Think Outside the Boombox: Remembering Pete Seeger

Music columnist Patrick McKenna on the late legend

The world lost one of its biggest, brightest and best musicians Jan. 27. Pete Seeger, a pivotal figure in American music — who not only retained the elements of folk music throughout his 70-year career but also influenced extraordinary musicians ranging from Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and Tom Morello — died of natural causes after spending five days in a New York hospital. He was 94.

As the king of all folkies, Seeger made his career inciting activism and moral advancement with his songs of love, peace and the well-deserved rights of every American citizen. For more than 50 years, Seeger roamed America, singing his politically charged protest songs in saloons, migrant labor camps, union halls, schools and concert auditoriums.

From his upbringings as the child of a ethnomusicologist who taught at Yale and Juilliard, the roots were already set in place for a man who worked toward criticizing the injustices of the country he loved. He discovered the banjo as a teenager and, after dropping out of Harvard in the late ’30s, he worked for folklorist Alan Lomax cataloguing and preserving traditional songs.

As a solo performer, songwriter, interpreter and member of the legendary folk band The Weavers, Seeger wrote (or at least co-wrote) “If I Had a Hammer” (a hit for Peter, Paul and Mary) and “Where Have All the Flowers Gone” (made famous by the Kingston Trio). The Byrds had a No. 1 hit with “Turn! Turn! Turn!,” which Seeger had adapted from the Book of Ecclesiastes and set to music.

Most importantly, “We Shall Overcome,” a traditional gospel song became a regular part of his repertoire and standard for civil rights rallies for decades to come. Although Seeger never scored a Top 40 hit on his own, the charts were never an indication of his overwhelming impact.

“The history of Pete's life is the history of music changing the world,” Tom Morello told Rolling Stone in 2007.

Always vocal in terms of how his music helped pave the way for countless musicians to express their moral and political views, Seeger saw his songs as more than songs; they were cries for help, realization and demonstration.

Even after his career with The Weavers plummeted after the House Un-American Activities Committee’s “anti-communist” witch hunt blacklisted the group in 1952, Seeger refused to compromise. He wrote the inspiring anti-Vietnam War song “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy” at the height of the war. Even as he wrote songs condemning much of America’s 20th century history, Seeger truly professed love.

“I call them all love songs,” Mr. Seeger once said of his music, according to the Washington Post. “They tell of love of man and woman, and parents and children, love of country, freedom, beauty, mankind, the world, love of searching for truth and other unknowns. But, of course, love alone is not enough.”

Seeger will not be remembered in the same way that musicians such as Robin Thicke will be for thoughtless one-hit wonders that make listening to the radio seem like getting root canal treatment. He will be remembered for being provocatively political, astoundingly smart and undoubtedly brave. He will be remembered as someone who never — not even when the U.S. government attempted to contain him — sacrificed his morals for his own safety.

He saw musical expression as a way of life, a way for the little guy to become the huge hero. He was a divine musician, and he will be missed by millions.

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