Pete Seeger, the legendary folk singer and banjo player who became an American icon by using protest songs to push for social changes over the 20th century and beyond, died yesterday. He was 94.
With dozens of records, Seeger was a titan in folk music, from early collaborations with Woody Guthrie to a celebrated career with The Weavers to appearances at benefit concerts that continued through his final days. To wit, he remained politically engaged at the Farm Aid concert in Saratoga Springs in September 2013, singing new lyrics to “This Land Is Your Land” with rock stars like Neil Young and Dave Matthews that claimed “New York was made to be frack-free,” referring to the controversial gas drilling process.
A committed environmentalist, Seeger founded the Hudson River Sloop Clearwater organization, based in Beacon, in 1966. It works to protect the Hudson River and surrounding land.
Seeger often sang for children and at summer camps. He also became a key part of the WAMC Northeast Public Radio community, taping a series of unique biographical interviews with Alan Chartock and performing special concerts for WAMC members.
“Open the paper/read the obits/if I’m not there, I know I’m not dead/So I eat a good breakfast and go back to bed,” he sang on a WAMC special called Pete At 90, and years after that interview was taped, he was still on stage. His voice diminished by age, Seeger merely relied on the audience sing-alongs that had already defined his concert performances for decades.
At a star-studded concert marking his 90th birthday at Madison Square Garden in 2009, Seeger was honored by musicians like Richie Havens, Joan Baez, Bruce Springsteen, Arlo Guthrie, Dave Matthews and dozens more.
Seeger, who performed at President Obama’s inauguration at 91, received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, a Kennedy Center honor, and a National Medal of Arts. He is also a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame — but in later years, he was known to decline as many honors as he accepted.
“I’m a most lucky person,” Seeger told WAMC, “but my life has almost been ruined by too much publicity. My mail comes in by the bushel.”
The later honors that poured in marked a stark turnaround in a career that saw Seeger all but banned from television and radio in the McCarthy era.
Seeger was convicted for contempt of Congress in 1961 after refusing to answer questions before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, which saw him blacklisted in the anti-communist fervor of the era. An anti-war activist in the 60’s and again in the 2000’s, Seeger saw several of his songs become pop hits, including "Where Have All the Flowers Gone" (1961) and "Turn, Turn, Turn."
Born in New York City on May 3, 1919, Seeger came from a musical family. His father was a music teacher at UC Berkeley, and his mother taught at Julliard. His brother Mike joined the New Lost City Ramblers; sister Peggy embarked on a folk career of her own.
He married wife Toshi Seeger in 1943. She died in July 2013 at 91.
“My wife has stuck with me for almost 60 years,” he once told WAMC. “That’s what I’m most proud of.”