Folk music revivalist, singer and songwriter Pete Seeger died at the age of 94 on Monday, January 27.
Seeger was born on May 3, 1919, to musicologist Charles Seeger and concert violinist Constance de Clyver Edson Seeger. His parents divorced in 1927 and his father took custody of Pete and his two brothers, later marrying composer Ruth Crawford Seeger. Pete began by playing the ukelele at his private school, due in part to his father and stepmother’s interest in collecting and transcribing American folk music. He heard the five-string banjo for the first time at a square dance festival in 1936 and it eventually became his main instrument.
He enrolled in Harvard on a partial scholarship with an interest in journalism, but dropped out in 1938 because of his increasing interest in folk music and politics. While he was in school, he founded a radical newspaper and joined the Young Communist League. The summer after dropping out, he toured with a traveling puppeteer theater called The Vagabond Puppeteers and took a job with folklorist Alan Lomax in the fall, at the Library of Congress’s Archive of American Folk Song.
When Seeger performed at a 1940 benefit concert for migrant workers in California, he met Woody Guthrie, a musician who shared many of his interests. They traveled together for a while and Seeger picked up some of Guthrie’s songs and style. Seeger helped found the Almanac Singers, later joined by Guthrie, who began their career with antiwar songs but switched to a collection of patriotic, antifascist tunes during World War II.
Seeger was drafted in 1942 and married Toshi-Aline Ohta while on furlough a year later. When he got back from the war, Seeger founded People’s Songs Inc., a company that published political songs and held concerts for several years before it went bankrupt.
In 1949, he helped found another group, the Weavers, who became national stars in the early 1950s with hits like “Kisses Sweeter Than Wine” and Guthrie’s “So Long (It’s Been Good to Know Yuh).” The Weavers’ commercial success started to wane when Seeger was labeled a Communist and three of the four band members were investigated by the House Un-American Activities Committee. In 1955, Seeger alone was subpoenaed by the committee and said, “I am not going to answer any questions as to my association, my philosophical or religious beliefs or my political beliefs, or how I voted in any election, or any of these private affairs. I think these are very improper questions for any American to be asked, especially under such compulsion as this.”
He was indicted on 10 counts of contempt of Congress in 1957 and convicted in 1961. He was sentenced to a year in prison, but an appeals court called the indictment faulty. Seeger became one of the founders of the Newport Folk Festival in 1959, when the folk revival movement was well in motion. He inspired artists such as Bob Dylan, The Byrds and Joan Baez, eventually creating a civil rights rally song with his rendition of “We Shall Overcome.” That song was copyrighted and the royalties all go to the “We Shall Overcome” Fund, which provides grants to African-Americans organizing in the South.
Seeger was no stranger to winning awards: he became part of the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1972, was given a lifetime achievement award at the Grammys in 1993, received a Kennedy Center Honor and National Medal of Arts in 1994, was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996 and received Cuba’s Order of Félix Varela award in 1999. In addition, he won the Grammy for best traditional folk album in 1997 and 2009 and he won a Grammy in the children’s music category in 2011.
He kept performing as long as he was able, celebrating his 90th birthday with a Madison Square Garden concert, traveling to Newport to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Newport Folk Festival and performing at Farm Aid last year. Seeger’s wife Toshi died in 2013, just days before their 70th anniversary.