February 2014        

Pete Seeger: His songs go marching on


Pete Seeger, the singer, folk-song collector and songwriter who spearheaded an American folk revival and spent a long career championing folk music as both a vital heritage and a catalyst for social change, died on 27 January in New York at the age of ninety-four.
      In 1940 Seeger met Woody Guthrie, a songwriter who shared his love of vernacular music and agitprop ambitions, when they performed at a benefit concert for migrant Californian workers. Travelling across the United States with Guthrie, Seeger picked up some of his style and repertory. He also hitch-hiked and hopped on goods trains by himself, learning and exchanging songs. When he returned to New York later in 1940 he recorded his first albums. He founded the Almanac Singers, with Guthrie specialising in union songs, and later the famous Weavers after the war.
      Seeger’s career carried him from singing at labour rallies to the top ten, from university auditoriums to folk festivals, and from a conviction for contempt of Congress in the 1950s (after defying the House Committee on Un-American Activities) to performing at an inaugural concert for Barack Obama.
      For Seeger, folk music and the struggle for rights and peace were inseparable, and many of his songs were sung to encourage political action. A former member of the Communist Party of the USA, he remained on the left all his life (“I am a communist with a small c”). He sang for the labour movement in the 1940s and 50s, of Spain, for civil rights marches and anti-war rallies in the 1960s, and for environmental and anti-war causes in the 1970s and beyond. “We Shall Overcome,” which Seeger adapted from old spirituals, became a civil rights anthem.
      “My job,” Seeger said in 2009, “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.”
[TR]

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