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Pete Seeger's Influence on American Folk Music

A look at the legend's influential career

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Pete Seeger

Pete Seeger performing at the 2009 Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize special outdoor tribute in NYC

Astrid Stawiarz/Stringer/Getty Images Entertainment

Pete Seeger Came From Folk Music

It could be said that Pete Seeger came from folk music, even though his upbringing was hardly the blue collar, rural picture most people associate with the craft. He attended Harvard, where he studied journalism. Nonetheless, his family was full of music. His father, Charles Seeger, was a scholar and an educator, but was also a highly respected musicologist and folk song collector. His brother Mike and sister Peggy also entered what could loosely be deemed the "family business." But Pete Seeger's influence has, arguably, reached farther and dug deeper than that of his family members.

(Which is by all means not to downplay the influence of Charles or Peggy Seeger, or of Mike's band the New Lost City Ramblers. Each have influenced their own communities in enormous ways; only Pete has a large community moving to award him the Nobel Peace Prize, though, for example.)

The Almanacs and the Weavers

As a singer and songwriter, Seeger started his career in 1940 as part of the folk song collective known as the Almanac Singers. They traveled around singing pot-stirring tunes at labor union halls and similar venues. There, he worked with other artists who would become known as folk music luminaries—Woody Guthrie, Millard Lampell, Lee Hays, Butch Hawes, Leadbelly, Sis Cunningham, and numerous others who came and went. Although protest music wasn't commonly aligned with folk music at the time, the Almanacs were dedicated to a notion that getting people to sing together can help a movement along—an ideology that pervaded every stage of Pete Seeger's career, and one he came to perfect.

The Almanacs disbanded after the U.S. entered World War II and Seeger teamed up with fellow Almanac Singer Lee Hays, with whom he penned the famous song "If I Had a Hammer" (perhaps most famously covered more than a decade later by Peter, Paul & Mary), among other tunes that have become deeply entrenched in the American folk music vernacular. Together, Seeger, Hays, Fred Hellerman and Ronnie Gilbert rose to great popularity as the Weavers. They had a hit with "Goodnight Irene," a song previously popularized by Leadbelly, but were blacklisted during the McCarthy Era, after Seeger refused to testify in front of the House Committee on Un-American Activities.

Blacklisted

While the blacklisting resulted in the disbanding of the Weavers—essentially forcing Seeger into a solo career—it didn't stop him from performing. He couldn't get a gig in a traditional venue, so he started performing at schools, sharing folk songs with children. Several of the children for whom Seeger performed in this period were hugely influenced by that memory and some have noted that this helped fuel—at least in a small part—the folk song revival that emerged in the late 1950s and '60s.

Folk Revival, Civil Rights, and Anti-War Songs
During what's now commonly referred to as the mid-20th-Century Folk Revival, Pete Seeger toured the south, singing and teaching Civil Rights Songs to African-American communities. He was famously joined on several occasions by a young Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, and other seminal figures. He learned a song from Zilphia Horton, who was the cultural director at Highlander Folk School in Monteagle, Tenn. (and whose husband was the school's founder), called "We Will Overcome." He adopted the song, added some lyrics, and changed the refrain to "We Shall Overcome," teaching it to Civil Rights activists and their sympathizers.

As the Vietnam War heated up, Seeger continued to unite communities through singing. He penned some of the most classic anti-war songs, such as "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?" (purchase/download) and "Bring Them Home" (purchase/download) — tunes that were simple enough lyrically and melodically for large crowds to learn and sing together, solidifying their commonalities and encouraging activism as a result.

Pete Seeger Then and Now

Also, around that same time (1966, to be exact), Seeger founded what has become known as the Clearwater Foundation—an organization dedicated to cleaning up the Hudson River. His Clearwater Music Revival festival started as a floating expedition of friends aboard a boat on the Hudson River, and has become a sizeable annual weekend in his hometown of Croton-on-Hudson, New York. He continues to be enormously dedicated to environmental causes, as well as the plight for equal human rights and the peace movement.

His release, At 89 (Compare Prices) was highly praised by critics and fans alike, and he continued to perform and facilitate sing-alongs whenever possible right up until he died. In fact, a week or two before his death, he organized a parade and singalong to honor the life of Martin Luther King. He performed at the inauguration of President Barack Obama and appeared at an enormous event at Madison Square Garden in honor of his 90th birthday on May 3, 2009. When Seeger died in January, 2014, the media seemed to stop for a day to recognize his extraordinary contributions, not just to American folk music, but also the pursuit of social justice and environmentalism - all legacies he's left to future generations of folksingers. 

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