Why Pete Seeger Mattered: The Pied Piper of the People’s Music

An appreciation of the conservator and revolutionary of folk song

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Pete Seeger performs on a TV show in East Berlin, on Jan. 3, 1967.

“You may have thought you were comin’ here tonight to sit back and take things easy while we did all the work,” Pete Seeger told the audience at the legendary 1955 Weavers concert at Carnegie Hall. “But I’m gonna ask you to help us sing this one.” A thrum of his five-string banjo and the metronome of his tapping foot cue Seeger’s cheerleader tenor: “Michael, row the boat ashore…” The other Weavers — soprano Ronnie Gilbert, second tenor Fred Hellerman and bass Lee Hays — complete the chorus of hallelujahs. “Get the idea?” Seeger asks. “All you do is come in on the Halleluuujah. Now clear out your throats and try singin’ that.”

The listeners take a tentative stab at a hallelujah. “Oh, I can hardly hear ya!” Seeger says, comic despair in his voice. “Try it again.” They do better. “Say, got any high tenors here tonight? Sopranos? Reach up here: HalleLUUUjah!” Now the crowd has caught the spirit, and still Seeger goads. “Don’t let your neighbor look at you peculiarly if you sing too loud. Just kick ‘im in the ribs and get ‘im singin’ too.” By the end of the song, a couple thousand individuals have become one chorus, converts to the gospel of folk. He has turned a concert audience into the Mormon Tabernacle Campfire.

(SEE: Pete Seeger through the years)

That was Seeger, raising his voice to raise the rabble and a generation of rebels. By his death yesterday at 94 at New York Presbyterian Hospital, this pacifist Pied Piper had inducted three generations in the cause of the people’s music. He contributed mightily to the soundtrack of ’60s reform and revolt with his own compositions: “If I Had a Hammer” (written with Hays), “Where Have All the Flowers Gone” (completed by Joe Hickerson) and “Turn! Turn! Turn!” (lyrics from the Book of Ecclesiastes). The Negro spiritual “We Will Overcome” — collected in its now-familiar version by Zilphia Horton from Lucille Simmons, a union worker — was first printed in 1948 in Seeger’s magazine People’s Songs Bulletin. Changing the verb to the more defiant “We Shall Overcome,” he kept singing it until it became the indispensable anthem of the Civil Rights movement.

(READ: Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan sing “We Shall Overcome” at a 1963 Greenwood, Miss. rally)

He called himself not a folksinger but “a professional singer of amateur music”: the songs he had collected or adapted and then promoted — proselytized, really — in union halls and concert halls, at rallies and marches. In the early 1960s he sang of equal rights; in the late ’60s he sang peace to war; in the ’70s and beyond he fought — and sang — for a cleaner environment. His voice cleaned the water and cleared the air.

Remember that Seeger was also, and mainly, a musician — one of charismatic stage presence and lasting influence. Usually wearing a work shirt, sleeves rolled up the elbow, he poured tremendous power from an Olive Oyl-thin frame. His seemingly untrained voice was trained to sound that way; he admired the reedy honesty of rural singers and imitated them. Never wanting to sing alone, he got any audience of school kids or sophisticates to sing along. Yet his muscular tenor rose above the crowd, and his falsetto was just as strong. Hear him in top-octave strength in the near-yodeling passages of “Wimoweh”: it’s a very macho castrato.

(LISTEN TO: Six essential cuts from Pete Seeger)

With his canny choice of material, out of the thousands hidden in the old songbooks he read, Seeger godfathered modern folk music: the pop-flavored mix of traditional and modern songs that made The Kingston Trio the country’s top sellers of albums and spawned Bob Dylan and Peter, Paul and Mary. The mother lode for pop-folkies was the song list at that 1955 concert. It spawned hit singles by Jimmie Rodgers (“Kisses Sweeter Than Wine”), Lonnie Donegan (“Rock Island Line”), the Beach Boys (“Wreck of the Sloop John B”), Brook Benton (“The Boll Weevil Song”), Nina Simone (“Children, Go Where I Send You”), the Highwaymen (“Michael, Row the Boat Ashore”) and the Tokens — when the Weavers’ “Wimoweh,” a more rousing version of Solomon Linda’s 1939 South African song “M’bube,” was Americanized into “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.” Then the Seeger-Hays “If I Had a Hammer” struck gold for Peter, Paul and Mary and in the inanely infectious disco version by Trini Lopez.

