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.”