Pete Seeger; legendary singer/songwriter and Folk music icon has died before he could collect the Woody Guthrie Prize in February. Seeger was a champion of reviving American folk music and he was instrumental in bringing about social changes. The iconic performer died on Monday of natural causes according to his grandson while he was in the New York Presbyterian Hospital. He was 94.
Seeger was well known for his singing support at various labor rallies; folks festivals; and he also performed at an inaugural concert for President Obama. Peter “Pete” Seeger was born on May 3, 1919 in Midtown Manhattan. His parents, were both musically talented with his father who was a musicologist and his mother was a concert violinist. When Pete was 7 years-old they divorced.
The man who said that he was at his most comfortable when he was alone in the woods played for unions and presidents. His usually played a 12-string guitar, although, he just as often played a five-string banjo. His specialized in interacting with his listeners whether singing topical tunes, children’s songs or anthems, he encouraged his audience to sing along.
Pete was a major figure in the revival of folk music and he was also just as prevalent in the civil rights movement. He was also against the Vietnam war and a proponent of environmental causes. Seeger was an activist from the 1940s until his death. His adaptation of an old “Camp Meeting Classic,” We Shall Overcome became the “official” anthem of the civil rights movement.
Ironically, Seeger was inspired by another American icon Woody Guthrie and he was to collect the Woody Guthrie Prize during an inaugural event on Feb. 22. The prize was to have been presented to the legendary performer in New York at the Peter Norton Symphony Space on Broadway. Peter’s death on Monday means that most likely he will be awarded the prize posthumously.
Before his long career as a singer, songwriter and political activist, Seeger planned to become a journalist. He Harvard and while there he started a radical newspaper and became a member of the Young Communist League. Years later in the 1950s, this membership would cause him problems during a time of rabid anti communism spearheaded by Senator Joseph McCarthy the performer was convicted for contempt of Congress when he defied the House Un-American Activities Committee this also resulted in the artist being blacklisted for a number of years.
Seeger dropped out of Harvard after a couple of years and moved to New York City where he was introduced to blues via the singer Huddie Ledbetter who was better known as Lead Belly. He got a job at the Library of Congress where he began transcribing and building the Archive of American Folk songs. Despite this somewhat scholarly start the performer became a singer and songwriter of epic talent.
The performer made over 100 albums during his long career and he helped many new musical artists learn the ropes. From Bob Dylan to Don Mclean he supported many who would go on to become legends in the music industry in their own right. In 2009 Bruce Springsteen performed with Seeger at Barack Obama’s inaugural concert, the two musical icons sang Woody Guthrie’s This Land is Your Land and Springsteen called Pete a “living archive” of American music as well as America’s conscience.
Pete Seeger met Guthrie early in his career and the two men shared a love of folk music and they performed a charity concert for Californian migratory workers in 1940. It seems fitting that Mr. Seeger was to collect the Woody Guthrie Prize as the two had travelled together cross country and it was during this time that Seeger became most influenced by the iconic performer. It is tragic that the performer has died before he could collect this high honor.
By Michael Smith