Pete Seeger

‘‘We Shall Overcome’’

Claudia Luther

The composer of "We Shall Overcome" is no more. He inspired a generaiton. Pete Seeger, the iconoclastic American singer, songwriter and social activist who did battle with injustice in America armed with a banjo, a guitar and the transformative power of song died Monday (January, 27) at New York Presbyterian Hospital.

A veteran of the labor, peace and civil rights movements, Seeger remained relevant as an activist into his 90s. He was equally musician and revolutionary, playing a major role in the folk music revival that began in the late 1950s while helping to craft the soundtrack of 1960s protests through such songs as "We Shall Overcome," "Where Have All the Flowers Gone" and "Turn! Turn! Turn!"

Gifted at connecting with audiences, Seeger called his ability to inspire regular folks to sing along his "cultural guerrilla tactic." "There's no such thing as a wrong note as long as you're singing it," he told the 15,000-strong crowd at his birthday celebration.

Seeger's life of music and political activism could be summed up in "The Hammer Song," the enduring anthem he wrote more than 60 years ago with his good friend Lee Hays to support the progressive political movement in the US :
If I had a hammer
I'd hammer in the morning
I'd hammer in the evening
All over this land/ I'd hammer out danger
I'd hammer out a warning
I'd hammer out love between my brothers and my sisters
All over this land.

Popularized by Peter, Paul and Mary in the 1960s, the song embodied the heart of Seeger : his musicality, his activism, his optimism and his lifelong belief that songs could and should be used to build a sense of community to make the world a better place.

Seeger inspired a generation of folk singers and musicians that included the Kingston Trio and Joan Baez, who once said : "We all owe our careers to Pete Seeger."

"Pete is America's tuning fork," author and oral historian Studs Terkel once said. "His songs capture the essence and beauty of this country."

He was born May 3, 1919, in Patterson, NY, into a musical family that was rich in religious dissenters, abolitionists and Revolutionary soldiers and "shot through with pedagogues," according to Seeger.

Seeger fell in love with the old-fashioned five-string banjo. "I liked the rhythms", he said. "I liked the melodies, time-tested by generations of singers". Above all, he said, he liked the words.

Called before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1955 to explain his Communist Party membership, Seeger invoked the 1st Amendment and was held in contempt of Congress. Sentenced to a year in jail, he served a few hours before being released. The case was dismissed years later.

The controversy shattered Seeger's career. He continued to record and make concert appearances but was barred from network TV for 17 years.

By the early 1960s, he had returned to performing at schools and colleges and came to view the blacklist as a blessing in disguise: He was showing "a whole generation of young people you didn't need to depend on the commercial world to make a living."

With other, younger folk singers, Seeger joined the anti-Vietnam War effort in the mid-1960s and traveled to Hanoi on a peace mission in the early 1970s.

When he finally returned to television in 1967 on "The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour" on CBS, his antiwar song, "Waist Deep in the Big Muddy," was censored. But after his performance was broadcast the next year, it was credited with helping to cement public opinion against the war.

He was also involved in environmental causes, including; the cleanup of the Hudson River around his home near Beacon, N Y Seeger helped devise a plan to use a replica of a 19th century sloop, the Clearwater, to sail from port to port along the river to educate residents about the waterway's condition.

It was not uncommon to see Seeger, as he approached 90, holding a placard by the roadside near his upstate New York home as he stood with a small group protesting the war in Iraq.

As recently as 2011, he lent his voice to the Occupy Wall Street movement, leaning on two canes to march through crowds of New York City protesters before singing "We Shall Overcome" with a longtime collaborator, Woody Guthrie's son Arlo.

[This is an abridged version of an article originally published in the Los Angeles Times]

Vol. 46, No. 32, Feb 16 - 22, 2014