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Pete Seeger - obituary
Peter Seeger was known as 'the Godfather of Folk Music' and revered as the voice of political protest for more than a half a century
Singer Pete Seeger was an iconic figure in folk music Photo: Getty Images
12:13PM GMT 28 Jan 2014
Pete Seeger, who has died aged 94, was the protest singer and political activist variously described as "the Godfather of Folk" and "America's tuning fork".
Seeger was the first to concede that he was not the finest of singers, or even a great banjo player. Neither did he consider himself a particularly gifted songwriter; rather, he thought of himself as a facilitator of the tradition of radical songmaking. His great gift was as a communicator, and it was one that he used to maximum effect.
A major influence on Bob Dylan, Seeger was ubiquitous at folk festivals and political gatherings. Playing the five-string banjo, and singing from a vast repertoire of songs, he expounded ideas of justice and freedom in a strong, clear voice. Eventually Seeger's appearances amounted to a roll-call of the human rights conflicts of the 20th century.
Having begun his performing career at fund-raisers for Depression-era economic migrants, he graduated to the integrated school movement of Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King. He was central to the civil rights struggle, a passionate anti-Vietnam War protester and, in old age, a committed environmentalist.
He also supported a bewildering variety of less high-profile causes, was a co-founder of People's Songs (an organisation to "create, promote and distribute songs of labour and the American people") and helped to establish the Newport Folk Festival.
03 Dec 2008
- Mike Seeger
11 Aug 2009
- Doc Watson
30 May 2012
- Gerry Rafferty
04 Jan 2011
- Bert Jansch
05 Oct 2011
His political activism did not go unnoticed. In 1955 he was required, alongside Arthur Miller, to appear before the House Committee on un-American Activities to explain his "communist sympathies". When he dramatically cited the First Amendment, he was jailed for contempt of Congress.
Although he was soon released, Seeger's songs with folk group The Weavers were banned from the radio and many of his concerts cancelled. But he battled on, recording some of the most important protest ballads of the era, including Where Have All The Flowers Gone?, Turn, Turn, Turn, We Shall Overcome and If I Had A Hammer.
A prolific songwriter who collected and adapted poems, religious texts, passages from literature and traditional ballads, Seeger considered himself no more than "a link in a chain", extending the oral tradition by travelling the country as a troubadour. His credo was: "If there's a future, it won't be because of big organisations, the church or movements, but tens of thousands of little miracles and little efforts."
Pete Seeger (REUTERS)
Peter Seeger was born in Patterson, New York, on May 3 1919. His parents taught at the Juilliard School of Music, though Pete and his musically-inclined siblings, Mike and Peggy, showed little interest in classical music.
He was educated at Avon Old Farms Boarding School in Connecticut, but his imagination was fired by a trip he made as a teenager to a square dance festival in North Carolina, where he "fell in love with the five-string banjo rippling out a rhythm to one fascinating song after another. I liked the melodies, time tested by generations of singers. Above all I liked the words... they seemed straightforward, honest."
Nursing a desire to become a political journalist, he went to Harvard, but dropped out in his sophomore year. While working at the American Archive of Folk Song in New York, he taught himself the banjo; and the tall, slim balladeer became a familiar sight at protest rallies, county fairs and street parties.
On March 3 1940 he met Woody Guthrie at a "Grapes of Wrath" Californian migrant workers' benefit concert. It was a date which, according to the singer Alan Lomax, could be described as "the birth of modern folk music". Seeger became part of the loose collective called The Almanac Singers which included Guthrie, Lomax and, periodically, Sonny Terry, Brownie McGhee and Leadbelly. The Almanacs sang and recorded labour-oriented songs, such as The Talking Union Blues, and travelled the country, immersing themselves in folk traditions, allowing Seeger to learn "a little something from everyone".
In 1942 he was drafted and "shipped out to the west Pacific and put in charge of hospital entertainment". He was demobbed as a corporal in 1945.
Back in the United States he formed People's Songs, a musicians' union designed to bind folk singers and labour movements. But in the Cold War climate of fear and anti-communist paranoia, the labour unions were unwilling to be linked to radical folk singers. Although Seeger resigned his Communist Party membership in 1950, he observed 50 years later: "I still call myself a communist, because communism is no more what Russia made of it than Christianity is what the church made of it. But if communism had caught up with this country I would have been one of the first people thrown in jail."
In 1948 he campaigned in the South alongside the Progressive Party presidential candidate Henry Wallace, an experience he found deeply depressing. The following year his car was attacked and his wife and child injured by shattered glass in the Peekskill Riot in New York.
Undeterred, Seeger formed The Weavers with Lee Hays (with whom he wrote the optimistic paean to social change If I Had A Hammer), Fred Hellerman and Ronnie Gilbert. They enjoyed immediate success, topping the charts with Goodnight Irene and Kisses Sweeter Than Wine, and established Woody Guthrie's This Land Is Your Land as part of American culture. Despite traversing the country singing songs of protest, Seeger found time to establish the Newport Folk Festival and sell out Carnegie Hall as a solo performer.
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