Pete Seeger, the granddaddy of American folk music, passed away peacefully in his sleep January 27, at the age of 94. Pete left a legacy of not only a tremendous contribution to American music, but of political activism and ecology with an emphasis on peace.
If you’ve ever heard The Lettermen sing “Turn, Turn, Turn,” if you’ve ever heard “We Shall Overcome” sung at a protest, if you ever listened to Bruce Springsteen belt out his We Shall Overcome album, you’ve been touched by Pete’s music. If you’ve ever driven along the Hudson River in New York and noticed the lack of garbage floating in it, you’re looking at Pete’s work.
Pete began singing with the Almanac singers back in the 40’s, alongside the bedrock of American folk singers such as Woody Guthrie (who wrote the iconic and ironic song “This Land is Your Land”), Lee Hays, and Cisco Houston, among others. The Almanac singers morphed into The Weavers by 1950, with Lee Hays, Ronnie Gilbert, and Fred Hellerman, and enjoyed great popularity (including a number one hit in “Goodnight Irene”) until 1953, when they were blacklisted by McCarthyites as being suspicious for singing about such things as worker’s rights and political oppression around the world. This did not stop them from playing Carnegie Hall in 1955. By the 1960’s folk music was only increasing in popularity, and Pete had a great influence on such upcoming folk singers such as Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, and Arlo Guthrie, Woody’s son, with whom he kept a life-long friendship. Seeger – four of his six siblings are also folk singers – continued to influence music through the 80’s, 90’s, and 2000’s by working with mega-musicians such as John Mellencamp and Bruce Springsteen, who released a well-received folk album after mentoring from Pete.
If Seeger was anything, it was tireless. It was he who introduced Martin Luther King Jr. to the song “We Shall Overcome.” In 1966 he became part of the Clearwater effort to clean up the toxic waste and raw sewage that was destroying the Hudson River in New York, something he never stopped doing. He stood behind Occupy Wallstreet. He played at President Obama’s inauguration, at the age of 89. He was still playing and giving concerts at 93. He was predeceased by Toshi, his wife of 70 years, just last summer. He has been a part of, well, generations of American history, from WPA projects to serving in World War II to facing down the House Committee on UnAmerican Activities to the civil rights movement, ecology, founded music festivals, and more. He is truly an American Icon, one we can all be proud of.
If you want to listen to classical truly American music, if you’re looking for great songs for singing or guitar, if you want your children to listen to some fun and rolicking children’s songs, check out some of Pete’s extensive legacy. Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen walk in his shadow, but there is no one alive who can come close to filling Pete’s giant footprints.