American Icon Pete Seeger dies at 94
Folk singer remains optimistic activist 'til the very end

Peter Seeger
AP Photo/John Minchillo
Pete Seeger, 92, marches with demonstrators during Occupy Wall Street protests and stops for a brief acoustic concert in Columbus Circle, Friday, Oct. 21, 2011, in New York.

To Everything (Turn, Turn, Turn)
There is a season (Turn, Turn, Turn)
And a time to every purpose, under Heaven

A time to be born, a time to die
A time to plant, a time to reap
A time to kill, a time to heal
A time to laugh, a time to weep

When you first heard this song did you know the lyrics were adapted from the Book of Ecclesiastes and the music was written by American folk musician Pete Seeger? This much beloved singer, songwriter and political activist passed away on January 27 at the age of 94. He was a constant fixture in the folk scene where he will be sorely missed but his musical influence and activism lives on in artists he influenced: Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Woody Guthrie, Bonnie Raitt, Bruce Springsteen, Natalie Mains and Tom Morello.  Morello of Rage Against the Machine said on his Twitter site, “RIP Pete Seeger. Absolutely the best humans can aspire to be. A courageous, kind, fearless soul.”  Perfect words to describe this American icon.”

Keith Kelly, Music and Fine and Performing Arts faculty describes Seeger as musical artist, champion of folk music, and peace activist. He said, “Seeger is key to the rise in music as protest - that one can be thoughtful, artistic, and forceful - in the face overwhelming anger and greed.”
What transcends is his sense of good.  His influence upon the folk music of the 1960s is immense and the social movements of the 60s are owed in some part to the structure he and his contemporaries pioneered decades earlier.” He also explains how folk music is woven in the fabric of both America rock and roll and popular music with Seeger being a part of the foundation of the "American Sound".  

“Pete Seeger represents one of the first links between folk music and pop music,” said Scott Zimmer, Fine and Performing Arts faculty. He explains since Seeger advocated for the working class, his music paralleled the increasing importance of the rising middle class who wanted a voice in society where they had not been heard until the 20th century.

Seeger was honored in his lifetime as he was inducted into both The Songwriters Hall of Fame and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, received the Kennedy Center Honor, Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award and George Peabody award and many other acknowledgments throughout his long musical career.

Enduring Songs:

As Kelly states Seeger’s music endures and cites "If I had a Hammer" and “Turn, Turn, Turn" as two popular examples.   “Turn, Turn, Turn,” is his most well loved composition.  Although Seeger wrote it in 1959 it did not become an international hit until late 1965 when American folk group,”The Byrds” released it as a single and included it on their second album, “Turn, Turn, Turn.”  By the time the Byrd’s lead guitarist, Roger McGuinn had made it into a folk/rock music hybrid the popular folk song of Seeger’s is “If I had a Hammer.” He wrote co wrote it with Lee Hays in 1949. as both were in a folk music quartet, The Weavers that also included Ronnie Gilbert and Fred Hellerman. It was not a success until folk music trio, Peter, Paul and Mary scored a top ten hit with it in 1962. The song has been associated with freedom and was a popular song for the civil rights movement.

Seeger also wrote the much covered song, “Where have all the Flowers Gone,” publishing it in 1955 in Sing Out! magazine.  He wrote first three verses and then Joe Hicksman added more in 1960. This ballad was called one of the top political songs by the “New Statesman,”in 2010.  Again, this would be sung over and over by a variety of artists including: The Kingston Trio, Marlene Dietrich, Bobby Darin, Harry Belafonte, Richie Havens, Olivia Newton-John, Earth Wind and Fire, and country artists Dolly Parton, Roy Orbison and Eddy Arnold.  Part of the song was played only by U2 during their 2011 tour.
Early Years:
Seeger was born into music as both parents were musicians: his mother a violinist and his father a pianist. He father a musicologist had a great love of tradition music which he passed down to his son. He took his family on a cross country trip playing music for the public everywhere they stopped. Seeger received a ukulele when he was 8 and learned the popular songs of the day and in turn sang them for his classmates while enticing them to sing along. This practice would continue all his life and as Seeger said in the 2007 documentary, “Pete Seeger the Power of Song” The best music I ever made in my life is when I can get the audience to sing on the chorus.”  After mastering the ukulele he switched to his signature instrument, the banjo.

When he enrolled in Harvard he became politically active, eventually joined the Young Communist League because they were anti-racist and pro-union and he took part in their marches bringing his banjo and his songs.  He later worked in the Library of Congress and met folklorist and musicologist John Lomax and his son. Lomax’s son Alan, an oral historian recorded folk and jazz artists and introduced folk artist Woody Guthrie to Seeger.  Then Seeger joined Guthrie on some of his on the road travels while Guthrie taught him how to hop trains. Guthrie was a copious writer and the author of the well known“Your land is my land,” which Seeger frequently sang throughout his career.  Before World War ll, Seeger’s invited Guthrie to join his folk group the Almanac Singers, which was known for their protest songs. After WWll broke out Seeger was drafted and started out as a mechanic in the military but was switched to conducting concerts and sing-a-longs.

Post War:
After the war Seeger became a founding member of the folk band the Weavers and they scored a huge hit with their song, “Good Night, Irene,” which enabled them to secure first rate gigs at the all the biggest most popular nightclubs.  Then their successful careers came to a standstill when they were blacklisted during the McCarthy era.  This was the age of McCarthyism and Seeger had been a member of the communist party. Also Zimmer said, “The Weavers invoked topics that most Americans were uncomfortable with during the Red Scare of the 1950's.”

Several years later they were reunited and played to a sold out audience at Carnegie Hall while their popularity grew. When the band agreed to sing for a cigarette commercial Seeger a non smoker quit the band. Although he left the band, Kelly said,”His work with the Weavers lives on, as does his deeply held personal beliefs in equality and peace, which continue to be threatening to those in power.”

The Folk Revivial:

Seeger was an important figure in the 60’s and Peter Travis of Peter, Paul and Mary credits him for being driving force of the ‘60s folk revival. Zimmer agrees and said, “In a lot of ways, he passed the torch to folk and rock artists of the 60's and 70's like Bob Dylan and The Beatles, when these artists decided they wanted to write songs with a deeper message than their rock and roll predecessors. “

He brought the social importance of folk music to the American public.  He returned to television in 1967 when the Smothers Brothers invited him on their show and chose to sing an anti-war song which was the station refused to play until seven months later.. He received much criticism when he was invited to North Vietnam in 1972 and accepted the invitation. Afterwards Johnny Cash booked him on his show despite the hate letters Cash received and calling Seeger, “One of the best Americans I have know.”
Twilight years:
After the war ended Seeger went to schools and taught children about their heritage through American folk songs sing-a-longs. When he noticed how polluted the Hudson River had become he organized an awareness campaign and then a community cleanup committee. He then turned environmentalist causes and organizing more awareness campaigns and projects.  Still marching in 2011 he was port of The Occupy Wallstreet protest. He would remain an activist right up to his death while continuing to believe that the hope for the world was through song..

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