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:
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”: