Folk singer Pete Seeger has died. He was 94.
Though Seeger was best known to most as a musician, his fame was also inextricably tied to his political activism. Seeger rabble-roused for the labor movement in the '40s with his group The Weavers, long before the socially conscious folk music revolution of the '50s and '60s. Seeger's music was a lynchpin of anti-war protest, while his version of “We Shall Overcome” became popular during the civil rights struggle. (Seeger later said his only contribution was to change the second word from “will” to “shall,” which he said “opens up the mouth better.”) More recently, he was active in the Occupy Wall Street protests, leading marches in New York City even while clutching two canes.
Seeger’s even-keeled five-string banjo introduced folk music to several generations of fans. He captivated young people with his tunes on Sesame Street, like “Put Down The Duckie,” and “Put Your Finger In The Air.” He sang songs about fighting Hitler, and belted out quiet messages of hope for migrant workers in the ‘70s. He advocated for the cleanup of the Hudson River and protested against nuclear power. In his early years, he sang with Woody Guthrie, and, over the course of his long career, either wrote or co-wrote “If I Had A Hammer,” “Turn, Turn, Turn,” “Where Have All The Flowers Gone,” and “Kisses Sweeter Than Wine.”
An early association with the Communist Party marred Seeger’s career, even though he left and publicly denounced the organization in the 1950s. Seeger rumbled with the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1955, telling the committee in a hearing that he “greatly resent[ed] the 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.” He was charged with contempt of Congress—a charge that was later overturned on appeal—and essentially banned from commercial television for a full decade.
That ban actually led to what Seeger called the high point of his career. Instead of appearing on television, he spent the decade touring, playing colleges, and spreading his music and message to students. In 2006, he told The Associated Press that his goal was to show “the kids there’s a lot of great music in this country never played on the radio.”
Seeger returned to television with a controversial spot on the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour in 1967, though his performance of Vietnam protest song “Waist Deep In The Big Muddy” was cut by CBS.
In 1965, Seeger was present at the Newport Folk Festival, which he had founded, the year Bob Dylan decided to “go electric.” Reports of Seeger’s backstage actions vary, with some—probably apocryphal—descriptions of the scene saying Seeger had an ax and repeatedly threatened to cut the power, so as to save the audience from Dylan’s noisy set. Seeger himself says he was more angered by the cruddy sound, which is understandable if the PA was configured only for acoustic instruments. Either way, Dylan was extremely saddened by what seemed to be Seeger’s disapproval, and he didn’t return to the festival for 37 years.
Seeger recorded over 100 albums. He was honored at the Kennedy Center in 1994, inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame in 1996, and performed at Barack Obama’s Inaugural Celebration Concert in 2009. A concert that same year to honor Seeger’s 90th birthday featured performances from Bruce Springsteen, Dave Matthews, Eddie Vedder, and Emmylou Harris.