Pete Seeger dies at 94

January 28, 2014 • 5:58 am

According to the New York Times, Pete Seeger died just a few hours ago of “natural causes” at New York-Presbyterian hospital. He was 94.

The Times’s obituary, obviously written in advance, is very good, and all I can do is highlight briefly his accomplishments as a singer, songwriter, political activist, and inspiration to us activists in the Sixties, when he was already in middle age.  His fame began when he sang with the Weavers, one of the first popular folk groups, beginning the year I was born.  He never parlayed his fame into money, but into politics—particularly antiwar activities and, later, environmental causes (I saw him once—at an antiwar rally at Washington Square Park in New York City). In the Fifties was indicted by the House Un-American Activities Committee, refused to testify, and managed to escape being jailed.

Beyond his politics and his influence on so many singers who came after him, let’s remember the great songs he did write:

Mr. Seeger was a prime mover in the folk revival that transformed popular music in the 1950s. As a member of the Weavers, he sang hits including Lead Belly’s “Goodnight, Irene” — which reached No. 1 — and “If I Had a Hammer,” which he wrote with the group’s Lee Hays. Another of Mr. Seeger’s songs, “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?,” became an antiwar standard. And in 1965, the Byrds had a No. 1 hit with a folk-rock version of “Turn! Turn! Turn!,” Mr. Seeger’s setting of a passage from the Book of Ecclesiastes.

And let’s not forget the song that inspired many of us protestors during the Vietnam era, “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy,” decrying the stupidity of that misguided war. Seeger was also responsible for popularizing, at least in the white community, the old black gospel song “We Shall Overcome,” which became an anthem for the civil rights movement.

Here are two clips to remember him by, which include his three greatest songs.

The antiwar song (and a beautiful one), “Where have all the flowers gone?”, performed here with Peter, Paul and Mary. Be sure to watch the whole thing: at 2:30 there are brief clips of all the singers, including Seeger, talking about the song.

An equally lovely ballad,”Turn! Turn! Turn!, made popular by the Byrds. (This version includes my third favorite Seeger song, “If I had a Hammer,” as well as “We Shall Overcome”)

I’ll miss him; he was an all-around nice guy and the last of the old-time activists:

Screen shot 2014-01-28 at 6.50.11 AM
Be sure to look at the slideshow accompanying the NYT article; there are some great pictures. Here’s a photo of Seeger’s famous banjo. The motto was obviously inspired by the one painted on Woody Guthrie’s guitar: “This machine kills fascists”:

Screen shot 2014-01-28 at 6.49.47 AM

34 thoughts on “Pete Seeger dies at 94

  1. My father spoke this past Sunday at the Unitarian Universalist church where Pete was a longtime member. The topic, appropriately, was social justice.

  2. If Woody Guthrie was the Tom Joad of American folk music, Pete Seeger was its Ransom Stoddard.

    At least that’s how I tried to cast them in Fordian terms when interviewed about the musical heroes of my early youth: Woody Guthrie, Lead Belly, Pete Seeger, his sister Peggy; Scottish counterparts Ewan MacColl and Alex Campbell; Seán Ó Riada; from a younger generation, Tom Paxton; and above all the indispensable Alan Lomax.

    Alas, none of the above rang a bell with the young interviewer: Fordian meant as little to her as Steinbeck, or any of the other names. Pete Seeger alone prompted a faint echo: wasn’t he the old scraggy guy who sang with Bruce Springsteen at the Obama Inaugural? Pre-inaugural Lincoln Memorial concert, to be precise, but I let that pass. Instead I pointed out a rare case of longevity reaping the dividends of a life supremely well spent in the service of the common good.

    The most lolzy line from any Pete Seeger obituary in a journal of record? Penned by Jon Pareles in the NYT:

    Mr. Seeger met Mr. Guthrie, a songwriter who shared his love of vernacular music and agitprop ambitions…

    “Mr.” Seeger, “Mr.” Guthrie, indeed. And a special nod for the most misguided misuse of agitprop: might as well let David Boaz write the obit.

    I wonder if Americans realise how essentially American an artist like Pete Seeger appears to non-Americans; hence the double irony of him being dragged before HUAC.

    1. Update: Andrew Cohen has posted a beautiful tribute to Pete Seeger over at The Atlantic.
      His first sentence:

      The singer-songwriter-folk hero Pete Seeger, who died Monday at the age of 94, always reminded me of Henry Fonda playing Tom Joad in John Steinbeck’s immortal Grapes of Wrath.

      No quarrel with that either.

      Although I still think the Ransom Stoddard side of Seeger’s persona is underrated: the wealth of learning, the political mind, the principled stance no matter what the costs, the bitter price of his sometimes deluded idealism.

  3. What a flood of memories—a time when every lab at the University (Chicago) had a Grundig radio tuned to WFMT—a time when the weekend wasn’t complete without The Midnight Special (a Saturday night broadcast rich in folk music). Seeger was a remarkable man; I miss him.

