers poised over his banjo strings.

In 2011, the canes kept Seeger from carrying his beloved instrument while he walked nearly two miles with hundreds of protesters swirling around him holding signs and guitars. When a policeman approached, Tao Rodriguez-Seeger said at the time he feared his grandfather would be hassled.

“He reached out and shook my hand,” Rodriguez-Seeger recalled, “and said, ‘Thank you, thank you. This is beautiful,’”

With The Weavers, a quartet organized in 1948, Seeger helped set the stage for a national folk revival. He was credited with popularizing “We Shall Overcome,” which he printed in his publication “People’s Song” in 1948.

Seeger’s musical career was always braided tightly with political activism. He advocated for causes ranging from civil rights to the cleanup of his beloved Hudson River.

Seeger was long dogged by his association with the Communist Party, which he said he left around 1950. He was kept off commercial television for more than a decade after tangling with the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1955. The committee repeatedly pressed him to reveal whether he had sung for Communists.

“I greatly resent this implication,” Seeger responded sharply, “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.”

He was charged with contempt of Congress.

Seeger called the 1950s the high point of his career. He was on the road touring college campuses, spreading the music he, Guthrie, Huddie “Lead Belly” Ledbetter and others had created or preserved.

Seeger’s discography included dozens of albums and singles for adults and children.

He appeared in the movies “To Hear My Banjo Play” (1946) and “Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon” (1970). A reunion concert of the original Weavers in 1980 was filmed as a documentary titled “Wasn’t That a Time.”

No longer a party member by the 1990s – but still styling himself “a small-c communist” – Seeger was heaped with national honors.

When Seeger was lionized at the Kennedy Center in 1994, President Bill Clinton hailed him as “an inconvenient artist who dared to sing things as he saw them.”

Seeger was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996. Ten years later, Bruce Springsteen honored him with “We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions,” a rollicking reinterpretation of songs sung by Seeger. Seeger said he wished it was “more serious.”

Seeger marked his 90th birthday in 2009 with a concert at Madison Square Garden. He was a 2014 Grammy Awards nominee in the Best Spoken Word category.

Seeger’s sometimes-ambivalent relationship with rock was most famously on display when Dylan “went electric” at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival. Seeger dismissed the legendary tale of his furious response, saying his objection was only that you couldn’t hear Dylan’s words.

Seeger wore a hearing aid in old age and conceded that his voice was pretty much shot. He relied on his audiences to make up for his diminished voice. Nonetheless, in 1997 he won a Grammy for best traditional folk album, “Pete.”

Seeger was born in New York City on May 3, 1919, into an artistic family whose roots traced to religious dissenters of colonial America. His mother, Constance, played violin and taught; his father, Charles, a musicologist, was a consultant to the Resettlement Administration, which gave artists work during the Depression. His uncle, Alan Seeger, was a poet.

Pete Seeger said he fell in love with folk music when he was 16, at a music festival in North Carolina in 1935. He learned the five-string banjo, an instrument he rescued from obscurity and played the rest of his life in a long-necked version of his own design.

Dropping out of Harvard in 1938 after two years, he hit the road, picking up folk tunes as he hitchhiked or hopped freights.

In 1940, with Guthrie and others, he was part of the Almanac Singers and performed benefits for disaster relief and other causes. He and Guthrie also toured migrant camps and union halls. In the army, he spent three-and-a-half years entertaining soldiers in the South Pacific.

He married Toshi Seeger (d. 2013) on July 20, 1943. The couple built their cabin in Beacon after World War II and stayed on the high spot of land by the Hudson River for the rest of their lives, raising three children.

The Hudson River was a particular concern of Seeger’s, singing to raise money to clean the water and fight polluters. He also sang against racism and the death penalty. He continued to take part in peace protests during the war in Iraq.

“Can’t prove a damn thing, but I look upon myself as old grandpa,” Seeger told AP in 2008. “There’s not dozens of people now doing what I try to do, not hundreds, but literally thousands. ... The idea of using music to try to get the world together is now all over the place.”

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on January 29, 2014, on page 16.

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Summary

The banjo-picking troubadour who sang for migrant workers, college students and star-struck presidents in a career that introduced generations of Americans to their folk music heritage died Monday at the age of 94 . 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.

"He was chopping wood 10 days ago," Cahill-Jackson recalled.

With his time-worn banjo and white beard, Seeger was an iconic figure in folk music who outlived his peers.

With The Weavers, a quartet organized in 1948, Seeger helped set the stage for a national folk revival.

Seeger's musical career was always braided tightly with political activism.

No longer a party member by the 1990s – but still styling himself "a small-c communist" – Seeger was heaped with national honors.

Pete Seeger said he fell in love with folk music when he was 16, at a music festival in North Carolina in 1935 .


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