Folk music fans woke up some very sad news this morning. Banjo player, guitarist, vocalist, songwriter, folklorist and all-around activist Pete Seeger died late last night in New York from natural causes. He was 94. The loss is tough to quantify for fans of any folk, roots, blues and Americana music released the past seventy years.
From his work in the budding folk scene of the 1940s to his role as an elder statesman of the genre in the latter decades of the 20th century, Seeger was always about keeping up traditions. With his constant commitment to activism and social justice, Seeger always found ways to truly live his art. His stamp on American music is impossible to measure.
Seeger's obvious influence came in his work as a songwriter -- he co-authored tunes that would become standard parts of the folk music canon. "Where Have All the Flowers Gone," "If I Had a Hammer" and "Turn, Turn, Turn!" helped define the spirit of the folk music revival. As an activist, Seeger turned his creative efforts toward effecting real change. From tunes decrying the horrors of the Spanish Civil War to songs about environmentalism, Seeger was never shy about infusing his music with a clear message.
But those messages were never angry. Seeger's style was always easygoing and unassuming, starting with his work in the 1940s with seminal folk groups like the Weavers and the Almanac Singers. With a six-foot-two frame, a reedy tenor voice, a grandfatherly bearing and a light touch on the banjo, twelve-string guitar and ukulele, Seeger always tempered his activism with grace and approachability. Later in life, that approach found a complement in his scraggly beard and his frontiersman lifestyle -- according to his grandson, Seeger was chopping wood less than two weeks before he died.
Seeger's long career in music wasn't really a surprise, considering his family: He was born in 1919 in New York, the son of a Harvard-trained composer father and a Paris Conservatory of Music-trained mother. Still, classical music never appealed to Seeger, who was bookish, shy and removed as a child.
It was the access and storytelling of folk music that appealed to Seeger during his stints at New England prep schools and camps. Folk instruments like the ukulele and the five-string banjo appealed to Seeger; the narrative style of the music helped him break out of his shell. He got over his unease with attention through his careful storytelling and his heartfelt vocal style.
Seeger would struggle with his natural shyness as his career took off and he rose in the ranks of the New York folk scene of the 1940s. He sang with the Almanac Singers and the Weavers, he collaborated with giants of the early folk scene like Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly and the Clancy Brothers. Seeger's commitment to social causes earned the attention of the House Un-American Activities Committee in the early 1950s.
This was a battle Seeger embraced, claiming, "I love my country very dearly, and I greatly resent this implication that some of the places that I have sung and some of the people that I have known, and some of my opinions, whether they are religious or philosophical, or I might be a vegetarian, make me any less of an American." He fought against the fallout of the blacklist well into the 1960s.
As Guthrie, Leadbelly and other early originators died off, Seeger continued, carrying the legacy of the folk music of '40s and the '50s through the renaissance of the '60s and far beyond. Despite famously objecting to Bob Dylan's electric set at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, Seeger remained an elder statesman of the genre for generations of singers and musicians. As those '60s folk artists aged and rock overshadowed folk, Seeger kept up his role as an originator, historian and activist.
Through the '80s, '90s and 2000s, he played with a constantly revolving cast of musicians, including Joan Baez, Arlo Guthrie and Bruce Springsteen. He played for presidents at the Kennedy Center and released dozens of children's albums. He sold out Madison Square Garden and won Grammy Awards more than 60 years after kicking off his career as a shy folkie with bad skin and a soft-spoken style. He led marches and protests well into his 80s, he chopped wood, drew spring water and lived off the land in rural New York late into life.
Seeger lived the kind of rustic, environmentally sound life he espoused in so many of his songs. Seeger lived his lyrics about social justice and freedom; he made his music more than mere theory. At the same time, Seeger was never overbearing. As he sang in the traditional folk hymn "Passing Through," "Sometimes happy, sometimes blue/Glad that I ran into you/Tell the people that you saw me passing through."
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