Born: May 3, 1919 | Died: January 27, 2014 Primary Instrument: Banjo
It's no exaggeration to say that Pete Seeger has done more to popularize American folk music than any other contemporary musician, authoring or co-authoring the songs that have become folk standards: If I Had a Hammer, Where Have All the Flowers Gone? and Turn! Turn! Turn! to name just a few. His work has inspired countless musicians including Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and the Dixie Chicks, and his tireless political and environmental activism have galvanized generations of admirers to follow his lead and take action.
Born on May 3, 1919 to Charles and Constance Seeger, music was in Seeger's blood from the first; his father was a Professor of musicology and his mother, a classical violinist. Seeger grew up surrounded by music, learning to play the ukulele, guitar and banjo by the time he was in his teens. An early job assisting folk archivist Alan Lomax to transcribe and record traditional music in the American South cemented his commitment to reviving the American folk music tradition.
Seeger’s commitment to the revival of American folk music is rivaled only by his commitment to using music as an instrument for social change. His activism has been a constant in his career. Throughout the 1940’s, he was singing protest and union songs—first with Woody Guthrie, and his first group, The Almanac Singers, then after the Almanacs disbanded, with The Weavers, the popular folk quartet Seeger founded with Lee Hays. Their cover of Lead Belly’s “Goodnight Irene” became a number-one selling song for 1950. But at the height of their popularity, the group was black-listed and put under FBI surveillance for their politics, forcing Seeger to spend much of the 50’s battling HUAC for his socialist beliefs.
Seeger continued to attract new audiences through his activism. In the 1960’s, his Civil Rights and Vietnam War protest songs spoke to a new generation of fans. Then in the 70s, Seeger turned his attention to the environment, a cause to which he remains devoted, going green long before it became popular to do so. And now, at age 89, Seeger still performs on occasion in public, and continues to receive accolades for his many achievements. Of note, he received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1993, the Presidential Medal of the Arts in 1994, an induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996, was named a Living Legend by the Library of Congress in 2000, and as of today, nearly 18,000 people and counting have signed the petition to nominate Seeger for a Nobel peace prize.
Springsteen to Seeger: “You Outlasted the Bastards”
“You outlasted the bastards, man,” Bruce Springsteen told the roaring crowd.
I think that was my favorite line at the rollicking birthday concert celebrating Pete Seeger’s 90th!
There were other uplifting, astonishing moments Sunday night at Madison Square Garden, at a five-hour concert which Seeger only OK’d because it raised much-needed funds for his Clearwater project�a non profit organization which the oft-maligned bard started in 1969 to clean up his beloved, polluted Hudson River.
Fifteen thousand people, of all ages, (okay, median age was probably 55) danced, clapped and sang along as Seeger did a soaring version of “Amazing Grace” and the saintly looking Joan Baez sang ” Where Have All the Flowers Gone.”
Arlo Guthrie reminded us that Pete, like his father Woody, “believed in the power of the people singing songs to change the world.” Richie Havens reminded us why “Freedom” is a great anthem for all times. Tim Robbins and his son, strumming the guitar, to “Michael, Row The Boat Ashore.” Ruby Dee entranced with her enchanting reading of a poem (for peace) written by Pete’s uncle before he joined the Foreign Legion. In between, a startlingly youthful Emmylou Harris recounted correspondence she had with Pete as a young folk singer; Tom Morello and Taj Mahal teamed up on “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy”), and John Mellencamp offered up “If I Had a Hammer.” Congressman John Hall, once the lead singer for one of my favorite groups, “Orleans,” joined in several rounds.
Toward the end of the five-hour Seeger-apoza, Springsteen announced to the crowd, “Pete’s gonna come out,” and “He’s gonna look like your granddad�if your granddad could kick your ass.” If character and integrity keeps you youthful, and I believe it does. Seeger looked all of 25�of strong backbone and spirit and moxie and with keen eyes which are the stronger for having seen the best, and the worst, of our country’s history.
In so many ways, Pete is a repository of American history in himself. As Springsteen said, he has a “stubborn, nasty, defiant optimism,” and he serves as “the stealth dagger through the heart of our country’s illusions about itself.”
Springsteen also told the crowd about his own youth, growing up in a town that endured race riots, and how times have changed: “Pete, you outlasted the bastards, man.”
He spoke about “This Land is Your Land,” which he said Seeger moved from an anthem of the labor movement to one of the civil rights movement, and he described preparing for their duet on the song at Obama’s inauguration, in freezing weather,( Pete had packed his long underwear), when Seeger said: “I know I want to sing all the verses�all the ones that Woody wrote, even the two that usually get left out.”
“There was a big high wall there that tried to stop me; Sign was painted, it said private property; But on the back side it didn’t say nothing; That side was made for you and me.”
As Springsteen and Tom Morello sang a rousing, yet sober, version of ” The Ghost of Tom Joad,” it seemed that there was enough humanity in that one concert hall to fill all of nation with amazing grace in these hard times. As New Jersey’s and the nation’s bard summed it up: “Pete sings all the verses, all the time�especially the ones we’d like to leave out of our history as a people.”
Source: David Dunaway