Pete Seeger: in the words of other musicians who knew him

Pete Seeger, who died Monday, recorded 100 albums and is widely credited as a mentor to many in the folk tradition. Here are reflections from others in the music world.

Hans Pennink/AP
From left: John Mellencamp, Willie Nelson, Pete Seeger, Dave Matthews, and Neil Young perform on stage during the Farm Aid 2013 concert at Saratoga Performing Arts Center in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., Saturday, Sept. 21, 2013.

Pete Seeger, a central figure in the American folk revival, carried himself like the music he performed for more than 70 years: with dignity and purpose.

A five-string banjo player and singer, Mr. Seeger died Monday at a New York City hospital not far from his longtime home in Beacon, N.Y. Before his time, music making was largely relegated to the realm of professional recording artists and venues. But he envisioned a more communal approach of song sharing and singing, which became the bedrock of folk music.

“Pete gave us a lot of music, a lot of songs and rhythms and hymns to many of us all around the world. Sharing is what kept him alive,” says Ella Jenkins, the children’s recording artist and Seeger’s friend for more than 70 years.

In the labor movement of the 1940s, Seeger was a member of the Almanac Singers, a group that included Woody Guthrie and later the Weavers, a hitmaking group that sold millions of records and popularized songs such as Lead Belly’s “Goodnight, Irene” as well as a composition he cowrote with fellow Weaver Lee Hays, “If I Had a Hammer.”

Despite pressure from the group, Seeger pushed the Weavers in a more antiwar direction, preferring to play union rallies than nightclubs and writing songs like “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” that expressed anguish over war.

“Pete didn’t care about wanting to be successful and making a lot of money. Pete’s idea was he wanted a group out there that could reach the public on a popular level with something to say. I think he got that from Woody [Guthrie], who didn’t care about show business,” says Frank Hamilton, the guitarist and folk singer whom Seeger invited to join the Weavers in 1962.

Seeger’s earlier affiliation with the Communist Party made the Weavers a government target, which resulted in show cancellations and lost radio play and revenue. He was indicted on 10 counts of contempt of Congress in 1957 for refusing to answer questions about his background before the House Un-American Activities Committee. Four years later, he received a sentence of a year in prison, but it was overturned on appeal.

From there, Seeger plowed forward as a solo artist, turning to friendlier venues like churches, camps, public schools, private homes, and universities. As a solo performer, he made children’s albums and collected and recorded folk songs from all over the world.

“There gets to a point for people who go into show business that corruption takes over and destroys the initial talent. Pete understood that,” Mr. Hamilton says. “When the McCarthy era took place, these negative forces came into play, and he thought it was time to go in a different direction.”

He adds, “Instead of doing television, he said, ‘Let’s talk to kids in schools and tell them what’s important in life.’ ”

Seeger helped found the Newport Folk Festival in 1959; helped form People’s Songs, an organization dedicated to preserving labor songs; and launched Sing Out!, a quarterly magazine that continues to publish today.

“He was always a treasure trove of ideas and passion ...,” editor Mark Moss wrote on the magazine’s website Tuesday. “[U]p until the last few months, there wasn’t a week that went by when our mailbox wasn’t blessed with several packages, letters, postcards and notes from Pete about what we should be listening to and passing along.”

Central to his mission was, of course, recording. Seeger was amazingly prolific, having recorded 100 albums total, including more than 60 for Folkways Records. Jeff Place, head archivist at the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage in Washington, says that 300 tapes are still unreleased, and he was planning to work with Seeger this year on an archival campaign.

The breadth of material that Seeger recorded was deep, Mr. Place says. “He was the first guy who had the idea of multiculturalism. He was playing Zulu music for people in the 1950s. He was a teacher of music for people all around the planet,” he says.

Seeger is widely credited as a mentor to many in the folk tradition – not just Bob Dylan. In 1957, he persuaded Moses “Moe” Asch, president of Folkways Records, to sign Ms. Jenkins, a relatively unknown black woman from the South Side of Chicago, to his label. Once onboard, she recorded more than 15 albums for the label to great success.

“[Seeger] felt I was a good interpreter of folk music and related that to Moe,” Jenkins says. “He welcomed me aboard.”

The civil rights movement and Vietnam War further engaged Seeger’s activism. “We Shall Overcome,” an anthem of the era frequently performed at rallies and marches, originated with Seeger, who handed it down to Hamilton, who transformed it from a black gospel hymn and taught it to Guy Carawan, the musical director of the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee. Mr. Carawan subsequently taught it to the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee for its pioneering work in the South.

That process of relaying and repurposing songs was the hallmark of folk musicians, except this time the process had purpose. On Aug. 3, 1964, for example, Seeger performed in Meridian, Miss., and while on stage, was told that the bodies of three civil rights workers were found buried in a nearby dam. His response: teaching the audience to sing “We Shall Overcome.”

Seeger’s activism later involved environmental causes. Despite losing his singing voice in the late 1990s, he continued to perform onstage, leading group singalongs.

For younger aspiring singers, he became a beacon: If Pete could sing these deceptively simple songs, they, too, could learn the power that could be unleashed.

“He told me, I could be a straight singer, a plain singer,” says Chicago folk musician Mark Dvorak, who often performed with Seeger and teaches a class on his music at the Old Town School of Folk Music. “You can open your mouth and be comfortable singing, either alone or with a group. Just open your mouth and sing. You can.”

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to

QR Code to Pete Seeger: in the words of other musicians who knew him
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today