RIP: Pete Seeger, 1919-2014

Pete Seeger
Pete Seeger

By Greg Haymes
Photograph by Thomas Lindsay

“This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender.” Those were the words Pete Seeger wrote on his banjo.

And for more than 75 years, he was the voice of America…

He wrote hundreds of songs, including “If I Had a Hammer,” “Where Have All the Flowers Gone,” and “Turn, Turn Turn.” And he collected hundreds more…

He was a protest singer and a freedom singer…

He sang about civil rights and environmental clean-up…

He sang with Lead Belly and Woody Guthrie, and he sang with Bruce Springsteen and Dave Matthews.

He sang at small coffeehouses like Caffe Lena and the Eighth Step. And he sang at huge events like Farm Aid.

American music icon Pete Seeger died yesterday (Monday, January 27). He was 94 years old.

He was a true and towering American treasure from his hit-making days with the Weavers to his ship-building days with the Clearwater.

He was blacklisted and convicted for contempt of Congress after defying the House Un-American Activities Committee in the 1950s. But he received the National Medal of Arts (the highest arts honor of the U.S.) from President Bill Clinton, and he performed on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial for President Obama’s inaugural celebration.

He married Toshi-Aline Ohta in 1943, and she rwmained his life-long partner until her death last year.

He was one of the founders of the Newport Folk Festival in Rhode Island, as well as the Clearwater Festival at Croton Point Park, near his longtime home in Beacon.

He recorded more than 100 albums and won Grammy Awards for best traditional folk album in 1997 (for the album Pete) and in 2009 (At 89), as well as another Grammy in the children’s music category for 2011’s Tomorrow’s Children.

He was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1972 and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996.

He was honored with a 90th birthday party at an all-star Madison Square Garden concert, where Bruce Springsteen introduced him as “a living archive of America’s music and conscience, a testament of the power of song and culture to nudge history along.”

Last year, he played a magnificent concert with his sister Peggy at Proctors in Schenectady, and in his final Nippertown appearance last September, Seeger was a surprise special guest at Farm Aid at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center. Following his introduction by John Mellencamp, Seeger walked out on stage with his long-neck banjo and led the crowd in a sing-along of “If I Had a Hammer.” Then Mellencamp, Dave Matthews, Neil Young and Willie Nelson joined him onstage as Seeger sang Woody Guthrie’s classic “This Land Is Your Land,” which included a new verse from Seeger that ended with the lyric, “New York was meant to be frack-free.”

An activist to the end…

Jon Pareles’ obituary for Pete Seeger at The New York Times
Don Wilcock’s interview “Pete Seeger Showed Dylan What Was Blowin’ in the Wind”
Michael Eck’s story (and Thomas Lindsay’s photographs) about Pete Seeger’s banjo, “To Great Lengths,” at Fretboard Journal
Greg Haymes’ concert review “LIVE: Peggy & Pete Seeger @ the Eighth Step at Proctors, 5/12/13”
Charlie Braverman’s concert review “LIVE: Peggy & Pete Seeger @ the Eighth Step at Proctors, 5/12/13 (Take Two)”

1 Comment
  1. Stanley Johnson says

    Ouch, that hurt. RIP Pete. I was lucky to see Pete play twice, once with Arlo in Poughkeepsie in 1977, and last year at Farm Aid. I was also fortunate to take a guided tour he gave aboard The Clearwater back in the 70s. America lost a major citizen this time.

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