    1. When I was a kid my dad worked at the University of Chicago. We lived in northern Indiana at the time. He commented on the train to work. My mom always played The Midnight Special on the radio. I had forgotten. Thanks for reminding me.

      1. Don’t forget that the Midnight Special is still going strong and can be heard via internet radio every Saturday night. Last New Year’s Eve the show celebrated its 40th birthday. What a great show.

        P.S. I was at UC in the late fifties and have been listening to the MS when I could ever since.

  4. I’m glad he had a good run. My parents used to listen to his music, along with Arlo and Woody Guthrie when I was growing up so I’m familiar with a lot of his work. He did come across as a really nice guy and he sure had the gift of the gab. One of my favourites is when he sings Guantanamera.

  5. His book on how to play the 5 string banjo was a huge influence. And he was affiliated with “Sing Out” magazine, who published the book “Rise Up Singing”, without which my folk band in college would not have existed.

    I’m glad you posted videos of him performing, Dr. Coyne, but let’s remember that Pete wasn’t about professional musicians performing for audiences (even though he was fantastic at it). Pete thought we should all sing just for the joy of singing.

  6. I saw Pete Seeger in concert more times than any performer (7) largely because I so deeply appreciated his remarkable ability to connect with his audience, moreso than any performer I’ve seen (save perhaps soprano Audra MacDonald). His frequent duo concerts with Arlo Guthrie (son of Woody) were especially great moments of his later career.

    He had a nicely irreverent rewrite of “Give Me that Old Time Religion” (lots of pre-Christian religions are mentioned) though he could do a standard “Amazing Grace” quite well also.

    Here is the former

  7. Bon voyage Pete, we’ll miss you.

    My favorite was his rendition of Lee Hays’ “In Dead Ernest”

    If I should die before I wake,
    All my bone and sinew take
    Put me in the compost pile
    To decompose me for a while.

    Worms, water, sun will have their way,
    Returning me to common clay
    All that I am will feed the trees
    And little fishes in the seas.

    When radishes and corn you munch,
    You may be having me for lunch
    And then excrete me with a grin,
    Chortling, “There goes Lee again.”

    ‘Twill be my happiest destiny
    To die and live eternally.

  8. I heard him at a small concert in 1971 or thereabouts in Madison. He changed the lyrics to “There was an old woman who swallowed a fly” to “There was a young woman who swallowed a lie,” continuing on until she overthrows all the lies “Now she’ll not die.” It was very early in the Women’s movement – Pete was always one step ahead of everyone else, whether it was civil rights, anti-war or environmentalism.

  9. A perfect example of a person who became great just by doing his thing without pretense. A model to us all!


    At this link, a transcript of Mr. Seeger’s responses to the HUAC in 1955, about which Wikipedia has this to say:

    “Seeger’s refusal to testify led to a March 26, 1957, indictment for contempt of Congress; for some years, he had to keep the federal government apprised of where he was going any time he left the Southern District of New York. He was convicted in a jury trial of contempt of Congress in March 1961, and sentenced to 10 years in jail (to be served simultaneously), but in May 1962 an appeals court ruled the indictment to be flawed and overturned his conviction.”

  11. I was privileged to see Pete perform several times, a couple of them with Arlo Guthrie. I loved him for his refusal to abandon his principles and for his determined optimism about the human race. And the songs, of course! Nobody could get an audience singing like he could.

    Now that I’m older I appreciate his song “My Get Up and Go Has Got Up and Went.”

    1. That’s a great song. I can’t find the one I’m thinking of but I found the lyrics. It’s hilarious & was something his 4 year old son used to sing. I always loved the line, “he will grow thing as a marble”.

      He will just do nothing at all,
      He will just sit there in the noon-day sun,

      And when they speak to him,
      He will not answer them,
      Because he does not wish to.

      And when they tell him to eat his dinner,
      He will just laugh at them,

      And he will not take his nap,
      Because he does not wish to.

      He will just sit there in the noon-day sun.
      He will go away and play with the Panda,

      And when they come to look for him,
      He will stick them with spears

      And throw them in the garbage,
      And put the cover on.

      And he will not go out in the fresh air,
      Nor eat his veg’tables,

      And he will grow thin as a marble.
      He will just do nothing at all,
      He will just sit there in the noon-day sun.

  12. Oops I didn’t mean to embed a video here. I screwed that up. I think that’s a no-no, right? Have mercy on me!

  13. At one point in his career, Pete lost that famous banjo. (Left it on the roof of his car and drove away!) Someone, somewhere along the line received it and recognized who it really belonged to; and they returned it to Pete. 🙂

  14. Pete Seeger’s song My Rainbow Race, adapted by Lillebjørn Nilsen under the title Barn av regnbuen became immensely popular in Norway and in 2012 it was sung in public gatherings in defiance to Anders Breivik’s attacks and during his trial. These scenes from Oslo still bring me to tears:

    Nilsen was in touch with Seeger during that time and had his support.

Leave a Reply