THE HOBO FROM HARVARD

America’s finest troubadour-salesman was born into music. His mother, Constance Edson Seeger, was a violinist and later a teacher at the Juilliard School. His father, the Harvard-educated Charles Seeger, Jr., was a composer, conductor and founder of the first country’s first musicology course (at the University of California) but was fired for his pacifism during World War I. The Seegers returned to New York City, where Peter was born the following year. “As a child I was allowed to bang or tootle on any musical instrument that caught my fancy,” he recalled in his 1972 autobiography The Incompleat Folk Singer. “Age eight I got a ukulele” — everybody had a uke in 1927 — switching to the five-string banjo when Charles took him to a North Carolina square-dance festival.

Pete went to his father’s college, hoping to build on the song-collecting scholarship of Carl Sandburg and Alan Lomax — archival field work that would spawn many of the “pop” hits of later generations. Pete left after his sophomore year; time spent on musical agitation as a member of the Young Communist League lowered his grades. Determined to live the hard life he sang about, he became a Depression-era man of the road: playing for pennies at union halls and riding the rails. Turned out this hobo from Harvard had a steep learning curve. The first train he jumped, in St. Joe, Mo., was quickly detoured onto a siding. The next train did take him to Lincoln, Neb., but, having been warned by veteran rail-riders to avoid arrest by jumping off before the train pulled into the freight yards, Seeger tumbled out onto the ground and broke his banjo.

Pete Seeger (center) and his Toshi sit during a recording session with John Hurt, c. 1960s.

Harry Naltchayan / The Washington Post / Getty Images

Pete Seeger (center) and his Toshi sit during a recording session with John Hurt, c. 1960s.

Singing for quarters and food in churches and union halls, he joined with Hays and Millard Lampell in 1940 to form the Almanac Singers, a name inspired by Hays’ observation that every American farmhouse had two books, the Bible and the Almanac: “One helped us to the next world, the other helped us make it through this one.” They sang folk songs, union songs and, as admirers of all things Soviet, antiwar songs while the Hitler-Stalin Pact was still in effect. In 1942, Woody Guthrie joined the Almanac Singers. The quartet’s radio gigs dried up after a newspaper columnist dubbed them the “Red Minstrels,” so they played anywhere they could for five or 10 dollars; Llewyn Davis never had it so tough. On Sundays, Seeger and his pals hosted an open-house singalong for 35 cents; “We called ‘em ‘Hootenannies.'”

(READ: The folk music of Inside Llewyn Davis)

Drafted into the Army in 1942, he sang for the troops and learned more songs. While on furlough in 1943, he married Toshi-Aline Ohta; she remained his bride and partner for 70 years, until her death in 2013. With the Almanac Singers disbanded, he worked in night clubs like the Village Vanguard and campaigned, with Paul Robeson, for the Presidential candidate Henry Wallace in 1948. The following year he, Hays, Gilbert and Hellerman became the Weavers, and within a year — who’d’ve thunk it? — they were top-of-the-charts pop stars.

Signed to the Decca label, they recorded Huddie Ledbetter’s “Goodnight, Irene” (Pete’s father had introduced him to Lead Belly in the ’30s) with Gordon Jenkins; the label read “Gordon Jenkins and His Orchestra and the Weavers.” ‘Irene” stayed at No. 1 for 13 weeks, and was followed by the Israeli hora “Tzena Tzena Tzena,” which went to No. 2. On their own they had four more hits — “On Top of Old Smoky” (No. 2), Guthrie’s “So Long, It’s Been Good to Know Yuh” (No. 4), “Wimoweh” (No. 14) and “Kisses Sweeter Than Wine” (No. 19) — before getting blacklisted off the air in late 1951. The Carnegie Hall concert, recorded and issued by Vanguard Records, gave the group a cult following, including all those kids about to become “folk singers.”

