Pete Seeger, who died last night at age 94, was the voice of America. His high, wailing tenor had a fragile, human quality that struck deep into your heart when you heard him sing. He didn't have the smooth voice of a pop singer. He had the rough, untrained voice of a working man, which is what he was for most of his life, despite being born to a relatively well-off family. Without him, the 1960s folk revival -- a movement that revitalized American popular music -- wouldn't have happened. He opened the door that Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs, Joan Baez, the Byrds, and every other folksinger and folk rocker walked through.
When he discovered an old spiritual called "We Will Overcome," he rewrote it into "We Shall Overcome." That song spread quickly throughout the ranks of demonstrators and activists to became the anthem of the civil rights movement. It helped transform America's racial politics and remains as moving and relevant today as it was when Seeger and his co-writers -- Guy Carawan, Lucille Simmons and Zilphia Horton -- wrote it in the late 50s. (The writers all agreed to donate the royalties the song made to civil rights organizations. The We Shall Overcome Fund is still generating enough money to fund African American groups fighting discrimination.)
Seeger was an early champion of ecology and sustainability, protested the Vietnam war before there was a peace movement, and stood up for worker's rights in the early days of America's labor movement. Like Tom Joad, the hero of John Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath, Seeger and his banjo showed up "wherever people were fighting for their rights."
Seeger was the son of musicologist and folksong collector Charles Seeger and Constance de Clyver Edson Seeger, but his parents divorced when he was seven. His stepmother, Ruth Crawford Seeger, was an avid collector of folk songs, and the folk music bug bit Pete when he was 17. He heard someone playing a five-string banjo at a folk festival and fell in love with the sound of the instrument. Although he entered Harvard planning to be a newspaper writer, Seeger dropped out to roam the country with his friend Woody Guthrie. They wound up in New York, where Seeger formed The Almanac Singers, the prototype of The Weavers, in 1941. He described the group as a "singing newspaper."
After a stint in the Army entertaining the troops in the Pacific, Seeger started The Weavers. Their close harmonies and wide-ranging repertoire brought folk music to a national audience. They had Top 10 hits in 1950 with "Goodnight Irene," a song Seeger learned from the blues singer Lead Belly, and "On Top of Old Smokey." The Weavers sang songs from Elizabethan England, protest songs and folk songs from Israel, South America, and South Africa, introducing Americans to the concept of world music decades before that was a term. At the height of their popularity, Seeger's youthful membership in the American Communist Party came to light, and the House Un-American Activities Committee subpoenaed him. He refused to name his leftist friends or renounce his progressive views, and was sentenced to 10 years for Contempt of Congress -- but the conviction was overturned on appeal.
His political trial ended The Weavers, and Seeger was blacklisted from the mainstream media. Years later, he said this period was the high point of his life. He was able to travel freely and played thousands of gigs at American colleges, infecting a generation with the folk song virus that inspired them to start the folk revival, the civil rights and anti-war movements, and later on, the ecology movement. With only his 12-string guitar and a banjo, Seeger was free to travel the country and the world, spreading the gospel of peace, love, understanding, and human dignity.
He made more than 100 albums in almost every genre of American folk and roots music. He wrote hits like "Turn, Turn, Turn" and "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?" and was tireless in his promotion of good causes. His concerts were noted for Seeger's ability to get crowds singing along. He kept performing into his 90s, still able to inspire the best in his audience and maintaining his belief in the power of music to change the world for the better. Seeger died last night, Jan 27, after a brief illness, leaving behind a world that's a better, more peaceful and tuneful place because of his presence.