Yesterday the world lost one of its longest-lasting voices for social justice. Pete Seeger — singer, songwriter, environmentalist, peace activist, and social justice pioneer — died at the age of 94. His long musical career was inextricably interwoven with his passion for equity and basic human rights.
Seeger was born in Manhattan in 1919. His father, Charles Seeger, founded the first collegiate musicology program in California in 1912 but was forced to resign for his outspoken pacifism during the first World War. His stepmother, Ruth Crawford Seeger was a noted composer and one of the most important resources for folk music in the early 20th Century. Pete blended what he learned in his youth into a long, beautiful career.
He learned banjo and began singing, passions that derailed his attempt to pursue a journalism degree. While he considered his future, he began working with the legendary Alan Lomax at the Library of Congress, cataloging early folk and protest music. He joined the integrated cast of the radio broadcast Back Where I Come From, joining Woody Guthrie, Burl Ives, Leadbelly, and other luminaries. Although the ensemble was well received — including an invitation by Eleanor Roosevelt to perform at the White House — the racially integrated cast kept the show from national syndication.
An avowed socialist, Seeger had first met Guthrie at Will Geer’s Grapes of Wrath concert for migrant workers’ rights. His politics became an ever-stronger part of his music. He sang with the Almanac Singers, a group designed to function as a singing newspaper promoting the industrial unionization movement, racial and religious inclusion, and other progressive causes. That group evolved into the Weavers, which had a huge hit with Leadbelly’s Goodnight Irene in 1950. Throughout the music, he attended and organized many protest and activist events.
Although he decried Stalin’s perversion of socialist values, he remained committed to equity and workers’ rights, causes that brought him before the House Unamerican Activities Committee in 1955. Refusing to bow to pressure, he summed up basic American values in his famous response to the Committee’s questions:
I am not going to answer any questions as to my association, my philosophical or religious beliefs or my political beliefs, or how I voted in any election, or any of these private affairs. I think these are very improper questions for any American to be asked, especially under such compulsion as this.
As a result he was indicted and tracked by Congressional officers for the better part of a decade, losing many performing opportunities. This did not stop him from performing and speaking out, including early work in the growing civil rights movement of the 1960s.
Seeger sang and spoke out for decades, providing wonderful music and powerful messages. He and Joan Baez helped popularize the use of We Shall Overcome as a civil rights anthem. He co-wrote famous protest and equality songs like Where Have All the Flowers Gone, If I Had A Hammer, Turn! Turn! Turn!, and The Bells of Rhymney. He championed disarmament, opposed American intervention in Vietnam (and all subsequent wars and military actions), fought for environmental justice, and demanded quality education (including the teaching of music) for all children.
Seeger never slowed down. In his 94th year he appeared at concerts and events for Farm Aid, activist Leonard Peltier, and a protest commemorating the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. quietly passionate, firm in his beliefs, and actively engaged over a more than 80-year career, Seeger was a model of social justice and civic engagement. His legacy is indelible and his witty, bright presence will be sorely missed.