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Pete Seeger, Legendary Folk Singer and Activist

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Pete Seeger, Legendary Folk Singer and Activist

Pete Seeger, Legendary Folk Singer and Activist

Once Blacklisted, Singer Became a Revered American Icon

Pete Seeger was an American folksinger and political activist who became a prominent voice for social justice, often performing at rallies for civil rights and the environmental movement as well as at protests against the Vietnam War. Always holding fiercely to a set of core beliefs, Seeger was blacklisted in the 1950s for his political activities, but he eventually came to be widely appreciated as an American icon.

In January 2009, at the age of 89, Seeger performed alongside Bruce Springsteen at a Lincoln Memorial concert celebrating the inauguration of President Barack Obama. As he led a massive crowd in a singalong, Seeger was revered as a veteran activist. The prison sentence he once faced for refusing to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee was by then a distant memory.

Fast Facts: Pete Seeger

  • Born: May 3, 1919 in New York City
  • Died: January 27, 2014 in New York City
  • Parents: Charles Louise Seeger, Jr. and Constance de Clyver, both prolific musicians
  • Wife: Toshi Aline Ohta (married 1943)
  • Known For: Legendary folk singer and songwriter closely associated with causes including civil rights, Vietnam War protests, and conservation of natural resources
  • Quotation: “I have sung in hobo jungles, and I have sung for the Rockefellers, and I am proud that I have never refused to sing for anybody.”

Early Life

Peter R. Seeger was born May 3, 1919 to a very musical family in New York City. His father was a composer and conductor and his mother was a concert violinist and music teacher. While his parents taught at various universities, Seeger attended boarding schools. As a teen he traveled to the South with his father and saw local musicians at a North Carolina folk festival playing 5-string banjos. He fell in love with the instrument.

Entering Harvard College, Seeger intended to become a journalist. He became involved in radical politics and joined the Young Communist League, an affiliation which would come to haunt him years later.

Folk Singer

Seeger left Harvard after two years in 1938, determined to see the country. He traveled on freight trains and, having become an adept banjo player, performed wherever he could. In 1939 he took a job in Washington, D.C., as an archivist of folk songs at the Library of Congress. He met and became friends with the legendary folksinger Woody Guthrie while performing at a benefit for migrant farm workers. In 1941 and 1942, Seeger and Guthrie performed together and traveled the country.

During World War II, Seeger served in a U.S. Army unit of entertainers. He performed for the troops at camps in the U.S. and in the South Pacific. While on furlough in 1943, he married Toshi Aline Ohta. They remained married for nearly 70s years, until Toshi Seeger’s death in 2013.

In 1948, Seeger helped found a popular folk quartet, The Weavers. Singing mostly traditional folk songs, The Weavers performed at night clubs and major theaters, including New York City’s prestigious Carnegie Hall.

The Weavers recorded “Goodnight Irene” by Seeger friend Huddie “Leadbelly” Ledbetter and it became a number one hit in 1950. They also recorded a song co-written by Seeger, “If I Had a Hammer,” which would eventually become an anthem of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s.

Political Controversies

The career of The Weavers was upended when a witness before the House Un-American Activities Committee named Seeger and others in the group as members of the Communist Party.

The Weavers were blacklisted. Clubs and theaters refused to book them and radio stations refused to play their songs, despite their previous popularity. The group eventually broke up.

Seeger, who maintained a following as a solo performer, managed to make a living by recording a number of albums for a small record label, Folkways. His recordings in that period tended to be albums of folk songs for children, and he often performed at summer camps which ignored the dictates of the blacklist. Seeger would later joke that the children of leftists who became his fans at summer camps in the 1950s would go on to be the college activists he sang to in the 1960s.
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