Iconic American folksinger and civil-rights activist Pete Seeger sadly passed away on Monday evening.

Seeger, who was 94, was key to the development of the 20th-century folk–political music movement, influencing musicians ranging from Bob Dylan and Don MacLean to Billy Bragg and Bruce Springsteen. The latter’s 2006 album We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions paid tribute to the great man.

Seeger believed strongly in the links between folk music and community. His step-mother composer Ruth Crawford Seeger and his father collected American folk music and Seeger himself got a job cataloguing and transcribing music in New York’s Archive of American Folk Song at the Library of Congress, after dropping out of Harvard.

Famous for his beanpole appearance, white beard and his skill with a 12-string guitar or 5-string banjo, from the beginning Seeger used his musical talent to highlight key issues, quickly building up his reputation as a respected musician with a political conscience. He rose to prominence as a member of the Weavers in the late 1940s and co-wrote (with Lee Hays) such classics as ‘If I Had a Hammer’. This is a personal favourite, which I first knew as a child from my mother’s crackly old vinyl copy of a Trini Lopez album. It was years later that I came across the original.

Seeger also popularised the spiritual ‘We shall overcome’, reproduced in People’s Song (1948) and wrote ‘Where have all the flowers gone’ (see YouTube clip below), which went on to become an anti-Vietnam War standard.

His musical career and activism weren’t without problems, however. He performed at labour movement and at civil-rights rallies in the 1940s and 50s; survived being blacklisted, along with other members of the Weavers, for Communist activities by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in the 1950s, when he refused to name names (this led to the breakup of the group) and in the years that followed he was not allowed to perform on television. He later said that those years were the most important of his life as he spent the time touring US university and college campuses, spreading his message through his songs. Decades later he played for Barack Obama at his inaugural presidential gala concert.

Seeger always believed change should occur on a micro-level and recently said:

Be wary of great leaders … Hope that there are many, many small leaders‘.

He was uncomfortable with fame and used his celebrity to help his various important causes. Despite this, many leading musicians, including Bruce Springsteen, Dave Matthews, Joan Baez, Taj Mahal and EmmyLou Harris, came out to honour him on his 90th birthday in New York’s Madison Square Gardens. Springsteen has referred to Seeger as ‘a living archive of America’s music and conscience, a testament of the power of song and culture to nudge history along’.

In July 2013, Seeger’s beloved wife, Toshi, died. Seeger himself died peacefully in his sleep in a New York hospital on 27 January 2014. He leaves behind three children and a legacy of beautiful music.

Following is ‘Where have all the flowers gone’. RiP great man.


Tuesday 28 January 2014, London                                                    




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