Pete Seeger, Folk Singer, Activist Icon, Dies at 94

Photo by Jefferson Siegel Pete Seeger in fall 1968 performing at a rally for U.S. Senate candidate Paul O’Dwyer at Madison Square Garden.
Photo by Jefferson Siegel
Pete Seeger in fall 1968 performing at a rally for U.S. Senate candidate Paul O’Dwyer at Madison Square Garden.

BY ALBERT AMATEAU  |  Pete Seeger, a pioneer in the revival of American folk music whose performances and recordings were integral to his lifelong dedication to the civil rights, peace and environmental movements, died Monday.

His death at the age of 94 at New York Presbyterian Hospital was confirmed to The New York Times by one of his grandsons, Kitama Cahill Jackson.

His wife of 70 years, Toshi Ohta Seeger, who organized many of Pete’s concerts, died in July at the age of 91 at the Seegers’ home in Beacon, NY.

Pete Seeger’s seven-decades-long career included singing for migrant workers in California with Woody Guthrie in 1940; reaching the top of the charts as one of the Weavers singing “Goodnight Irene” in 1950; a conviction (later overturned) in 1961, after several blacklist years, of contempt of Congress for refusing to testify about his previous Communist Party membership; many antiwar concerts, and singing with Bruce Springsteen at President Obama’s inauguration in 2009.

While celebrated for his commitment to social change (“We Shall Overcome,” which he co-wrote, became an anthem of the struggle against racial segregation), Pete Seeger will also be linked forever with the restoration of the Hudson River.

In 1966 he and his wife organized the Hudson River Sloop Clearwater, to build a replica of the sloops that carried freight along the river in the 19th century, in order to promote Seeger’s campaign to clean up the badly polluted river. The 106-foot-long sloop, built in Maine, was launched in 1969 and a couple of years later was plying the Hudson. Public awareness of the pollution led to General Electric’s commitment in 2009 to cleaning up the toxic PCBs the company had been dumping for years near Schenectady.

Pamela Wolff, a member of the Chelsea Waterside Park Association, which charters the Clearwater for an annual sail on the Hudson, recalled that Seeger would often visit the sloop in Manhattan in the early 1990s.

Wolff, who volunteers as a Clearwater crew member for a week each year, also recalled a ferry trip about 10 years ago to Sandy Hook, NJ, the site that year of the annual Great Hudson River Revival concert, which Seeger and his wife organized.

“I got on the ferry in Midtown and found Pete and his grandson Tao Rodriguez onboard,” Wolff said. “There were hardly any other passengers and we spent the trip talking.

“I knew Pete before. I first met him when I was about 6 years old — he must have been around 20,” Wolff recalled. “My father, who was editor of the Nashville Tennessean, was giving a seminar one summer at the Highlander Folk School in Monteagle, Tenn. It was a school that trained labor union organizers. There is a photo of me somewhere sitting on Zilphia Horton’s knee and Pete singing in the background.”

It was at the Highlander school that “We Shall Overcome” was created, according to The New York Times. Horton, Highlander’s music director, had heard a version of an old gospel song, “I’ll Overcome,” from a striking tobacco worker. Horton taught a version, “We Will Overcome,” to Seeger, who changed it to “We Shall Overcome” and added verses. Seeger taught it to the singers Frank Hamilton and Guy Carawan, who later became Highlander’s music director. Carawan taught the song to the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee at its founding convention, according to the Times.

Pete Seeger’s environmental commitment was recalled this week by Cy Adler, founder of Shorewalkers, a hiking and environmental organization.

“Pete was a great shorewalker and a friend,” Adler said in an e-mail. “We started walking, talking and writing to each other in the 1960s. We explored areas of the Hudson together along the shore north of Peekskill and south of Poughkeepsie. Several times we walked legs of the Great Saunter [an annual 26-mile Shorewalkers hike around the perimeter of Manhattan] together.

