American folk music legend Pete Seeger died early Tuesday in a New York hospital of natural causes. He was 94.
Seeger wrote and sang some of the most important and memorable songs of the labor and civil rights movements, including civil rights anthem “We Shall Overcome.” The song’s royalties have gone to the We Shall Overcome Fund since 1966, which supports “projects that use arts, culture and community activism to organize for social, economic, and political justice to the benefit of African American communities.” They call the song a “worldwide anthem for freedom and justice.”
As a solo artist and a member of early folk group The Weavers, his other crucial contributions included “If I Had a Hammer,” “Where Have All the Flowers Gone,” and “Turn, Turn, Turn.” He wrote “Where Have All the Flowers Gone” in 1955, a time when he was under investigation by the House Un-American Activities Committee for Communist Party ties. He insisted that he had done no wrong, and testified:
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. I would be very glad to tell you my life if you want to hear of it.
The popularity of folk music in the ’60s meant that groups like Peter, Paul, and Mary and The Byrds recorded Seeger’s songs and made them their own hits. I admit that I was way more familiar with The Byrds’ version of “Turn, Turn, Turn,” growing up, but Seeger wrote and sang the tune. His version is wonderfully affecting. It’s my favorite now.
Arlo Guthrie, Pete’s friend and frequent collaborator, left this beautiful message on Facebook this morning:
I let him know I was having trouble writing his obituary (as I’d been asked) but it seemed just so silly and I couldn’t think of anything that didn’t sound trite or plain stupid. “They’ll say something appropriate in the news,” we agreed. We laughed, we talked, and I took my leave about 9:30 last night.
“Arlo” he said, sounding just like the man I’ve known all of my life, “I guess I’ll see ya later.” I’ve always loved the rising and falling inflections in his voice. “Pete,” I said. “I guess we will.”
I turned off the light and closed my eyes and fell asleep until very early this morning, about 3 AM when the texts and phone calls started coming in from friends telling me Pete had passed away.
“Well, of course he passed away!” I’m telling everyone this morning. “But that doesn’t mean he’s gone.”
Pete Seeger’s list of awards for his music and activist contributions were many, which is only right for a man who worked so hard at his craft for almost a century, and on behalf of so many great causes. They included a Grammys® Lifetime Achievement Award, induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and a 1994 National Medal of the Arts from President Bill Clinton. This kind of recognition is important, but what is arguably most affecting about his life is the way he used his talents and his voice to advance equality, justice, and equal treatment for other human beings. He performed with Bruce Springsteen, who claims him as an influence, at President Obama’s 2009 inauguration, and showed up at Occupy Wall Street in 2011 to sing “We Shall Overcome” with protesters.
He said in 2009:
“My job is to show folks there’s a lot of good music in this world, and if used right it may help to save the planet.”
You did that job above and beyond the call, Pete. Rest well, and thank you for your voice.
Image credit: Wikipedia