For more than 70 years, singer Pete Seeger championed folk music, highlighting the genre’s important place in musical heritage. Seeger also served as an inspiration and mentor for the numerous revivals of folk music, dating from the 1950s and 60s to present day. Along the way, he guided many famous musicians, including Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen, and supported a wide variety of causes and political movements. His influence can be heard in current musical groups such as Mumford & Sons. Seeger died on January 28, 2014, at the age of 94.
Musician and singer Pete Seeger
The death of a legend can challenge the future of any movement, but folk music had no greater champion than Pete Seeger. Born in 1919 to musical parents, Seeger’s first musical instrument was the ukulele. He switched to the banjo after attending a square-dance festival in North Carolina with his father, according to Jon Pareles’ January 28, 2014, obituary in The New York Times, “Pete Seeger, Songwriter and Champion of Folk Music, Dies at 94.”
He wrote the anti-war anthem “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” as well as co-wrote “If I Had a Hammer” with a member of the Weavers, the musical group Seeger was a member of in the 1950s. He also adapted old spirituals to create the song “We Shall Overcome” and set a passage from the Book of Ecclesiastes to music, which became a No. 1 hit for The Byrds, “Turn, Turn, Turn.”
In all, he recorded more than 100 albums in his lifetime and no study or research into folk music would be complete without attention to Seeger’s enormous impact.
Activist Pete Seeger
The trajectory of Seeger’s folk music career is extraordinary and is always intertwined with his activism. Starting in the 1940s and 50s, he sang for the labor movement; during the 60s he progressed to participating and performing at anti-Vietnam rallies and civil rights marches; and in the 1970s, his activism grew to encompass environmental causes and anti-war efforts. Seeger’s life offers a fascinating way to research the political causes of the 20th century.
Pareles reports, “During the McCarthy era Mr. Seeger’s political affiliations, including membership in the Communist Party in the 1940s, led to his being blacklisted and later indicted for contempt of Congress.”
Pete Seeger’s activism came naturally, according to Mark Memmott’s blog post on January 28, 2014, for npr.org about the death of a legend in “Pete Seeger, Folk Music Icon and Activist, Dies at 94.” In the post, he quotes former NPR broadcaster Paul Brown who says that Pete Seeger’s father (Charles Seeger) was the impetus for many of Pete’s left wing views. Brown also states “Charles Seeger introduced his son to some of the most important musicians of the Depression era, including Lead Belly and Woody Guthrie.”
Mentor Pete Seeger
According to “The Resurgence of Folk Music in Popular Culture” by Mary Wood Littleton for the Fall 1994 issue of National Forum, folk music was “Born in Ireland and Scotland into the peasant class” and it arrived in the 18th century to the United States as these people settled in the Appalachian mountains. In fact, Pareles writes, “Mr. Seeger saw himself as part of a continuing folk tradition, constantly recycling and revising music that had been honed by time.”
Seeger was a co-founder of the Newport Folk Festival and served as a mentor to many musicians throughout his career, chief among them Bob Dylan, Don McLean and Bruce Springsteen. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame recognized his influence, inducting him in 1996.
During the folk music revival of the 1990s, many artists preferred to describe their style of music in other terms, thinking the term folk was too old-fashioned. Wood Littleton writes that the modern form of folk music has expanded and is “characterized by powerful lyrics, stark production of recordings, and intimate performance.”
Today’s folk-inspired performers, like Mumford & Sons, Of Monsters and Men and the Lumineers, seem less afraid of the folk music label, embracing the banjo and tambourine, as well as telling the stories and struggles of working-class people. While Pete Seeger’s passing is the death of a legend indeed, his legacy of music, activism and mentoring appears to still be appreciated by many.
What do you think—will folk music and its performers, like Pete Seeger, continue to impact society? Let us know your thoughts in the comments.