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Pete Seeger: Folk Music Legend, Political Activist

Pete Seeger, who passed away on Jan. 27 at age 94 in New York, accomplished the nearly unimaginable. He showed that one man, armed only with a banjo, a tenor singing voice and the courage of his convictions, not only could leave an indelible stamp upon popular music, but also challenge injustice and fight for a better world.


Seeger helped popularize folk music, a genre derived from the traditional chants, hymns and laments of hardscrabble rural America, and wrote or co-wrote some American standards. His work inspired scores of musicians, from Bob Dylan to the Byrds to Bruce Springsteen, who released  an entire CD of Seeger songs in 2006.

But Seeger also exerted nearly as powerful of an influence with his civil rights, antiwar and environmental activism. His performances of "We Shall Overcome," a song synthesized by others from African-American religious music, helped make it an anthem for protesters fighting segregation. And he provided an example of how to speak truth to power in 1955. When the House Un-American Activities Committee asked questions about his political beliefs or associations, he refused to answer, at the risk of going to prison, and instead offered to sing to the committee.

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As Seeger said in a Beliefnet interview: "My main purpose in life at this age - almost 90 years old - I've decided that if there's a human race here in one hundred years, it will be because we learn how to participate with each other, even though we may disagree about many things."

Here are a few of Seeger's memorable songs.

  • "If I Had a Hammer." Seeger and Lee Hays, who performed together in The Weavers, wrote this song in 1949. Peter, Paul and Mary made it a Top 40 hit in 1962.
  • "Turn! Turn! Turn!" Seeger gave his song, inspired by the Book of Ecclesiastes, to the Byrds, whose folk-rock version became a hit in 1965.
  • "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?" Seeger's composition, with a melody adapted from a Russian folk song, was a hit for the Kingston Trio in 1962. Peter, Paul and Mary, who also recorded the song, performed it with Seeger at this 2009 concert.
  • "Waist Deep in the Big Muddy." Seeger's 1967 antiwar allegory was so controversial that CBS cut his performance of it from The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, though that raised such a stir that the segment eventually aired.   
  • "Guantanamera." Seeger's musical arrangement, coupled with the lyrics by Cuban poet and independence hero Jose Marti, became a hit for the Sandpipers in 1966.


Photo: Brian Shuel/Redferns/Getty Images

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