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Pete Seeger

9 February 2014










Pete Seeger
Peter "Pete" Seeger (May 3, 1919 – January 27, 2014) was an American folk singer and activist. A fixture on nationwide radio in the 1940s, he also had a string of hit records during the early 1950s as a member of the Weavers, most notably their recording of Lead Belly's "Goodnight, Irene", which topped the charts for 13 weeks in 1950. Members of the Weavers were blacklisted during the McCarthy Era. In the 1960s, he re-emerged on the public scene as a prominent singer of protest music in support of international disarmament, civil rights, counterculture and environmental causes.
A prolific songwriter, his best-known songs include "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?" (with Joe Hickerson), "If I Had a Hammer (The Hammer Song)" (with Lee Hays of the Weavers), and "Turn! Turn! Turn!" (lyrics adapted from Ecclesiastes), which have been recorded by many artists both in and outside the folk revival movement and are sung throughout the world. "Flowers" was a hit recording for the Kingston Trio (1962); Marlene Dietrich, who recorded it in English, German and French (1962); and Johnny Rivers (1965). "If I Had a Hammer" was a hit for Peter, Paul & Mary (1962) and Trini Lopez (1963), while the Byrds had a number one hit with "Turn! Turn! Turn!" in 1965.
Seeger was one of the folksingers most responsible for popularizing the spiritual "We Shall Overcome" (also recorded by Joan Baez and many other singer-activists) that became the acknowledged anthem of the 1960s American Civil Rights Movement, soon after folk singer and activist Guy Carawan introduced it at the founding meeting of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in 1960. In the PBS American Masters episode "Pete Seeger: The Power of Song", Seeger stated it was he who changed the lyric from the traditional "We will overcome" to the more singable "We shall overcome".
Early work
At four, Seeger was sent away to boarding school, but came home two years later, when his parents learned the school had failed to inform them he had contracted scarlet fever. He attended first and second grades in Nyack, New York, where his mother lived, before entering boarding school in Ridgefield, Connecticut. Despite being classical musicians, his parents did not press him to play an instrument. On his own, the otherwise bookish and withdrawn boy gravitated to the ukulele, becoming adept at entertaining his classmates with it, while laying the basis for his subsequent remarkable audience rapport. At thirteen, Seeger enrolled in the Avon Old Farms prep school in Avon, Connecticut from which he graduated in 1936. He was selected to attend Camp Rising Sun, the George E. Jonas Foundation's international summer leadership program. During the summer of 1936, while traveling with his father and stepmother, Pete heard the five-string banjo for the first time at the Mountain Dance and Folk Festival in western North Carolina near Asheville, organized by local folklorist, lecturer, and traditional music performer Bascom Lamar Lunsford, whom Charles Seeger had hired for Farm Resettlement music projects. The festival took place in a covered baseball field. There the Seegers watched square-dance teams from Bear Wallow, Happy Hollow, Cane Creek, Spooks Branch, Cheoah Valley, Bull Creek, and Soco Gap; heard the five-string banjo player Samantha Bumgarner; and family string bands, including a group of Indians from the Cherokee reservation who played string instruments and sang ballads. They wandered among the crowds who camped out at the edge of the field, hearing music being made there as well. As Lunsford’s daughter would later recall, those country people "held the riches that Dad had discovered. They could sing, fiddle, pick the banjos, and guitars with traditional grace and style found nowhere else but deep in the mountains. I can still hear those haunting melodies drift over the ball park."
For the Seegers, experiencing the beauty of this music firsthand was a "conversion experience". Pete was deeply affected and, after learning basic strokes from Lunsford, spent much of the next four years trying to master the five-string banjo. The teenage Seeger also sometimes accompanied his parents to regular Saturday evening gatherings at the Greenwich Village loft of painter and art teacher Thomas Hart Benton and his wife Rita. Benton, a lover of Americana, played "Cindy" and "Old Joe Clark" with his students Charlie and Jackson Pollock; friends from the "hillbilly" recording industry; as well as avant-garde composers Carl Ruggles and Henry Cowell. It was at one of Benton's parties that Pete heard "John Henry" for the first time. Seeger enrolled at Harvard College on a partial scholarship, but as he became increasingly involved with politics and folk music, his grades suffered and he lost his scholarship. He dropped out of college in 1938. He dreamed of a career in journalism and took courses in art, as well. His first musical gig was leading students in folk singing at the Dalton School, where his aunt was principal. He polished his performance skills during a summer stint of touring New York State with The Vagabond Puppeteers (Jerry Oberwager, 22; Mary Wallace, 22; and Harriet Holtzman, a traveling puppet theater "inspired by rural education campaigns of post-revolutionary Mexico". One of their shows coincided with a strike by dairy farmers. The group reprised its act in October in New York City. An article in the October 2, 1939, Daily Worker reported on the Puppeteers' six-week tour this way:
During the entire trip the group never ate once in a restaurant. They slept out at night under the stars and cooked their own meals in the open, very often they were the guests of farmers. At rural affairs and union meetings, the farm women would bring "suppers" and would vie with each other to see who could feed the troupe most, and after the affair the farmers would have earnest discussions about who would have the honor of taking them home for the night.
"They fed us too well," the girls reported. "And we could live the entire winter just by taking advantage of all the offers to spend a week on the farm."
