The folk legend and political activist Pete Seeger passed away yesterday at the age of 94. He left a substantial legacy as a performer, mentor and outspoken citizen.
“I showed the kids there’s a lot of great music in this country they never played on the radio.” – Pete Seeger, 2006
A performing legend and a longstanding source of political controversy, the iconic folksinger Pete Seeger passed away peacefully at 9.30 pm last night in New York Presbyterian Hospital, where he had been for the previous six days. Family members were with him.
Seeger’s life and career were anything but peaceful. Born in 1919 into an artistic family with a history of religious dissent, he attended Harvard but dropped out in 1938 to hop freights and scrounge folk tunes. He became a superb musicologist (and was consequently known in some quarters as a song stealer non pareil). In his early years he was a committed Communist, though he later denounced Stalinism. To the end of his days he was a socialist and a campaigner for a long list of causes that included cleaning up the Hudson River.
His true legacy though, was in the musical arena, which included galvanizing the power of musicians to campaign for social change. In this he was a brother-in-arms with Woody Guthrie. Both lived through the Depression and were profoundly influenced by what they saw on the road: poverty, despair and prejudice. Seeger and Guthrie were the most prominent faces of folk music for decades, and though Guthrie was arguably the greater songwriter of the two, and a deeper influence on Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs, Tom Paxton and other folk icons, Seeger was a force almost beyond measure on stage.
Seeger resurrected the 5-string banjo from obscurity, and emblazoned his instrument with the slogan “”This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender”. He also wrote or co-wrote “if I Had A Hammer”, “Turn, Turn, Turn”, “Where Have All The Flowers Gone” and “Kisses Sweeter Than Wine”. He was a founding member of The Weavers, who were the model for such groups as Peter, Paul and Mary and thousands of other folk groups. He was a tireless performer, traversing the continent from one college crowd to another in the 1950s, inspiring thousands to pick up a guitar or a banjo and get involved as a musician and as a citizen.
His crowning writing achievement, beyond the undoubted lyricism and sentimentality of his lyrical bent, was the power and ongoing contemporaneity of his anti-Vietnam protest song “Waist Deep In The Big Muddy”:
“Now every time I read the papers
The old feeling comes on
We’re waist deep in the Big Muddy
And the big fool says to push on”
Was there ever a more succinct line written about the dangers of imperialism (be it American, Soviet, Asian or Middle Eastern?
In 1996 Seeger was inducted into the Rock and Hall Hall of Fame as an early influence. The following year, 1997, he won a Grammy for best traditional folk album, Pete.
Watch: “Waist Deep In The Big Muddy”