Folk singer, activist Pete Seeger dies

Last updated 21:40 28/01/2014
Pete Seeger
FOLK HERO: Pete Seeger

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Pete Seeger, the banjo-picking troubadour who sang for migrant workers, college students and star-struck  presidents in a career that introduced generations of Americans to  their folk music heritage, has died at the age of 94.

Seeger's grandson, Katama Cahill-Jackson said his grandfather  died on Monday at New York Presbyterian Hospital, where he'd been  for six days.

''He was chopping wood 10 days ago,'' he said.

Seeger - with his lanky frame, banjo and full white beard - was  an iconic figure in folk music. He performed with the great  minstrel Woody Guthrie in his younger days and marched with Occupy  Wall Street protesters in his 90s.

He wrote or co-wrote the songs If I Had a Hammer, Turn, Turn,  Turn, Where Have All The Flowers Gone? and Kisses Sweeter Than  Wine.

He lent his voice against Hitler and nuclear power. A cheerful  warrior, he typically delivered his broadsides with an affable air  and his banjo strapped on.

''Be wary of great leaders,'' he told The Associated Press two  days after a 2011 Manhattan Occupy march. ''Hope that there are  many, many small leaders.''

With The Weavers, a quartet organised in 1948, Seeger helped set  the stage for a national folk revival. The group - Seeger, Lee  Hays, Ronnie Gilbert and Fred Hellerman - churned out hit  recordings of Goodnight Irene, Tzena, Tzena and On Top Of Old  Smokey.

Seeger was credited with popularising We Shall Overcome, which  he printed in his publication People's Song, in 1948. He later said  his only contribution to the anthem of the civil rights movement  was changing the second word from ''will'' to ''shall,'' which he said  ''opens up the mouth better''.

''Every kid who ever sat around a campfire singing an old song is  indebted in some way to Pete Seeger,'' Arlo Guthrie once said.

Seeger's musical career was always braided tightly with his  political activism, in which he advocated for causes ranging from  civil rights to the clean-up of his beloved Hudson River. Seeger  said he left the Communist Party around 1950 and later renounced  it. But the association dogged him for years.

He was kept off commercial television for more than a decade  after tangling with the House Un-American Activities Committee in  1955. Repeatedly pressed by the committee to reveal whether he had  sung for communists, Seeger responded: ''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.''

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He was charged with contempt of Congress, but the sentence was  overturned on appeal.

Seeger called the 1950s, years when he was denied broadcast  exposure, the high point of his career. He was on the road touring  college campuses, spreading the music he, Guthrie, Huddie  ''Leadbelly'' Ledbetter and others had created or preserved.

He told The Associated Press in 2006 in those years ''I showed  the kids there's a lot of great music in this country they never  played on the radio''.

Seeger's output included dozens of albums and single records for  adults and children.

He appeared in the movies To Hear My Banjo Play (1946) and Tell  Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon (1970). A reunion concert of the  original Weavers in 1980 was filmed as a documentary titled Wasn't  That A Time.

By the 1990s, Seeger was heaped with national honours. President  Clinton hailed him as ''an inconvenient artist who dared to sing  things as he saw them''.

Seeger was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996  as an early influence. In 1997 he won a Grammy for best traditional  folk album, for Pete.

Seeger was born in New York City on May 3, 1919, into an  artistic family whose roots traced to religious dissenters of  colonial America. His mother, Constance, played violin and taught;  his father, Charles, a musicologist, was a consultant to the  Resettlement Administration, which gave artists work during the  Depression. His uncle Alan Seeger was a poet.

Pete Seeger said he fell in love with folk music when he was 16,  at a music festival in North Carolina in 1935. His half brother,  Mike Seeger, and half sister, Peggy Seeger, also became noted  performers.

He learnt the five-string banjo, an instrument he rescued from  obscurity and played the rest of his life in a long-necked version  of his own design. On the skin of Seeger's banjo was the phrase,  ''This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender''.

Dropping out of Harvard in 1938 after two years as a  disillusioned sociology major, Seeger hit the road, picking up folk  tunes as he hitchhiked or hopped freights.

''The sociology professor said, 'Don't think that you can change  the world. The only thing you can do is study it','' Seeger said in  October 2011.

In 1940, with Guthrie and others, he was part of the Almanac  Singers and performed benefits for disaster relief and other  causes.

He and Guthrie also toured migrant camps and union halls. During  World War II he served in the Special Services, entertaining  soldiers in the South Pacific.

He and his wife Toshi, whom he married in 1943, raised three  children by the Hudson River. Toshi Seeger died in July, aged 91.

Seeger campaigned to clean up the Hudson, and also offered his  voice in opposition to racism and the death penalty.

He was jailed for five days for blocking traffic in Albany in 1988 in support of Tawana Brawley, a black teenager whose claim of  having been raped by white men was later discredited. He continued  to take part in peace protests during the war in Iraq, and he  continued to lend his name to causes.

''Can't prove a damn thing, but I look upon myself as old  grandpa,'' Seeger told the AP in 2008 when asked to reflect on his  legacy. ''There's not dozens of people now doing what I try to do,  not hundreds, but literally thousands. ... The idea of using music  to try to get the world together is now all over the place.''

- AP

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