NEW YORK – Pete Seeger, the singer, folk-song collector and songwriter who spearheaded an American folk revival and spent a long career championing folk music as both a vital heritage and a catalyst for social change, died Monday. He was 94 and lived in Beacon.
His death was confirmed by his grandson, Kitama Cahill Jackson, who said he died of natural causes in NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital.
Seeger’s career carried him from singing at labor rallies to the Top 10 to college auditoriums to folk festivals, and from a conviction for contempt of Congress (after defying the House Un-American Activities Committee in the 1950s) to performing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial at an inaugural concert for Barack Obama.
Seeger was in Buffalo as recently as November to perform at the annual dinner of the Western New York Peace Center in the Buffalo Niagara Convention Center.
During his visit, he made a surprise stop at a regional meeting of the Buffalo Newspaper Guild, where he treated members to a rendition of the 1947 song “Newspapermen.”
In his hearty tenor, Seeger sang topical songs and children’s songs, humorous tunes and earnest anthems, always encouraging listeners to join in. His agenda paralleled the concerns of the American left: He sang for the labor movement in the 1940s and 1950s, for civil rights marches and anti-Vietnam War rallies in the 1960s and for environmental and anti-war causes in the 1970s and beyond. “We Shall Overcome,” which Seeger adapted from old spirituals, became a civil rights anthem.
Seeger was a prime mover in the folk revival that transformed popular music in the 1950s. As a member of the Weavers, he sang hits including Lead Belly’s “Goodnight, Irene” – which reached No. 1 – and “If I Had a Hammer,” which he wrote with the group’s Lee Hays.
Another of Seeger’s songs, “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?,” became an anti-war standard. And in 1965, the Byrds had a No. 1 hit with a folk-rock version of “Turn! Turn! Turn!,” Seeger’s setting of a passage from the Book of Ecclesiastes.
Seeger was a mentor to younger folk and topical singers in the 1950s and 1960s, among them Bob Dylan, Don McLean and Bernice Johnson Reagon, who founded Sweet Honey in the Rock. Decades later, Bruce Springsteen drew the songs on his 2006 album, “We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions,” from Seeger’s repertoire of traditional music about a turbulent American experience, and in 2009 he performed Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land” with Seeger at the Obama inaugural. At a Madison Square Garden concert in New York celebrating Seeger’s 90th birthday, Springsteen introduced him as “a living archive of America’s music and conscience, a testament of the power of song and culture to nudge history along.”
Seeger met Guthrie, a songwriter who shared his love of vernacular music and agitprop ambitions, in 1940, when they performed at a benefit concert for migrant California workers. Traveling across the United States with Guthrie, Seeger picked up some of his style and repertory. He also hitchhiked and hopped freight trains by himself, trading and learning songs.
Although he recorded more than 100 albums, Seeger distrusted commercialism and was never comfortable with the idea of stardom. He invariably tried to use his celebrity to bring attention and contributions to the causes that moved him, or to the traditional songs he wanted to preserve.
Seeger saw himself as part of a continuing folk tradition, constantly recycling and revising music that had been honed by time.
In 1955, during the McCarthy era, Seeger was subpoenaed by the House Un-American Activities Committee, where he testified, “I feel that in my whole life I have never done anything of any conspiratorial nature.” He also stated: “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.”
Seeger offered to sing the songs mentioned by the congressmen who questioned him. The committee declined.
Seeger was indicted in 1957 on 10 counts of contempt of Congress. He was convicted in 1961 and sentenced to a year in prison, but the next year an appeals court dismissed the indictment as faulty.
After the indictment, Seeger’s concerts were often picketed by the John Birch Society and other rightist groups. “All those protests did was sell tickets and get me free publicity,” he later said. “The more they protested, the bigger the audiences became.”
By then, the folk revival was prospering. In 1959, Seeger was among the founders of the Newport Folk Festival. The Kingston Trio’s version of Seeger’s “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” reached the Top 40 in 1962, soon followed by Peter, Paul and Mary’s version of “If I Had a Hammer,” which rose to the Top 10.
Seeger was signed to a major label, Columbia Records, in 1961, but he remained unwelcome on network television. “Hootenanny,” an early-1960s show on ABC that capitalized on the folk revival, refused to book Seeger, causing other performers (including Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and Peter, Paul and Mary) to boycott it. “Hootenanny” eventually offered to present Seeger if he would sign a loyalty oath. He refused.
Seeger’s wife, Toshi, died in 2013, days before the couple’s 70th anniversary. Survivors include his son, Daniel, and his daughters, Mika and Tinya.