The legendary folk singer Pete Seeger died last week at age 94 in New York City. Pete Seeger was a singer-songwriter best known for his contributions to the American folk music and his political activism. We have probably sung the songs he has made famous like “Goodnight Irene,” “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad,” “This Old Man,” “Frog Went A-Courting,” “She’ll Be Coming ‘Round the Mountain,” and “We Shall Overcome.”
He wrote popular hits like “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” and “Turn, Turn, Turn,” (the words taken from the Book of Ecclesiastes), “If I had a Hammer” and many more. He loved audience participation. His concerts were not about him. His message was more important than the medium. He also loved to involve children in his singing.
Seeger believed that “the pen was more powerful than the sword.” That is why he engaged in many social issues such as international disarmament, civil rights and environmental awareness.
The well-know version of the song “We Shall Overcome” was put together by Seeger. Martin Luther King, Jr. heard his song and the civil rights movement adopted it.
Seeger came from a musical family. Both his parents were musicians. He was well read and began developing political and social ideas at an early age. He enrolled at Harvard University on a scholarship in 1936. However, after only two years at Harvard, he failed an exam and lost his scholarship.
He dropped out of college and spent the rest of the 1930's as a vagrant, hitchhiking and riding on freight trains around the country. He became aware of the disadvantaged part of society.
In 1940, Seeger organized a folk quartet called the Almanac Singers that featured his friend and fellow folk musician, Woody Guthrie. The Almanac Singers released several albums.
In 1942, however, the group’s musical progress was stopped short. The Army drafted Seeger during World War II. The group disbanded not long after.
In 1943, Seeger married Toshi Aline Ohta, whom he had met at a dance in the late 1930's. Their marriage lasted 70 years.
After the war, Pete Seeger went back to his musical career, performing folk songs. A few years later, in 1948, he formed the Weavers. The group produced several hit songs in the early 1950's – among them “On Top of Old Smoky,” “Goodnight, Irene,” “The Wreck of the Ship John B,” “If I Had a Hammer,” and “Kisses Sweeter Than Wine.”
The Weavers stopped recording when Seeger’s political ideals got the group in political trouble. An FBI informant, Harvey Matusow (who later retracted his statement) accused the band of being a Communist group. The Un-American Activity Committee called Seeger before congress but he stood his ground and refused to answer their questions because he believed that congress has no right to question him about his beliefs.
He was convicted for contempt of Congress for refusing to answer the claims that he was a member of a Communist group. However, it would be overturned in an appeal in 1962.
Seeger participated in the civil rights and antiwar movements of the ‘60s, and his reputation gradually improved. Throughout the rest of the ‘70s and into the ‘80s, the musician frequently performed with fellow folk singer-songwriter Arlo Guthrie, the son of folk legend Woody Guthrie.
Here was a gentle person who used his talents and gifts to make this world a better place to live. He stood up for what he believed.
In 1993, he received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. He was awarded a National Medal of Arts a year later, and inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996. He also won a Grammy Award for best the Traditional Folk Album.
Posted on Fri, February 7, 2014
by Rev. Wilmer L. Todd