“He liked to take the train down to Spuyten Duyvil and join us at Inwood Hill Park,” Adler said. “Last year we wrote a song together against gun violence. To raise money for the NYC Friends of Clearwater, Pete once sang in my apartment at a party of about 50 people — many musicians crowded in to perform. We have a recording of the event. Pete slept on my couch that night.

“I never saw him in a suit,” Adler noted. “He told me he had trouble finding an old tuxedo when he was given a national award by President Clinton. Since he did not use a computer, we communicated mostly by phone and the U.S. mail. I have three thick folders of correspondence. Lots of postcards with his clear script and songs. Pete was a good, generous, creative, walking man. We will miss him,” Adler said.

Pete Seeger was born May 3, 1919, in Chelsea’s French Hospital, on West 30th Street between Eighth and Ninth Aves. His father, Charles, was a musicologist and his mother, Constance de Clyver Edson, was a concert violinist. Pete began playing the ukulele while attending Avon Old Farms, a boarding school in Connecticut. By that time, his parents had divorced and Pete’s father and stepmother, the composer Ruth Crawford Seeger, were collecting folk songs with the likes of John and Alan Lomax.

Pete first heard the five-string banjo, which later became his instrument of choice along with the 12-string guitar, when his father took him to a North Carolina country dance festival.

Pete attended Harvard where he founded a radical newspaper and joined the Young Communist League. But he dropped out after two years, and came to New York. Alan Lomax helped Pete get a job at the Library of Congress in Washington transcribing folk music at the Archive of American Folk Song.

Seeger returned to New York around 1940, then traveled west with Woody Guthrie, performing at union rallies and concerts, hitchhiking and hopping freight trains. He founded the Almanac Singers with Millard Lampell and Lee Hays, along with Guthrie, who joined later.

Seeger was drafted into the Army in 1942 and married Toshi Ohta while in basic training in 1943. After the war he founded People’s Songs, which published political songs and organized concerts. Pete also began performing in clubs like the Village Vanguard, and in 1948 toured with the actor and singer Paul Robeson in Henry Wallace’s Progressive Party campaign for president.

In 1949, Pete, Toshi, their son, Daniel, and two daughters, Mika and Tinya, moved to their 17-acre plot in Beacon, living in a tent while they built their log-cabin house. Around the same time, Pete, Lee Hays, Ronnie Gilbert and Fred Hellerman began singing together as the Weavers.

The group made hits in 1950-51 with songs like “Kisses Sweeter Than Wine” and Guthrie’s “So Long, It’s Been Good to Know You” selling about four million singles and albums, according to the Times. But around the same time, the anti-Communist publication Red Channels named Seeger as being suspected of Communist Party membership. Investigations by the U.S. Senate and House subcommittees followed. Although the Weavers broke up, Seeger continued to give concerts, tour campuses and record for Folkways, an independent label.

In 1959 he was among the founders of the Newport Folk Festival, and in 1961 he was signed to Columbia Records. Nevertheless, he was barred from network television until 1967 when he performed an antiwar song for a recording for the “Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour.” The song was dropped before the program was aired, but Seeger returned the following year to perform it for broadcast.

Seeger was elected in 1972 to the Songwriters Hall of Fame. In the 1980s and ’90s he toured with Arlo Guthrie, Woody’s son.

Pete Seeger won a Grammy Award for Lifetime Achievement in 1993, and the following year President Bill Clinton awarded him the National Medal of Arts.

Seeger was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1998. The previous year he won a Grammy for Best Traditional Folk Album, and in 2011 he won a Grammy in the Children’s Music category.

On his 90th birthday in 2009, Seeger, along with Bruce Springsteen, Joan Baez and dozens of other artists, performed at a Madison Square Garden concert to benefit the Hudson River Sloop Clearwater. That August, Pete sang at the 50th anniversary of the Newport Folk Festival.

In addition to his son, two daughters and his grandsons, Tao and Kitama, six other grandchildren, two half-sisters and four great-grandchildren also survive. Mike Seeger, a half-brother who founded the New Lost City Ramblers, died in 2009.