Buoyed by his characteristically soaring spirit, the surging crowd around him and a pair of canes, Pete Seeger walked through the streets of Manhattan leading an Occupy Movement protest in 2011.
Though he would later admit the attention embarrassed him, the moment brought back so many feelings and memories as he instructed yet another generation of young people how to effect change through song and determination as he had done over seven decades as a history-sifting singer and ever-so-gentle rabble-rouser.
“Be wary of great leaders,” he told The Associated Press two days after the march. “Hope that there are many, many small leaders.”
The banjo-picking troubadour who sang for migrant workers, college students and star-struck presidents in a career that introduced generations of Americans to their folk music heritage died on Monday at the age of 94. Seeger’s grandson, Kitama Cahill-Jackson, said his grandfather died peacefully in his sleep around 9. 30 p.m. at the New York Presbyterian Hospital, where he had been for six days. Family members were with him.
“He was chopping wood 10 days ago,” Cahill-Jackson recalled.
With his lanky frame, worn banjo and full white beard, Seeger was an iconic figure in folk music who outlived his peers. He performed with the great minstrel Woody Guthrie in his younger days and wrote or co-wrote “If I Had a Hammer,” “Turn, Turn, Turn,” “Where Have All the Flowers Gone” and “Kisses Sweeter Than Wine.” He lent his voice against Hitler and nuclear power. A cheerful warrior, he typically delivered his broadsides with an affable air and his fingers poised over the strings of his banjo.
In 2011, the canes kept Seeger from carrying his beloved instrument while he walked nearly two miles with hundreds of protesters swirling around him holding signs and guitars. With a simple gesture extending his friendship Seeger gave the protesters and even their opponents a moment of brotherhood the short-lived movement sorely needed.
When a policeman approached, Tao Rodriguez-Seeger said at the time, he feared his grandfather would be hassled.
“He reached out and shook my hand and said, ‘Thank you, thank you, this is beautiful,’” Rodriguez-Seeger said. “That really did it for me. The cops recognized what we were about. They wanted to help our march. They actually wanted to protect our march because they saw something beautiful. It’s very hard to be anti-something beautiful.”
That was a message Seeger spread his entire life.
With The Weavers, a quartet organized in 1948, Seeger helped set the stage for a national folk revival. The group Seeger, Lee Hays, Ronnie Gilbert and Fred Hellerman churned out hit recordings of “Goodnight Irene,” “Tzena, Tzena” and “On Top of Old Smokey.”
Seeger also was credited with popularizing “We Shall Overcome,” which he printed in his publication “People’s Song” in 1948. He later said his only contribution to the anthem of the civil rights movement was changing the second word from “will” to “shall,” which he said “opens up the mouth better.”
“Every kid who ever sat around a campfire singing an old song is indebted in some way to Pete Seeger,” Arlo Guthrie once said.
Seeger called the 1950s, years when he was denied broadcast exposure, the high point of his career. He was on the road, touring college campuses, spreading the music he, Guthrie, Huddie “Lead Belly” Ledbetter and others had created or preserved.
“The most important job I did was go from college to college to college to college, one after the other, usually small ones,” he told the AP in 2006. ” ... And I showed the kids there’s a lot of great music in this country they never played on the radio.”
Seeger’s output included dozens of albums and single records for adults and children.
By the 1990s, no longer a party member but still styling himself a communist with a small C, Seeger was heaped with national honours.
Official Washington sang along - the audience must sing was the rule at a Seeger concert - when it lionized him at the Kennedy Center in 1994. President Bill Clinton hailed him as “an inconvenient artist who dared to sing things as he saw them.”
Seeger was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996 as an early influence. Ten years later, Bruce Springsteen honoured him with “We Shall Overcome- The Seeger Sessions,” a rollicking reinterpretation of songs sung by Seeger. While pleased with the album, Seeger said he wished it was “more serious.” A 2009 concert at Madison Square Garden to mark Seeger’s 90th birthday featured Springsteen, Dave Matthews, Eddie Vedder and Emmylou Harris among the performers.
Seeger was a 2014 Grammy Awards nominee in the Best Spoken Word category, which Stephen Colbert won.
Seeger’s sometimes ambivalent relationship with rock was most famously on display when Dylan “went electric” at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival.
Witnesses say Seeger became furious backstage as the amped-up band played, though just how furious is debated. Seeger dismissed the legendary tale that he looked for an axe to cut Dylan’s sound cable, and said his objection was not to the type of music but only that the guitar mix was so loud you couldn’t hear Dylan’s words.
Seeger maintained his reedy 6 foot 2 frame into old age, though he wore a hearing aid and conceded that his voice was pretty much shot. He relied on his audiences to make up for his diminished voice, feeding his listeners the lines and letting them sing out. “I can’t sing much,” he said. “I used to sing high and low. Now I have a growl somewhere in between.”
Nonetheless, in 1997 he won a Grammy for best traditional folk album, “Pete.”
Seeger was born in New York City on May 3, 1919, into an artistic family whose roots traced to religious dissenters of colonial America. His mother, Constance, played violin and taught; his father, Charles, a musicologist, was a consultant to the Resettlement Administration, which gave artists work during the Depression. His uncle Alan Seeger, the poet, wrote “I Have a Rendezvous With Death.”
Pete Seeger said he fell in love with folk music when he was 16, at a music festival in North Carolina in 1935. His half-brother, Mike Seeger, and half-sister, Peggy Seeger, also became noted performers.
Dropping out of Harvard in 1938 after two years as a disillusioned sociology major, he hit the road, picking up folk tunes as he hitchhiked or hopped freights.
“The sociology professor said, ‘Don’t think that you can change the world. The only thing you can do is study it,’” Seeger said in October 2011.
In 1940, with Guthrie and others, he was part of the Almanac Singers and performed benefits for disaster relief and other causes. The Hudson River was a particular concern of Seeger’s. He took the sloop Clearwater, built by volunteers in 1969, up and down the Hudson, singing to raise money to clean the water and fight polluters.
“Can’t prove a damn thing, but I look upon myself as old grandpa,” Seeger told the AP in 2008 when asked to reflect on his legacy. “There’s not dozens of people now doing what I try to do, not hundreds, but literally thousands. ... The idea of using music to try to get the world together is now all over the place.”