Pete Seeger, the banjo-picking troubadour who sang for migrant workers, college students and star-struck presidents in a career that introduced generations of Americans to their folk music heritage, died Monday at the age of 94.
A file photo of folk music legend Pete Seeger performing during a concert marking his 90th birthday at Madison Square Garden in New York. (AFP photo)
Seeger's grandson, Kitama Cahill-Jackson said his grandfather died peacefully in his sleep around 9.30 pm at New York Presbyterian Hospital, where he had been for six days. Family members were with him.
"He was chopping wood 10 days ago," Cahill-Jackson recalled.
Seeger, a cheerful warrior
Seeger - with his a lanky frame, banjo and full white beard - was an iconic figure in folk music.
He performed with the great minstrel Woody Guthrie in his younger days and marched with Occupy Wall Street protesters in his 90s, leaning on two canes. He wrote or co-wrote If I Had a Hammer, Turn, Turn, Turn, Where Have All the Flowers Gone and Kisses Sweeter Than Wine.
He lent his voice against Hitler and nuclear power. A cheerful warrior, he typically delivered his broadsides with an affable air and his banjo strapped on.
"Be wary of great leaders," he said two days after a 2011 Manhattan Occupy march. "Hope that there are many, many small leaders."
With The Weavers, a quartet organised in 1948, Seeger helped set the stage for a national folk revival. The group - Seeger, Lee Hays, Ronnie Gilbert and Fred Hellerman - churned out hit recordings of Goodnight Irene, Tzena, Tzena and On Top of Old Smokey.
Seeger also was credited with popularizing We Shall Overcome, which he printed in his publication People's Song, in 1948. He later said his only contribution to the anthem of the civil rights movement was changing the second word from "will" to "shall," which he said "opens up the mouth better."
"Every kid who ever sat around a campfire singing an old song is indebted in some way to Pete Seeger," Arlo Guthrie once said.
His run-ins with the Establishment
His musical career was always braided tightly with his political activism, in which he advocated for causes ranging from civil rights to the cleanup of his beloved Hudson River. Seeger said he left the Communist Party around 1950 and later renounced it. But the association dogged him for years.
He was kept off commercial television for more than a decade after tangling with the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1955. Repeatedly pressed by the committee to reveal whether he had sung for Communists, Seeger responded sharply: "I love my country very dearly, and I greatly resent this 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, but the sentence was overturned on appeal.
Seeger called the 1950s, years when he was denied broadcast exposure, the high point of his career. He was on the road touring college campuses, spreading the music he, Guthrie, Huddie 'Leadbelly' Ledbetter and others had created or preserved.
"The most important job I did was go from college to college to college to college, one after the other, usually small ones," he said in 2006. " ... And I showed the kids there's a lot of great music in this country they never played on the radio."
His scheduled return to commercial network television on the highly rated Smothers Brothers variety show in 1967 was hailed as a nail in the coffin of the blacklist. But CBS cut out his Vietnam protest song, Waist Deep in the Big Muddy, and Seeger accused the network of censorship.
He finally got to sing it five months later in a stirring return appearance, although one station, in Detroit, cut the song's last stanza.
Seeger's output included dozens of albums and single records for adults and children.
He also was the author or co-author of American Favorite Ballads, The Bells of Rhymney, How to Play the Five-String Banjo, Henscratches and Flyspecks, The Incompleat Folksinger and many more.
He appeared in the movies To Hear My Banjo Play in 1946 and Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon in 1970. A reunion concert of the original Weavers in 1980 was filmed as a documentary titled Wasn't That a Time.
By the 1990s, no longer a party member but still styling himself a communist with a small c, Seeger was heaped with national honours.
The people he influenced
Official Washington sang along - the audience must sing, was the rule at a Seeger concert - when it lionised him at the Kennedy Center in 1994. President Clinton hailed him as "an inconvenient artist who dared to sing things as he saw them."
Seeger was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996 as an early influence. Ten years later, Bruce Springsteen honoured him with We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions, a rollicking reinterpretation of songs sung by Seeger.
A 2009 concert at Madison Square Garden to mark Seeger's 90th birthday featured Springsteen, Dave Matthews, Eddie Vedder and Emmylou Harris among the performers.
Seeger was a 2014 Grammy Awards nominee in the Best Spoken Word category, which was won by Stephen Colbert.
Seeger's sometimes ambivalent relationship with rock was most famously on display when Dylan "went electric" at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival.
Witnesses say Seeger became furious backstage as the amped-up band played, though just how furious is debated. Seeger dismissed the legendary tale that he looked for an ax to cut Dylan's sound cable, and said his objection was not to the type of music but only that the guitar mix was so loud you couldn't hear Dylan's words.
Seeger maintained his reedy 6-foot-2 frame into old age, though he wore a hearing aid and conceded that his voice was pretty much shot. He relied on his audiences to make up for his diminished voice, feeding his listeners the lines and letting them sing out.
"I can't sing much," he said. "I used to sing high and low. Now I have a growl somewhere in between."
Nonetheless, in 1997 he won a Grammy for best traditional folk album, Pete.
A short bio
Seeger was born in New York City on May 3, 1919, into an artistic family whose roots traced to religious dissenters of colonial America. His mother, Constance, played violin and taught; his father, Charles, a musicologist, was a consultant to the Resettlement Administration, which gave artists work during the Depression. His uncle Alan Seeger, the poet, wrote I Have a Rendezvous With Death.
In 1940, with Guthrie and others, he was part of the Almanac Singers and performed benefits for disaster relief and other causes.
He and Guthrie also toured migrant camps and union halls. He sang on overseas radio broadcasts for the Office of War Information early in World War II. In the Army, he spent 3.5 years in Special Services, entertaining soldiers in the South Pacific, and made corporal.
Pete and Toshi Seeger were married July 20, 1943. The couple built their cabin in Beacon after World War II and stayed on the high spot of land by the Hudson River for the rest of their lives together. The couple raised three children. Toshi Seeger died in July at age 91.