Folk singer, activist Pete Seeger dies in New York

AP

Pete Seeger, the banjo-picking troubadour who sang for migrant workers, college students and star-struck presidents, has died at the age of 94.

Seeger’s grandson, Kitama Cahill-Jackson, said his grandfather died peacefully in his sleep around 9:30 p.m. Monday at New York-Presbyterian Hospital, where he had been for six days. Family members were with him.

“He was chopping wood 10 days ago,” Cahill-Jackson recalled.

Just a couple years ago in 2011, the nonagenarian Seeger — buoyed by his characteristically soaring spirit, the surging crowd around him and a pair of canes — walked through the streets of Manhattan leading an Occupy Wall Street protest.

Though he would later admit the attention embarrassed him, the moment brought back many feelings and memories as he instructed yet another generation of young people how to effect change through song and determination — as he had done over the last seven decades as a history-sifting singer and ever-so-gentle rabble-rouser.

“Be wary of great leaders,” he told The Associated Press two days after the march. “Hope that there are many, many small leaders.”

President Barack Obama on Tuesday said Seeger used his voice to strike blows for workers’ and civil rights, world peace and environmental conservation.

With his lanky frame, use-worn banjo and full white beard, Seeger was an iconic figure in folk music who outlived his peers. He performed with the great folk minstrel Woody Guthrie in his younger days and wrote or co-wrote “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 fingers poised over the strings of his banjo.

In 2011, the canes kept Seeger from carrying his beloved instrument while he walked over 3 km with hundreds of protesters swirling around him holding signs and guitars. With a simple gesture — extending his friendship — Seeger gave the protesters and even their opponents a moment of brotherhood the short-lived Occupy movement sorely needed.

With The Weavers, a quartet organized 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 also was credited with popularizing “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.”

His musical career was always braided tightly with his political activism, in which he advocated for causes ranging from civil rights to the cleanup 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 of Representatives Un-American Activities Committee in 1955. Repeatedly pressed by the committee to reveal whether he had sung for Communists, Seeger responded sharply: “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.”

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

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

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

By the 1990s, no longer a party member but still styling himself a communist with a small c, Seeger was heaped with national honors.

Official Washington sang along — the audience must sing was the rule at a Seeger concert — when it lionized him at the Kennedy Center in 1994. President Bill 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. Ten years later, Bruce Springsteen honored him with “We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions,” a rollicking reinterpretation of songs sung by Seeger. While pleased with the album, Seeger said he wished it was “more serious.”

In 1997 he won a Grammy for best traditional folk album, “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, the poet, wrote “I Have a Rendezvous With Death” before being killed in World War I. It was a favorite poem of President John F. Kennedy, a classmate of Pete Seeger’s at Harvard.

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

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. He sang on overseas radio broadcasts for the Office of War Information early in World War II. In the army, he spent 3½ years in special services, entertaining soldiers in the South Pacific, and made corporal.

He married Toshi Seeger on July 20, 1943. The couple raised three children. Toshi Seeger died in July at 91.