Pete Seeger didn't like singing by himself. It wasn't just that he contributed his tenor (and banjo picking) to two seminal folk groups — the Almanac Singers (with Woody Guthrie) and The Weavers — or later frequently collaborated with Woody's son Arlo Guthrie. Audience participation was a hallmark of Seeger's seven decades performing in front of crowds large and small.
The American folk music legend died Monday at age 94 of natural causes. His wife of 70 years, Toshi, died last year.
As with all influential musicians and songwriters, Seeger's music will live on. And there were few musicians more influential than Seeger: Everyone from the folk revivalists of the 1960s — Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Don McLean, and the Byrds, among others — to Bruce Springsteen and a host of younger rockers and pickers count Seeger as a musical polestar.
Here's a sampling of Seeger's music, both his own songs and those he collected, with brief glimpses of how the songs fit in his long, remarkable life.
1. "Whose Side Are You On?"
In 1941, Seeger founded the Almanac Singers with Millard Lampell and Lee Hays (Guthrie joined later), a pro-union, antiwar ensemble that achieved some success after switching to anti-fascist and patriotic songs during World War II. The group's popularity sank when its antiwar songs resurfaced, thanks to an FBI investigation. Here's the Almanac Singers performing "Whose Side Are You On?" — a union song written by Kentucky coal miner's wife Florence Reece in 1931. It foreshadows Seeger's later troubles during the Communist witch hunts of the McCarthy era.
2. "Goodnight, Irene"
Seeger founded The Weavers in 1950 with Hays, Ronnie Gilbert, and Fred Hellerman. Their version of Lead Belly's "Goodnight, Irene" actually hit No. 1 in 1950, staying atop the charts for 13 weeks. When Seeger was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996, Arlo Guthrie noted the song's success, adding, "I can't think of a single event in Pete's life that is probably less important to him." Instead of giving an acceptance speech at the ceremony, Seeger led the audience in a singalong of "Goodnight, Irene."
3. "If I Had A Hammer"
The Weavers also had a hit with the Seeger song "If I Had a Hammer," cowritten with Lee Hays and later popularized by Peter, Paul and Mary. Here, Seeger performs the song by himself (with help from the audience) in 1956:
4. "We Will Overcome"
Seeger didn't write the 1960s Civil Rights Movement anthem "We Shall Overcome," but he played an instrumental part in adapting the old spiritual — he added the world "Shall," replacing "Will" — and teaching it to the black civil rights organizers in the South.
Here's a song you probably don't associate with Seeger: "Wimoweh." Before The Tokens scored their 1961 No. 1 hit "The Lion Sleeps Tonight," The Weavers brought the song from South Africa, where Solomon Linda had recorded it as "Mbube." ("Wimoweh" is Seeger's mishearing of "Mbube" or Linda's chorus chant, "Uyimbube.") "Wimoweh" was a Top 10 hit for The Weavers:
6. "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?"
The Weavers also scored a minor hit with Seeger's "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?" The group broke up in the early 1950s after Seeger and other members of the group were accused of being communists. (Seeger had, in fact, been a member of the Communist Party until 1949.) When he was called to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1955, Seeger said, "I feel that in my whole life I have never done anything of any conspiratorial nature." But he added:
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 of 10 counts of contempt of Congress in 1957, convicted in 1961 and sentenced to a year in jail, and then acquitted less than a year later when his conviction was overturned. Later in the 1960s, "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?" became a popular protest song against the Vietnam War.
7. "Turn! Turn! Turn!"
Another Seeger song, "Turn! Turn! Turn!," also became part of the anti-Vietnam soundtrack when The Byrds recorded their version, which hit No. 1 in 1965. Here's Seeger making his song his own:
8. "Worried Man Blues"
Seeger wrote, popularized, and performed lots of other songs you've heard. The final song here is one he didn't write — fittingly, it's a folk song, passed down through oral tradition. It's from a concert in Nashville in 1970, broadcast on ABC, just a few years after the TV networks lifted a decade-long blacklisting of Seeger over his former communism and contempt of Congress conviction. Halfway through his rendition of "Worried Man Blues," Seeger is joined onstage by another musical legend.
Here's a postscript from USA Today's Bob Minzesheimer, whose father once told Seeger during a concert that he wasn't going to sing because "it's a free country." In his obituary of Seeger, Minzesheimer concludes:
The last time I saw Seeger perform was in 2010 at an environmental fundraiser in an old church in Dobbs Ferry, N.Y. He looked as pleased to be singing with a local children's chorus, with kids named Destiny Burroughs and Maddy Murphy, as he had at Madison Square Garden with Springsteen, Baez, and [John] Mellencamp. [USA Today]
THE WEEK'S AUDIOPHILE PODCASTS: LISTEN SMARTER
- Why you should stop believing in evolution
- Welcome to the age of ambivalent feminism
- How Israel's hawks intimidated and silenced the last remnants of the anti-war left
- Why China thinks it could defeat the U.S. in battle
- The secret to handling pressure like astronauts, Navy SEALs, and samurai
- 10 things you need to know today: August 20, 2014
- Why your employer should clean your house and do your laundry
- The real lesson of Rick Perry's mug shot
- What the 'death of the library' means for the future of books
- What you need to know before you support the police in Ferguson
Subscribe to the Week