In the farmers' homes they talked about politics and the farmers’ problems, about antisemitism and Unionism, about war and peace and social security—"and always," the puppeteers report, "the farmers wanted to know what can be done to create a stronger unity between themselves and city workers. They felt the need of this more strongly than ever before, and the support of the CIO in their milk strike has given them a new understanding and a new respect for the power that lies in solidarity. One summer has convinced us that a minimum of organized effort on the part of city organizations—unions, consumers’ bodies, the American Labor Party and similar groups—can not only reach the farmers but weld them into a pretty solid front with city folks that will be one of the best guarantees for progress.
That fall Seeger took a job in Washington, D.C., assisting Alan Lomax, a friend of his father's, at the Archive of American Folk Song of the Library of Congress. Seeger's job was to help Lomax sift through commercial "race" and "hillbilly" music and select recordings that best represented American folk music, a project funded by the music division of the Pan American Union (later the Organization of American States), of whose music division his father, Charles Seeger, was head (1938–53). Lomax also encouraged Seeger's folk singing vocation, and Seeger was soon appearing as a regular performer on Alan Lomax and Nicholas Ray's weekly Columbia Broadcasting show Back Where I Come From (1940–41) alongside of Josh White, Burl Ives, Lead Belly, and Woody Guthrie (whom he had first met at Will Geer's Grapes of Wrath benefit concert for migrant workers on March 3, 1940). Back Where I Come From was unique in having a racially integrated cast, which made news when it performed in March 1941 at a command performance at the White House organized by Eleanor Roosevelt called "An Evening of Songs for American Soldiers," before an audience that included the Secretaries of War, Treasury, and the Navy, among other notables. The show was a success but was not picked up by commercial sponsors for nationwide broadcasting because of its integrated cast. During the war, Seeger also performed on nationwide radio broadcasts by Norman Corwin.
Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan
Pete Seeger was one of the earliest backers of Bob Dylan and was responsible for urging A&R man John Hammond to produce Dylan's first LP on Columbia, and for inviting him to perform at the Newport Folk Festival, of which Seeger was a board member. There was a widely repeated story that Seeger was so upset over the extremely loud amplified sound that Dylan, backed by members of the Butterfield Blues Band, brought into the 1965 Newport Folk Festival that he threatened to disconnect the equipment. There are multiple versions of what went on, some fanciful. What is certain is that tensions had been running high between Dylan's manager, Albert Grossman, and Festival Board members (who besides Seeger also included Theodore Bikel, Bruce Jackson, Alan Lomax, festival MC Peter Yarrow, and George Wein) over the scheduling of performers and other matters. Two days earlier there had been a scuffle and brief exchange of blows between Grossman and Alan Lomax; and the Board, in an emergency session, had voted to ban Grossman from the grounds, but had backed off when George Wein pointed out that Grossman also managed highly popular draws Odetta and Peter, Paul, and Mary. Seeger has been portrayed as a folk "purist" who was one of the main opponents to Dylan's "going electric". but when asked in 2001 about how he recalled his "objections" to the electric style, he said:
I couldn't understand the words. I wanted to hear the words. It was a great song, "Maggie's Farm," and the sound was distorted. I ran over to the guy at the controls and shouted, "Fix the sound so you can hear the words." He hollered back, "This is the way they want it." I said "Damn it, if I had an axe, I'd cut the cable right now." But I was at fault. I was the MC, and I could have said to the part of the crowd that booed Bob, "you didn't boo Howlin' Wolf yesterday. He was electric!" Though I still prefer to hear Dylan acoustic, some of his electric songs are absolutely great. Electric music is the vernacular of the second half of the twentieth century, to use my father's old term.
Death
Seeger died on January 27, 2014, at the age of 94. According to his grandson, Kitama Cahill-Jackson, Seeger died peacefully in his sleep around 9:30 p.m. at New York's Presbyterian Hospital, where he had been for six days. Family members were with him at the time of his death. Cahill-Jackson said Seeger was still as active as ever, out chopping wood ten days prior to his death.
Response and reaction to Seeger's death quickly poured in. Bruce Springsteen said of Seeger's passing, "I lost a great friend and a great hero last night, Pete Seeger", before performing "We Shall Overcome" while on tour in South Africa. President Barack Obama noted that Seeger had been called "America's tuning fork" and that he believed in "the power of song" to bring social change. "Over the years, Pete used his voice and his hammer to strike blows for workers' rights and civil rights; world peace and environmental conservation, and he always invited us to sing along. For reminding us where we come from and showing us where we need to go, we will always be grateful to Pete Seeger. Michelle and I send our thoughts and prayers to Pete's family and all those who loved him.
Pete Seeger
Pete Seeger2 - 6-16-07 Photo by Anthony Pepitone.jpg
Seeger at the Clearwater Festival in June 2007
Background information
Birth namePeter Seeger
BornMay 3, 1919
New York CityNew York, U.S.
DiedJanuary 27, 2014 (aged 94)
New York CityNew York, U.S.
GenresAmerican folk musicProtest music,Americana
OccupationsMusiciansongwriteractivist,television host
InstrumentsBanjoguitarrecordertin whistle,mandolinpianoukulele
Years active1939–2014
LabelsFolkwaysColumbiaCBS,VanguardSony Kids’SME
Associated actsThe WeaversThe Almanac SingersWoody GuthrieArlo GuthrieTao Rodríguez-Seeger,Lead Belly
Notable instruments
Vega Pete Seeger Model longneck banjo
Martin JSO Sing Out 60th Pete Seeger GuitarMartin J12SO Sing Out 60th Pete Seeger Guitar

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