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Pete Seeger, Folk Singer Who Led Social Activism, Dies at 94

Singer Pete Seeger
Singer Pete Seeger performs at Farm Aid 2013 at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center in Saratoga Springs, New York on Sept. 21, 2013. Seeger died Monday. He was 94. Photographer: Ebet Roberts/Redferns via Getty Images

Pete Seeger, the folk singer who rallied audiences to social causes for more than six decades and inspired generations of musicians from Bob Dylan and Peter, Paul and Mary to Bruce Springsteen, has died. He was 94.

He died in his sleep yesterday about 9:30 p.m. at New York Presbyterian Hospital, where he had been for six days, according to the Associated Press, which cited Seeger’s grandson, Kitama Cahill-Jackson.

Seeger was credited, along with Woody Guthrie, for the emergence of folk music within American popular culture. His popularity peaked during the 1960s, when a folk revival swept across the country.

“If I Had a Hammer,” “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” and “Turn! Turn! Turn!” were among his best-known compositions. His reworking of a gospel song, “We Shall Overcome,” was the anthem of the 1960s civil-rights movement.

Traditional folk tunes were staples of his solo shows and performances with the Weavers, a vocal group whose version of Lead Belly’s “Goodnight Irene” reached No. 1 on the U.S. pop singles chart in 1950.

“At some point Pete Seeger decided he’d be a walking, singing reminder of all of America’s history,” Springsteen said during Seeger’s 90th-birthday concert held at New York’s Madison Square Garden in 2009. “He would have the audacity and the courage to sing in the voice of the people.”

‘Hootenanny’ Shows

Although he recorded songs for more than 100 albums, he preferred concerts to studio work. He led audience sing-alongs at shows, helping popularize the “hootenanny.” Later in his career, he played mainly at benefits. He performed Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land” with Springsteen at a 2009 concert for U.S. President Barack Obama’s inauguration.

Political activism was a constant throughout his life. During the late 1930s, he sang at trade-union rallies. In the 1940s, he joined the Communist Party, an affiliation that later led to his being blacklisted. He protested the Vietnam War and walked in civil-rights marches in the South during the 1960s.

Seeger also was an environmentalist. He co-founded a group in 1966 to clean up the Hudson River, which flowed past the home that he built in Beacon, New York. He helped raise funds for the Clearwater, a replica of the sloops that sailed the river before its waters became polluted and the organization’s namesake.

Musical Parents

Seeger was born on May 3, 1919, in New York to Charles Seeger and Constance Seeger, classically trained musicians and intellectuals descended from early New England settlers.

His Harvard-educated, left-wing father had resigned the previous year from the University of California at Berkeley, where he was a professor of musicology. The departure was linked to his status as a conscientious objector during World War I.

When he was 8, his parents divorced. He was given a ukulele that year, and later bought a used banjo. He discovered the five-string banjo in 1936, the year he graduated from high school in Connecticut, and played guitar and mandolin, as well.

Seeger entered Harvard University in the same class as John F. Kennedy, the future president. He dropped out after two years in 1938 when poor grades cost him a partial scholarship.

After leaving, he made a failed effort to find a newspaper job in New York. He then met Huddie Ledbetter, better known as Lead Belly, whose 12-string guitar-playing influenced his style.

Prewar Career

In 1940, he was introduced to Guthrie when they both performed at a fundraiser for California migrant workers. The two became friends and made a road trip to Oklahoma and Texas, bartering their music for meals.

Seeger also began singing with Lee Hays, a Southerner who co-wrote “If I Had a Hammer.” They formed the Almanac Singers, later joined by Guthrie. The group’s protest songs fell out of favor as the U.S. prepared to enter World War II.

Drafted into the U.S. Army, where he served for 3 1/2 years, Seeger married Toshi Ohta in New York’s Greenwich Village while home on leave in 1943. Ohta served as Seeger’s manager, and he credited her for his career success. She died in July 2013, at 91.

After the war ended, he wrote “How to Play the Five-String Banjo,” an instructional manual that he self-published in 1948. The book is still in print.

Seeger also formed the Weavers with Hays, Ronnie Gilbert and Fred Hellerman. “Goodnight Irene” and other songs by the group, such as “Kisses Sweeter Than Wine” and “On Top of Old Smokey,” helped nudge folk beyond cult status.

Carnegie Hall

The success was fleeting. Bookings nosedived after Seeger’s name was published in Red Channels, a newsletter purporting to show “communist influence” in radio and television, and the group disbanded in 1953.

The Weavers reunited for a concert at New York’s Carnegie Hall in 1955. Seeger left again in 1958 to protest the group’s decision to perform for a cigarette commercial. He turned to touring colleges on his own.

Seeger’s ties to communism began in 1936, when he joined the Young Communist League. Six years later, he became a member of the Communist Party USA. He belonged to the party until 1949.

When the House Committee on Un-American Activities subpoenaed him in 1955, Seeger wouldn’t discuss his political views and declined to invoke his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. The panel cited him for contempt, and he was blacklisted until an appeals court dismissed the case in 1962.

The 1960s folk revival, spurred by Dylan’s initial success as a folk artist, helped revive his career. Peter Paul and Mary recorded “If I Had a Hammer,” the trio’s first top-10 single on the Billboard magazine charts. The Byrds later hit No. 1 with their version of “Turn! Turn! Turn!”

Chart Performance

Seeger’s “We Shall Overcome: The Complete Carnegie Hall Concert,” a 1963 release, was the only album of his career to reach the top 50 in Billboard. He scored his only chart single the next year with “Little Boxes,” which peaked at No. 70.

During the early 1970s, Seeger had a hernia operation and tried to stop singing for a year. The enforced rest made him physically weaker, and he returned to live performances.

“Pete discovered he could not survive without singing in public,” author David King Dunaway wrote in “How Can I Keep From Singing,” a biography published in 1981. “He needed his audience more than they ever could need him.”

Seeger’s work was introduced to a new audience in 2006 when Springsteen released “We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions,” a collection of tunes the folk artist had made popular. Springsteen toured with musicians who played on the album and released a live recording from their shows.

Arts Medal

By then, Seeger had won awards that were tinged of irony. In 1994, the former communist received the U.S. government’s highest arts award, the National Medal of the Arts.

The folk artist who inspired Grammy Award-winning singers in the 1960s finally earned his first Grammy in 1997, for best traditional folk album. He won the category again in 2009.

And the musician who felt out of touch in the late 1960s when electric guitars ruled the music world was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996 as an early influence.

“Pete Seeger’s contribution to folk music, both in terms of its revival and survival, cannot be overstated,” the hall said.

Seeger and his wife had a son, Daniel, and two daughters, Mika and Tinya.

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