Pete Seeger, who passed away early this week, married his musical interests with his activism
The man who first popularized the traditional number ‘We Shall Overcome’ did not want to be called a one-hit wonder or a celebrity of any sort. What singer-songwriter and folk musician Pete Seeger did want, though, was for people to learn the importance of togetherness through music. Seeger, who died of natural causes in New York on January 27 at the age of 94, was among the first politically-conscious folk musicians of his time. Seeger is best known for songs such as ‘We Shall Overcome’, ‘If I Had A Hammer’ and ‘Where Have All The Flowers Gone?’ and being an political, social and environmental activist who fought for everyone from African-Americans during the civil rights movement and the common American man in the Fifties Progressive movement.
Seeger was influenced by the likes of Woody Guthrie, and performed the latter’s famous number ‘This Land Is Your Land’ on numerous occasions. Seeger went on to become an influence for a host of folk musicians who took forward the revival of the folk song in America – from Bob Dylan and Joan Baez to later American rock artists such as Bruce Springsteen. As much as he was a folk hero, Seeger made clear his political stance on every given opportunity. His support to the communist ideology was one that cost him several shots at mainstream early in his career, from when he joined the Young Communist League at Harvard University in 1936 to the slide in popularity for his folk band The Weavers. The band broke out in America in a big way in the early ‘50s with hits such as ‘Tzena, Tzena, Tzena’ and ‘Goodnight, Irene’ but the House Un-American Activities Committee called in Seeger in 1952 and had him blacklisted for his initial ties to the communist ideology. Seeger said much later in 1995 to New York Times Magazine, “I still call myself a communist, because communism is no more what Russia made of it than Christianity is what the churches make of it. But if by some freak of history communism had caught up with this country, I would have been one of the first people thrown in jail.”
Political ideologies notwithstanding, Seeger was a crusader for human and environmental rights above all. He sings about it in his 2002 song ‘Take It From Dr. King’: “We sang about Alabama 1955,/But since 9-11 we wonder will this world survive./The world learned a lesson from Dr. King/ We can survive, we can, we will.” The folk artist married his musical interests with his activism, as was the fashion in the ’60s. Seeger founded the Newport Folk Festival in the ‘50s and went on to create the Clearwater Festival with his wife Toshi in 1966. Seeger explained in a 1982 interview about the inception of the Clearwater Festival: “The idea was to find a beautiful old boat—not just any craft, but an old cargo sloop like the ones that sailed the Hudson in fleets of 400 or more a century ago—and take it up and down the river, stopping at every town along the way. We figured that in order to keep the Hudson from becoming a permanent sewer, the local people would have to learn to love the river again, to come down to the water's edge and look at it closely and—in effect—say, ‘Gee, this river is a mess. We ought to get together and do something about it’.”
It was all about believing in the power of people for Seeger, as one famous anecdote recounted by writer Scott Alarik’s 2011 book Revival. Alarik recalls a Seeger playing a pro-democracy gig in Barcelona during the fascist Franco regime in the ‘70s, and before he took to stage, Seeger was handed a list of songs he was not allowed to perform. Despite the government censorship that insisted on wiping out several of his classic songs from his setlist, Seeger went on stage and told an audience of over a hundred thousand, “I've been told that I'm not allowed to sing these songs,” holding his setlist in his hand. He grinned at the crowd and said, “So I'll just play the chords; maybe you know the words. They didn't say anything about you singing them.” And just like that day in Barcelona, Seeger’s songs and words will be remembered forever by thousands across the world, because it was all about togetherness for the folk singer-songwriter.