To Bruce Springsteen, Pete Seeger, the singer/songwriter/activist who died Monday at the age of 94, was “the father of American folk music.”
But Seeger, who popularized This Land Is Your Land and We Shall Overcome and wrote If I Had a Hammer and Turn, Turn, Turn, never liked the term folk music.
“It’s been defined as the ‘music of the peasants,’ ” Seeger told USA TODAY in a 2009 interview, “and then you get someone saying (of Seeger), ‘he’s no peasant!”’
Seeger, who dropped out of Harvard University in 1938 to ride a bicycle across the country, quoted his father, Charles Seeger, a musicologist: “My dad, the old professor, used to say, ‘Never get into an argument about what’s folk music and what isn’t.’ ”
But whatever you called him, Seeger influenced scores of other singers, including Springsteen, Joan Baez, Dave Matthews, Rufus Wainwright, John Mellencamp andArlo Guthrie. All performed in 2009 at Seeger’s 90th birthday party at sold-outMadison Square Garden, a fundraiser for his favorite local cause: cleaning up New York’s Hudson River.
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That night, Springsteen introduced Seeger saying, “He’s gonna look a lot like your granddad that wears flannel shirts and funny hats. He’s gonna look like your granddad if your granddad can kick your ass. At 90, he remains a stealth dagger through the heart of our country’s illusions about itself.”
On his facebook page Tuesday, Arlo Guthrie, who performed often with Seeger and is the son of Woody Guthrie (who taught Seeger how to jump freight trains), described his last phone call to Seeger’s hospital bed Monday night.
“I simply wanted him to know that I loved him dearly, like a father in some ways, a mentor in others and just as a dear friend a lot of the time,” Guthrie wrote.
“I let him know I was having trouble writing his obituary – as I’d been asked — but it seemed just so silly and I couldn’t think of anything that didn’t sound trite or plain stupid….We laughed, we talked, and I took my leave about 9:30.”
“‘Arlo,’” Seeger said, “sounding just like the man I’ve known all of my life, ‘I guess I’ll see ya later.’ I’ve always loved the rising and falling inflections in his voice.
” ‘Pete,’ I said. “I guess we will.”
Guthrie fell asleep until about 3 a.m. when texts and phone calls began from friends saying, “Pete had passed away.”
“Well, of course he passed away,” Guthrie said in response. “But that doesn’t mean he’s gone.”
Seeger opposed McCarthyism, marched beside the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and led environmental campaigns. In 1969, he helped build a 10-foot sailing sloop called the Clearwater that continues to serve as a “floating classroom” and rallying point for cleaning up the Hudson.
“Songs won’t save the planet,” Seeger told his biographer David Dunaway, author ofHow Can I Keep From Singing? “But, then, neither will books or speeches. … Songs are sneaky things. They can slip across borders. Proliferate in prisons.” He liked to quote Plato: “Rulers should be careful about what songs are allowed to be sung.”
Seeger is the only singer in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame who was convicted of contempt of Congress. In 1955, he refused to testify about his past membership in theCommunist Party. (He later said he quit the party in 1949 and “should have left much earlier. It was stupid of me not to. … I thought Stalin was the brave secretary Stalin and had no idea how cruel a leader he was.”)
In 1961, his conviction was overturned on appeal, but Seeger continued to be blacklisted by commercial TV networks until 1967. Even then, CBS censored parts of his anti-Vietnam War musical allegory, Waist Deep in the Big Muddy, when he sang it on the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour.
In 2006, Springsteen helped introduce Seeger to a new generation when he recordedWe Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions, an album of 13 songs popularized by Seeger, including John Henry and Shenandoah. Three years later, Springsteen persuaded Seeger to sing This Land Is Your Land with him at President Obama’s inaugural concert in frigid temperatures on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.
“He was so happy that day,” Springsteen said later. “It was like, ‘Pete, you outlasted the bastards, man.’ It was so nice.”
Much earlier, poet Carl Sandberg crowned Seeger “America’s tuning fork.” But whenBob Dylan called Seeger a saint, that was going too far.
“What a terrible thing to call someone,” Seeger told USA TODAY on the eve of his 90th birthday. “I’ve made a lot of foolish mistakes over the years.”
TIMELINE: Pete Seeger 1919 – 2014
But no one was better at leading sing-alongs. “There is no such thing as a wrong note,” he liked to say when leading group renditions of songs like Amazing Grace, “just as long as you’re singing along.”
At the end of our interview in 2009, I mentioned that my father had attended one of Seeger’s free outdoor concerts decades earlier. As my father told it, Seeger noticed my dad wasn’t singing and urged him to join in. My father said he shot back, “It’s a free country. If I don’t want to sing, I don’t have to.”
When I told Seeger that story, he asked if my father was still alive. No, I said.
“That’s too bad,” Seeger replied, “because I have some new songs he might like.”
Seeger was born in New York on May 3, 1919, to musical parents: His father was a Harvard-trained composer. His mother, Constance, was a concert violinist.
After dropping out of Harvard, Seeger met Woody Guthrie. They became part of the left-wing Almanac Singers who sang in opposition to the peacetime draft of 1940. But after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Seeger enlisted in the Army and trained as an airplane mechanic. He ended up being assigned to entertain the troops in the Pacific. When he was asked what he did in the war, he’d answer: “I strummed my banjo.”
Seeger co-founded the Weavers, who had an apolitical hit, Good Night Irene, which topped the charts for 13 weeks in 1950, but within three years they were blacklisted from radio and TV because of their left-wing politics.
Long after the blacklists ended, Seeger continued protesting. In 2011, he joined a march in support of the Occupy Wall Street protests.
For more than 60 years, he lived in Beacon, N.Y., with his wife, Toshi, in a cabin he mostly built himself on a cliff overlooking the Hudson River, 60 miles north ofManhattan. Toshi, whom he called “the brains of the family,” died at 91 in 2013, after nearly 70 years of marriage. Seeger is suvived by a son, Daniel; two daughters, Mika Seeger and Tinya Seeger; six grandchildren; and a great-grandson.
If he didn’t being want to be called a folk singer, what term did he prefer?
“How about river singer,” he suggested. “I sing up and down the Hudson River.”
The last time I saw Seeger perform was in 2010 at an environmental fundraiser in an old church in Dobbs Ferry, N.Y. He looked as pleased to be singing with a local children’s chorus, with kids named Destiny Burroughs and Maddy Murphy, as he had at Madison Square Garden with Springsteen, Baez and Mellencamp.
Courtesy of USA Today