Pete Seeger, the iconic folk singer who dedicated his decades-long career to using music to fight for peace and justice for all, died Jan. 27 at New York Presbyterian Hospital. He was 94.
Beginning in the 1940s, Seeger played an instrumental role in the rise of folk music as a popular form. On his own and as a member of the Weavers, the banjo-playing New Yorker followed in the footsteps of legends like Woody Guthrie, bringing traditional songs sung by common Americans to a wider audience as well as composing soon-to-be-classic original tunes like “If I Had a Hammer.” Seeger became a nationwide star in 1950 when the Weavers’ cover of Leadbelly’s “Goodnight, Irene” became a No. 1 smash.
Yet Seeger’s blossoming career was nearly cut short forever in 1955 when he refused to testify before Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s notorious House Un-American Activities Committee about his associations with the leftist movement. Seeger’s subsequent blacklisting severely limited his ability to make a living through music. Seeger didn’t give up in the face of such crude intimidation, though – not then, not ever. Instead, he redoubled his musical activism, working hard to rally fellow citizens in support of labor unions and civil rights.
In the early 1960s, Seeger taught Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. a song called “We Shall Overcome.” Later in the decade, he was one of the Vietnam War’s most outspoken opponents. Through it all, Seeger tunes like “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” and “Turn, Turn, Turn” were frequently made hits by younger artists. Seeger continued to seek out new causes throughout the 1970s and 1980s, becoming a powerful voice in defense of the environment and Native American rights. Even in his 90s, as his voice began to fade, the aging legend went on performing and raising awareness.
In January 2009, Seeger performed Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land” at the inauguration ceremony of President Barack Obama – including two politically charged verses often omitted by more timid performers. “He was so happy on that day,” Bruce Springsteen recalled at a May 2009 concert in honor of Seeger’s 90th birthday. “It was like, Pete, you outlasted the bastards, man!” It was a fitting bookend to a life spent proving that music can make a real difference in the world.