It was a life long and well lived, and he had to go sometime. However, he will be remembered, and revisited whenever politics of the people is revitalised in culture and music.
I came of age at a time when folk music, especially political folk music was considered pretty cool. It was a time when popular music drew directly on its folk music roots as people’s music. And it was a time when those of the left of politics knew exactly who Pete Seeger was.
Doran Lynskey of The Guardian: ‘Pete Seeger: the man who brought politics to music‘
But Seeger carved out his place in history with a quieter, rarer set of qualities: nobility, generosity, humility and, when things got rough, breathtaking courage. Perhaps uniquely, he became one of the most important singers in America without ever being a star, because he believed in the song rather than the singer.
Like most, I think of him and Woody Guthrie as being significantly connected.
…Guthrie the charismatic Dust Bowl poet, and Seeger the man who got America singing. He didn’t have a remarkable voice but it was clear and strong and it never got in the way of the material, which was the point. A great believer in the power of communal singing, he saw himself as just a catalyst: a means to an end.
He served in WWII, but for Seeger, political battles followed the end of the war.
He was hounded, sometimes violently, by the right. His new band, the Weavers, briefly became sensations, but the Red Scare ripped them apart in 1952. And there was worse to come.
Summoned to appear before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1955, Seeger refused to wriggle out of trouble by taking the Fifth and made himself an “unfriendly” witness. While awaiting trial for contempt of Congress, and likely imprisonment, he threw himself into the civil rights movement. It was Seeger who introduced Martin Luther King to We Shall Overcome and advised civil rights activist to form their own group, the Freedom Singers. “Songs have accompanied every liberation movement in history,” he wrote. “These songs will reaffirm your faith in the future of mankind.”
Seeger was also the forefather of the folk revival. In 1962, the same week his legal troubles were finally over, Peter, Paul and Mary took Where Have All the Flowers Gone? into the Top 40. But the revival ran away from him, thanks to Bob Dylan.
Even in old age, he kept singing, notably at President Obama’s inauguration and Occupy Wall Street. His voice may have grown shaky but it carried with it the history of the American left since the New Deal. He would have considered it neglectfully selfish to retire.
The songs remain:
Which side are you on?
If I had a Hammer