(READ: TIME’s 1950 story on The Weavers)

Seeger had been a Communist Party member for about a decade, ending in 1949. “I should have left much earlier,” he said much later. “It was stupid of me not to… I thought Stalin was the brave secretary Stalin and had no idea how cruel a leader he was.” (He would sometimes identify him as a “communist with a small c.”) In 1955, Seeger refused to spill his Communist past to the House Committee on Unamerican Activities — though he did offer to sing any songs the Committee found seditious. He was indicted in 1957 on 10 counts of contempt of Congress and convicted in 1961. In his blacklist years he sang to any small groups that would have him, especially the young, earning him a new red label: “the Karl Marx of the teenagers.” As his friend Moe Asch, whose Folkways Records issued Seeger’s solo albums, recalled, “Pete kept joking that all these kids would be adults some day. Then he’d be popular — and that’s just what happened.”

(READ: Jay Cocks’ tribute to Moe Asch and Folkways Records)

A cherisher of the old — in his unearthing of work songs and spirituals from the white and black country traditions — Seeger was also a harbinger of the sampling and sharing in modern pop music. Traveling America in his early twenties, he would teach the songs he knew to those who’d teach him theirs. Even those songs he wrote kept evolving. In 1955, finding a passage from a Cossack lyric mentioned in Mikhail Sholokhov’s novel And Quiet Flows the Don, he wrote the first three verses of “Where Have All the Flowers Gone” to the tune of a Russian folk song. This he recorded, a cappella, in 1960; Hickerson added two more verses and the looping return to the first verse. Voilà: a Peter, Paul and Mary hit.

Back then, songs got around in a freer fashion. Seeger wrote and recorded “Turn! Turn! Turn!”, his almost literal rendering of the third chapter of Ecclesiastes (but with a typically Pete cry, “A time for peace! I swear it’s not too late!”). It was covered by the folkie trio the Limeliters, whose backing guitarist was Jim McGuinn. He rearranged the tune for Judy Collins’ third album; and then, as Roger McGuinn, recorded it with his group the Byrds. The song went to the top of the Billboard chart.

THE REBEL REHABILITATED

Yet Seeger could not get on television (except for educational TV, the forerunner of PBS) to sing the songs of his that everyone else covered and coveted. In the 1963-64 season, the ABC prime-time folkie show called “Hootenanny” — and remember who first popularized that Scottish word in the States — refused to invite him or the Weavers perform, though Seeger’s HUAC citation had been voided in 1962. Many folk singers of conscience then declined to appear.

When the Smothers Brothers rectified the slight in 1969, Seeger roiled “patriots” again with his “Big Muddy” song. Set in Louisiana in 1942, but more likely inspired by the 1956 Parris Island death march in which six Marines drowned and Staff Sgt. Matthew McKeon was found guilty of negligent homicide, “Big Muddy” clearly alluded to Lyndon Johnson’s Vietnam War: “And the big fool says to push on.” CBS insisted the last verse be cut.

And when the Hudson River, swirling beneath the Beacon, N.Y., house he had built for himself and Toshi, became muddied with industrial chemicals, Seeger donned a sailor’s cap and patrolled the river on a sloop, the Clearwater, to sing for a less toxic environment.

(READ: Pete Seeger campaigns on the Hudson, 1969)

He did that for 40 years — long enough to enjoy his finally benign eminence as a unique voice and force in American culture. He received lifetime awards from the Kennedy Center, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Grammies and Harvard. Weirdest accolade: in 1996, this consummate traditionalist, who had tried to pull the plug on Dylan’s first electrified concert at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

And in 2009, he joined Bruce Springsteen, who had recorded a Seeger tribute album and named one of his own songs “Big Muddy,” at the 2009 Inaugural concert for Barack Obama. Springsteen had told his own fans that Seeger is “gonna look a lot like your granddad that wears flannel shirts and funny hats. He’s gonna look like your granddad if your granddad can kick your ass. At 90, he remains a stealth dagger through the heart of our country’s illusions about itself.”

Over his long life, Pete Seeger saw the wheels of fortune and fashion turn, turn, turn. His hammer of music rang out danger, warnings and love among all the world’s brothers. And at last he has rowed his boat, with Michael, to the other side. If no heavenly choir awaits, he’ll kick some angels in the ribs and get them singing too.