CNN reports that the legendary singer, songwriter, and activist Pete Seeger died of natural causes last night at New York Presbyterian Hospital. Seeger, one of the great towering figures in the recent history of the American left, was 94. He had a hell of a life.
Seeger was born into a family of musicians and musicologists in New York in 1919. He started playing banjo in 1936 and dropped out of Harvard in 1938 to play music in a traveling puppet theater. Later, he went to work for the folk-music archivist Alan Lomax, eventually playing music on Lomax’s radio show and performing at the White House in 1941. That same year, he also co-founded the Almanac Singers, a sort of leftist folk-singer supergroup with a constantly-changing lineup. Though he opposed American involvement in World War II, Seeger served in the Army, mostly entertaining troops as a musician.
In 1950, Seeger’s Almanac Singers turned into the folk quartet the Weavers, who had a massive #1 hit that year with a version of Leadbelly’s “Goodnight Irene.” A few years later, though, the whole group was blacklisted. When the House Un-American Activities Committee subpoenaed Seeger, he took the fifth and refused to give any information. He was indicted for contempt of Congress and, in 1961, sentenced to 10 years in prison, though that conviction was overturned on appeal a year later.
Seeger was a tremendously important elder-statesman figure in New York’s folk revival of the late ’50s and early ’60s. He wrote or co-wrote songs like “Where Have All The Flowers Gone?,” “If I Had A Hammer (The Hammer Song),” and “Turn, Turn, Turn,” which were famously covered over and over, and he popularized the Civil Rights anthem “We Shall Overcome.” He wrote a column in the quarterly journal Sing Out! and contributed heavily to Broadside magazine. In the mid-’60s, he hosted the regional New York folk-music show Rainbow Quest, where he booked a number of legendary musicians. An early supporter of Bob Dylan, he famously freaked out when Dylan plugged in and played loud with the Paul Butterfield Blues Band at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, later admitting he was wrong. (The stories about him waving an axe and threatening to cut the electrical cord are probably exaggerated.) In 1967, he played the allegorical anti-Vietnam song “Waist Deep In The Big Muddy” on the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, a rare example of an American TV network airing any early protest against the war.
Throughout his career, Seeger was a tireless advocate of a ton of causes, including civil rights, workers’ rights, pacifism, and environmentalism. He also continued performing long after his heyday. (Personal note: When I was a toddler, my parents took me to see him and Arlo Guthrie playing together in Baltimore, which makes Seeger technically my first concert, even if I don’t remember a thing about it.) Seeger marched on Columbus Circle with New York’s Occupy Wall Street movement, and he performed at Farm Aid — singing “This Land Is Your Land” with Neil Young, Willie Nelson, John Mellencamp, and Dave Matthews — just four months ago. Seeger’s wife of 70 years, the filmmaker Toshi Aline Ohta, died last year.