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A Link In The Chain: Pete Seeger, 1919–2014
January 28, 2014
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Seeger performs in 2009 in New York City. (Photo: Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Images)

Pete Seeger, a folk music icon, activist and influence on Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen, died yesterday from natural causes. He was 94.

Over the course of his extraordinary seven-decade career, Seeger introduced many songs into the popular vernacular, influenced generations of younger musicians and remained connected to progressive political causes from anti-war movements to environmental protection. His songs "Where Have All The Flowers Gone?" and "We Shall Overcome," which he adapted from a traditional gospel song, became anthems of the anti-Vietnam and civil right movements in the 1960s.

At Seeger's 90th birthday concert at Madison Square Garden, Springsteen introduced him as "a living archive of America’s music and conscience, a testament of the power of song and culture to nudge history along."

Seeger was born on May 3, 1919, the son of a musicologist father, a concert violinist mother and a composer stepmother. Although he'd planned to be a journalist, he dropped out of Harvard and took a job cataloguing music at the Archive of American Folk Song at the Library of Congress. He was soon introduced to the singer-songwriter Woody Guthrie, with whom he travelled across the U.S. performing concerts and trading songs. Seeger made his albums with the Almanac Singers, a group that included Millard Lampell, Lee Hays and eventually Guthrie. Here's the group performing "Whose Side Are You On?," a union ballad written by a Kentucky coal miner's wife:

In the late 1940s, he formed the Weavers with Hays, Ronnie Gilbert and Fred Hellerman, which brought him to national attention with songs like "If I Had A Hammer" (which he co-wrote), "Wimoweh" (which he adapted from South African singer Solomon Linda) and “Goodnight, Irene," a Lead Belly song whose lyrics he cleaned up:

Although the Weavers initially met with commercial success, they were soon accused of Communist affiliation, and Seeger was brought before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1955. “I feel that in my whole life I have never done anything of any conspiratorial nature," he said, before refusing to answer any questions about his beliefs or associations, which he labelled "very improper questions for any American to be asked, especially under such compulsion as this." Seeger was indicted and later convicted on 10 counts of contempt of Congress, although an appeals court overturned the decision.

You can read his full testimony here.

During this period, when he was shut out of performing on television, he mostly played solo concerts at coffeehouses, churches and schools, and became popular as a performer of folk music for children. Here he performs "Woody and Huddie":

"Where Have All the Flowers Gone" was a minor hit for the Weavers, but became a popular protest song by folk revivalists and critics of the Vietnam War. Here's Seeger performing it with Woody Guthrie's son, Arlo Guthrie (note his characteristic invitation to the audience to sing or hum along):

Seeger was also behind one of the great civil rights anthems, "We Shall Overcome," which he adapted from an earlier traditional song "We Will Overcome." Here, Seeger details the evolution of the iconic song:

Seeger's political commitments continued throughout his career. In the late '60s, he started a campaign to clean up the Hudson River, and in 2009, he performed Woody Guthrie’s "This Land Is Your Land" with his great fan Bruce Springsteen at the first Obama inaugural:

For a sweeping look at Seeger's career and impact, see the PBS documentary The Power of Song from 2007:

And on the New York Times website, Seeger's friend, the environmental writer Andrew C. Revkin wrote a moving personal appreciation of the great singer.

Seeger's wife Toshi died in 2013, just short of their 70th wedding anniversary. He is survived by three children, a half-sister and six grandchildren.

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