February 2, 2014

RIP

Pete Seeger
May, 1919-Jan. 28, 2014

















Peter Seeger was born in May, 1919, in New York City, into one of the most influential folk music families of the 20th Century. His father, Charles Seeger, was a musicologist, and both of his siblings, Mike and Peggy Seeger, also became musicians. (Mike Seeger was a founding member of the traditionalist folk music revival combo New Lost City Ramblers.) He was also heavily influenced by his stepmother Ruth Crawford Seeger, who was a champion of folk music for children and an innovative composer in her own right.
After high school, Seeger spent two years studying Journalism at Harvard University before dropping out to perform music and explore the arts. He briefly explored painting, dabbling in water colors, before shifting his focus entirely to the banjo and folk music. During a trip to lower Appalachia with his father, Seeger was handed a five-string banjo, frequently considered the "lesser" banjo. Nonetheless, the instrument's high drone string captured Seeger's imagination and became his signature tool.
During the late 1930s, at a migrant union benefit in New York City, he met Woody Guthrie. Seeger immediately recognized Guthrie's incredible talent, and Woody quickly realized Seeger was able to follow along as an accompanist very simply. The two found they had plenty in common both musically and ideologically, and they soon formed a group that came to be known famously as the Almanac Singers.
The Almanacs had a few good years' run before the US entered World War II and several of them were drafted into the war effort. Seeger spent much of his enlistment time down South and out West, entertaining his fellow enlistees on the banjo.
After the War ended, Seeger rejoined his young wife Toshi in New York and started a new group featuring fellow Almanac Lee Hays, called the Weavers. This traditional folk revivalist quartet enjoyed extensive success until being blacklisted for suspected Communist activity during the McCarthy Era. Seeger himself refused to testify in the McCarthy hearings, citing that it would violate his first amendment rights.
Fresh from the stress and frustration of blacklisting, Seeger was not swayed away from music. In fact, he came out of the debacle even more convinced that music was one of the surest ways toward a better world. So, in the late 1950s, Pete Seeger began his solo career. He became well-known as a topical songwriter and activist folksinger. He began performing "We Shall Overcome" - a song he'd learned in the mid-1940s from Zilphia Horton at the Highlander Folk School. It was one of Zilphia's favorite songs and she had been teaching it to labor activists for some time. Seeger adapted her version of the song - which had a looser rhythm structure and repeated the phrase "We Will Overcome". He moved the rhythm to a marching triplet and changed the "will" to "shall", saying the latter allowed your mouth to open up a little wider, to sing more strongly.
Together with his friend Lee Hays, he wrote "If I Had a Hammer" and also penned "Turn, Turn, Turn" based on a Bible verse at a time when he was being accused of being a godless Communist. All these songs have long since become anthems for peace movements and civil rights.
Seeger has released dozens of records during the course of his extensive and inspiring career, and has received the Kennedy Center Honor Award, National Medal of Arts, and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996. He continued to perform with his grandson Tao Rodriguez-Seeger and children's groups across the country until he was 94 years old. In early 2014, it was announced that Seeger would be awarded the first ever Woody Guthrie Prize for his contributions to the world of citizenship and music. Seeger died in New York City at the age of 94 on Jan. 28, 2014.

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