Pete Seeger, who has died aged 94, was a giant not just in the world of folk music but of contemporary popular music in general.
His influence on musicians such as Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and Tom Morello was immense. Pete’s output of songs and albums was huge. But he was also a tireless political activist. Bruce Springsteen described him as “a stealth dagger into the country’s illusions about itself”.
At the end of the 1930s a young Pete Seeger entered the world of American folk music. He absorbed influences from all over but a few stand out for the effect they had on him. The most important of these were Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly.
They, with several others, formed a group called the Almanac Singers to perform songs of struggle and solidarity at union rallies, picket lines and campaign fundraisers. They collaborated with the folklorist Alan Lomax to produce a book called “Hard Hitting Songs for Hard Hit People”.
Pete, along with so many other radical musicians, artists and writers joined the Communist Party. At that point in the US it had a mass membership and throughout the 1930s and 1940s it tried to use its Cultural Front to promote left wing popular art on a mass scale.
Culture was recognised an integral part of the fight against the system. Folk music was very much seen as “the music of the people” and was an important part of that strategy.
The 1950s saw Pete blacklisted and then brought before senator Joseph McCarthy’s Committee for Unamerican Activities. He defied the committee and tried to sing to them.
Pete was found in contempt and given a one-year jail sentence. It hung over him for years until he was finally cleared in 1962.
The Civil Rights movement and opposition to the US war in Vietnam formed the political backbone of the modern folksong movement.
Pete involved himself wholeheartedly in these struggles. But he also helped recruit celebrities and singers to marches and rallies organised by Martin Luther King and others in the segregated south.
The most famous of all the songs associated with Pete Seeger is probably We Shall Overcome. It started life as an African American spiritual and then became a picket line song during a strike inSouth Carolina. Pete was a crucial part of the collective process that changed, adapted and spread the song worldwide.
Pete campaigned against the US war in Vietnam and was a pioneer of environmentalism. He was performing at Occupy events into his 90s.
He was invited, along with Bruce Springsteen, to sing at Barack Obama’s inauguration. As they were rehearsing This Land is Your Land Springsteen asked him if he was going to sing the radical verses that are usually left out. Pete replied, “Of course”.
Pete was fond of saying, “Imagine a big see-saw, with a basketful of rocks sitting on one end. On the other, up in the air, is a basket half full of sand. Some of us are trying to fill it, using teaspoons.
“Most folks laugh at us. ‘Don’t you know the sand is leaking out even as you put it in?’ they ask. We say, ‘That’s true, but we’re getting more people with teaspoons all the time.
“One of these days that basket of sand will be full up and you’ll see this whole see-saw tip the opposite way. People will say, ‘Gee, how did it happen so suddenly?’
Reprinted with permission.
“In other words, you might be the grain of sand that could tip the world in the right direction. Isn’t that hopeful?”