Folk Activist Pete Seeger, Icon Of Passion And Ideals, Dies At 94 (NPR)
by PAUL BROWN
A tireless campaigner for his own vision of a utopia marked by peace and togetherness, Pete Seeger‘s tools were his songs, his voice, his enthusiasm and his musical instruments. A major advocate for the folk-style five-string banjo and one of the most prominent folk music icons of his generation, Seeger was also a political and environmental activist. He died Monday at age 94. His grandson, Kitama Cahill Jackson, confirmed Seegers death and said he died of natural causes.
Pete Seeger came by his beliefs honestly. His father, Charles Seeger, was an ethnomusicologist and a pioneering folkorist whose left-wing views got him into trouble at the University of California, Berkeley. Charles Seeger introduced his son to some of the most important musicians of the Depression era — including Leadbelly and Woody Guthrie.
Seeger and Guthrie eventually became fast friends — though they didn’t agree on all things — and crisscrossed the country performing together. Seeger said that as early as 1941, they found themselves blacklisted as communists. Seeger actually was a member of the Communist Party in those early days, though he later said he quit after coming to understand the evils of Josef Stalin.
Following World War II and service entertaining the troops, Seeger teamed up with Lee Hays, Ronnie Gilbert and Fred Hellerman to form the astonishingly successful folk group The Weavers. Ronnie Gilbert said that from the start, Seeger’s performances were transcendent — whether you were on stage with him or in the audience.
“You got the sense that he was saying and singing way beyond the moment that he was in, the place that he was in. Alone on a stage in front of thousands of people … everybody got it, everybody got his passion for music, his passion for being on the stage, making people sing, having people listen to each other’s music. He was a passionate person, and that was what people saw. People absorbed his passion and his ideals,” Gilbert says.
The Weavers’ version of Leadbelly’s “Goodnight Irene” hit the top of the pop charts in 1950. Other hits followed, including “On Top of Old Smokey,” “So Long (It’s Been Good to Know You)” and “Wimoweh.”
If The Weavers hit an emotional and cultural sweet spot in postwar America, the Red Scare quickly soured it. Seeger refused to answer questions before Congress in 1955 about his political beliefs and associations. He was held in contempt and nearly served a jail sentence before charges were finally dropped in 1962 on a technicality.
But his troubles with Congress finished The Weavers as a major touring and recording group, so Seeger went out on his own again. Shut out of the big gigs, he played coffeehouses, union halls and college campuses to support his family. His wife, Toshi, managed his affairs and raised their children in the cabin they had built in Beacon, N.Y.
He co-founded and wrote for Sing Out, one of the first and most important magazines to grow out of the folk revival. He produced children’s songs and books. But his commitment to political and social causes never waned. Seeger sang and marched nationwide for civil rights and against the Vietnam War. As he told NPR in 1971, “Sometimes I think [about] that old saying,’The pen is mightier than the sword.’ Well, my one hope is the guitar is gonna be mightier than the bomb.”
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