Pete 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.
Seeger, who helped create the modern American folk music movement, co-wrote enduring songs such as “If I Had a Hammer” and became a leading voice for social justice, died Monday at age 94 of natural causes at New York Presbyterian hospital, according to his family.
Michael Honey, a University of Washington Tacoma professor and labor historian, said that without Seeger many of the songs born from Americans’ economic and political struggles would not have been preserved. Seeger devoted much of his life to traveling through small towns collecting the indigenous songs that originated in the fight for civil rights and economic equality.
Honey, a UWT Fred and Dorothy Haley professor of humanities, said Seeger traveled to the Northwest in the early ’40s with fellow folksinger Woody Guthrie. While in Seattle, the two were introduced to the hootenanny, a party of sorts at which musicians joined together to sing their songs and share stories.
Honey, a musician himself, shared the stage with Seeger in 1997 at the Seattle Folklife Festival.
“He was a great storyteller. He had an encyclopedic memory. But he was always a humble man,” said the UWT professor, who knew Seeger for decades.
Often politically charged, several of Seeger’s own compositions became anthems within his lifetime, including “Where Have All The Flowers Gone” and “We Shall Overcome,” which he based on a spiritual tune.
Seeger and Guthrie started the Almanac Singers in the early 1940s, and in 1949 Seeger was a founding member of another key folk group, the Weavers. Those groups opened the way for Bob Dylan and another generation of folk music singer/songwriters in the 1960s and ’70s.
The Weavers had a No. 1 hit with a version of Leadbelly’s “Good Night, Irene” and by 1952 the group had sold more than 4 million records. The members soon drifted apart, however, after being blacklisted for links to the Communist Party.
Seeger wrote the modern classic “Turn! Turn! Turn!” with lyrics from the Bible’s Ecclesiastes and “Where Have All the Flowers Gone” with Joe Hickerson. But he was modest about his songwriting.
“Hardly any of my songs have been written entirely by me,” he once said in an interview. “I swiped things here and there and wrote new verses” to old tunes.
Seeger, born on May 3, 1919, in Patterson, New York, was the son of two teachers at the famed Juilliard School of Music — his father an ethnomusicologist and his mother a violinist.
David Fischer, executive director of Tacoma’s Broadway Center, recalls the effect Pete Seeger had.
“When I heard the news this morning, the thing that resonated for me was that his lineage goes back to revolutionary America. You think about the heritage of songs, and music, from revolutionary America when we were making fun of the Brits through all manner of song, all the way through the music and the merging of Black spirituals in the Civil War, through the union movements of the ’20s and ’30s. Seeger has that lineage running through his heritage and his life. The man was engaged as an anti-war activist, as a union supporter. He survived the McCarthy HUAC hearings. I don’t think there are a lot of other people who have the political, social and moral authority that he shared with us.
“Pete Seeger wasn’t about stardom; he was about authenticity and channeling the voice of the people.”
Tamie Herridge, owner of Antique Sandwich Co. in Ruston, long a home for traditional music, reflected on the loss of Seeger. “He was one of those people who you think is going to be around forever. He was the solid core, the rock of early music. He got a lot of us into folk music. He’s definitely one of the deep roots. I think he’s going to be remembered as a strong peace activist, and an environmentalist, and a person who stands on his principles.”
“I grew up in the Hudson River Valley,” said Andrew Ratshin of Seattle, a member of the group Uncle Bonsai. Seeger, he said, “was an always-there figure. He’s someone who was there my entire life. It’s a loss in a different way. You’re losing a figurehead. He stood for human rights and the individual. He kept that in the public eye. He turned songs into standards.”
Vince Brown, an Olympia-based musician, said of Seeger: “I only know his music. I never knew the man. He was truly inspiring. The thing that most inspired me — music has meaning. It’s always communicating something. Pete was very careful in his message. He was very aware that what he was doing mattered.”
Seeger, Brown said, made the connection between meaning and music.
“He seemed to be such a humble person,” Brown said. “He never seemed to waver from the notion that everyone mattered. He broke down the barrier between performer and audience. It can’t be about one person. It has to be about everyone working together. When I found out he died, I put some Pete Seeger albums on.”
Dick Meyer, owner of Traditions in Olympia, said Seeger “has been such a monumental, instrumental figure for so long.”
Beyond the music, Meyer said, Seeger inspired people “whether for the environment, peace issues, poverty or social justice issues. He was a part of a number of people who were trying to describe political change. There’s always been a cutting edge trying to move society forward in humane ways. He’s been a part of that movement.”
Chris Lunn founded Victory Music at Tacoma’s Court C in 1969, and later founded Ancient Victorys.
“My mom had his records, and the Weavers and Paul Robeson.” Lunn said. “ The Almanac Singers were the first recordings our family had. I can remember those as a kid.”
Lunn met Seeger after being asked to present an award on behalf of the International Folk Alliance.
“His music was always inclusive. It was always participatory. He affected people that way. You get involved, you sing, you act, you get out and do the work. He saw that his role was to encourage and involve people.”
Seeger had been a Communist Party member but left about 1950. Still, he refused to answer questions from the U.S. House of Representatives Un-American Activities Committee in 1955, was prosecuted and was sentenced to a year in jail in 1961. The conviction was overturned on appeal, but Seeger’s career did not begin to recover until the Smothers Brothers invited him to appear on their television show in 1967. As the United States grew divided over the Vietnam War, Seeger wrote “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy,” an antiwar song that he performed during a taping of “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour” in September 1967, but it was cut before the show was broadcast. After the Smothers Brothers publicized the censorship, Seeger returned to perform the song for broadcast in February 1968.
Seeger spent the next two decades performing on college campuses, at folk festivals and political rallies.
Seeger and Bruce Springsteen performed Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land” in January 2009 at a concert marking Barack Obama’s presidential inauguration.
The White House released a statement Tuesday describing Seeger as “America’s tuning fork,” and said that “over the years, Pete used his voice — and his hammer — to strike blows for workers’ rights and civil rights; world peace and environmental conservation. And he always invited us to sing along.”
Seeger won just one Grammy for an album, 1997’s “Pete” in the best traditional folk album category. He also received a Lifetime Achievement Grammy in 1993.
Vance Lelli, president of the Pierce County Labor Council, said Seeger’s songs have always provided inspiration and solace to those in the most miserable circumstances.
Lelli, a musician himself, said Seeger’s songs demonstrated Seeger’s intimate understanding of those striving for betterment.
“My job,” Seeger 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.”