Perhaps You said to yourself today: “I didn’t really know Pete Seeger.”
The name sounds familiar. The news headlines have your interest. You have learned that he’s a singer and songwriter. You hear people call him “An American Troubadour.” He apparently influenced many people. He performed a number of public sing-alongs.
Someone has gone so far as to say that Pete Seeger is the most influential American singer and songwriter of the 20th century. That someone is actually right.
You probably paid particular attention to the fact that he had the good fortune of dying at 94 years of age, in his sleep, surrounded by friends. His wife of 60 years, Toshi, passed in 2013. You are likely to conclude that Pete Seeger’s life, while unknown to you, was truly idyllic.
I am here to tell you that you have known Pete Seeger all of your life.
If you have ever thought, heard, or sung the phrase “We Shall Overcome,” then you knew Pete Seeger.
If you have an appreciation for Woody and Arlo Guthrie, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Bruce Springsteen, Joan Baez, T. Bone Burnett, Crosby, Stills and Nash, and any subsequent guitar-strumming singer songwriter, you knew Pete Seeger.
It was Pete Seeger who, along with a group of minstrel singers that included Woody Guthrie, formed the Almanac Singers in the 1940s. From the Almanacs , Guthrie and Seeger influenced a young songwriter named Bob Dylan. This led to New York City’s Greenwich Village folk singing movement of the 1960s. The same era was captured by the Coen Brothers in their critically acclaimed film “Inside Llewyn Davis.”
If you know of the 1950s politician Joseph McCarthy, and his House Un-American Activities Committee, then you also knew Pete Seeger. Seeger was found guilty of contempt in the 1950s for refusing to disclose the actions and identities of other American Communists. I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that Seeger was the first person to tell the U.S. government that vegetarians were not anti American.
In 1963, Seeger traveled to Greenwood, Mississippi. There he and a group of African-American student activists peacefully protested the area’s racist crimes and Jim Crow laws. He taught them a song to pass the time. It was called “We Shall Overcome.” Seeger learned of the song, originally a gospel hymn, during his time working as a folklorist for the U.S. government archives. Since that introduction, the song is arguably the most well-known protest song of our global modern times.
If you have ever recognized the Bible’s book of Ecclesiastes, you will recognize the line: “To everything there is a season…” That is because Pete Seeger turned scripture into lyric. In the 1960s, The Byrds made “Turn, Turn, Turn” into a hit song.
If you have ever attended any Hollywood activist event that boasted a liberal cause, you can thank Pete Seeger. I would suggest that he was one of the founding fathers of the entertainment industry’s leftist movements.
Though blacklisted in the 1950s, Seeger was able to get a recording contract with Columbia Records. He used his influence to perform before union audiences, civil rights groups, and groups that protested every war from Korea to Iraq and Afghanistan. His work set the bar for generations of artists and entertainers who have ever taken on a cause.
Yet the man who sung about the roots of the common man was raised among the American Elite. Seeger was born the son of a Yale and Juilliard musicologist. He attended Northeastern boarding schools. In the 1930s, he dropped out of Harvard to play his banjo, and write his songs.
Pete Seeger never had a Top 40 hit. It took a tragedy as horrible as 911 to revive Seeger’s influence on America’s collective conscious. And, it wasn’t until well into the second-half of his life that he even played a Presidential Inauguration.
Still, you knew him.
Rolling Stone, 2014, David Browne Pete Seeger, Folk Legend, Dead at 94
NPR, 2006, Melissa Block Bruce Springsteen Discusses his recording of “The Seeger Sessions.”
Pete Seeger Appreciation Page, 2013, The Late Jim Capaldi