Pete Seeger, folk singer and activist whose music and straight talk inspired generations of musicians and activists, has died. He was 94. Known for songs like “If I Had a Hammer,” “Turn, Turn, Turn,” and “Where Have All the Flowers Gone”, Seeger–who joined the Young Communist League (YCL) in 1936 and the Communist Party USA in 1942, eventually drifting away from them in the early 1950s–performed for troops in the South Pacific during World War II. He was convicted of contempt of Congress after refusing to answer questions at the House Un-American Activities Committee, telling them:
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,
yet went on to perform at the White House and at President Barack Obama’s inauguration concert in 2009, where he, his grandson Tao Rodrigues-Seeger, and Bruce Springsteen sang “This Land Is Your Land.”
In 1941, Seeger performed as part of the cast of Back Where I Come From at a command performance at the White House organized by Eleanor Roosevelt called “An Evening of Songs for American Soldiers,” before an audience that included the Secretaries of War, Treasury, and the Navy (Eleanor Roosevelt was a fan of folk music and a supporter of equal rights). The show, created by Nicholas Ray (who would go to direct Rebel Without a Cause), included Josh White, Burl Ives, Lead Belly, and Woody Guthrie, was a success but was not picked up by commercial sponsors for nationwide broadcasting because of its integrated cast.
Seeger, who came from a family of academics and musicians, performed at benefits for migrant workers and union organizers in the 1940s, and then in the folk group the Weavers, whose political messages where carefully sublimated in their songs and covered up by their stage outfits of tuxedos. Somehow the message got through–by 1953, with the Red Scare fully screaming, the Weavers were blacklisted from the radio. However they managed to get a hit in 1959 with “Kumbaya” which was based on a Gullah spiritual tracing back to slavery. The song’s title has become synonymous with pacifism.
In 1960 the Weavers became the Kingston Trio, which scored Billboard hits and opened the door for the folk revival, and later roots rock, but Seeger was blacklisted from national television until 1968 when the Smothers Brothers brought him on their CBS program to perform “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy” a year after CBS censored a similar performance.
While national broadcasters held him at arms length during the early and mid 1960s, Seeger, with his wife Toshi and Sholom Rubinstein, produced a regionally broadcast, educational folk-music television show, Rainbow Quest which he also hosted. The programs were recorded at WNJU’s Newark studios in 1965 and 1966, and featured guests like Johnny Cash, June Carter, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Tom Paxton, Judy Collins, Donovan, Richard Fariña and Mimi Fariña.
Even in his old age, Seeger remained active in music and progressive causes. In 2010 he co-wrote and performed the song God’s Counting on Me, God’s Counting on You with Lorre Wyatt, commenting on the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. And in 2011 he marched alongside Occupy Wall Street to Columbus Circle, then performed with his grandson, Tao Rodriguez-Seeger, Arlo Guthrie, and other musicians.
Just four months ago, on September 21, 2013, Seeger performed at Farm Aid at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center in Saratoga Springs New York, where joined by Dave Matthews, John Mellencamp, Willie Nelson, and Neil Young, he sang “This Land is Your Land,” including a verse he said he had written specifically for the Farm Aid concert.
Throughout his life, Seeger supported civil and labor rights, racial equality, care for the environment, international understanding, and anti-militarism, believing that songs could help people achieve these goals. The man, who President Bill Clinton called
an inconvenient artist who dared to sing things as he saw them
and his music have been a beacon and a soundtrack for activists for over half a century, inspiring people around the world to unite, move and make music for positive change. Rest in power, Pete.