Pete Seeger’s career carried him from singing at labor rallies to the Top 10 to college auditoriums to folk festivals, and from a conviction for contempt of Congress (after defying the House Un-American Activities Committee in the 1950s) to performing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial at an inaugural concert for Barack Obama.
Seeger, who helped create the modern American folk music movement, co-wrote such enduring songs as “If I Had a Hammer” and became a leading voice for social justice, died Monday at age 94 of natural causes at New York Presbyterian hospital, according to his family.
Michael Honey, a University of Washington Tacoma professor and labor historian, said that without Seeger many of the songs born from Americans’ economic and political struggles would not have been preserved. Seeger spent much of his life traveling through small towns collecting the indigenous songs that originated in the fight for civil rights and economic equality.
Honey, a UWT Fred and Dorothy Haley professor of humanities, said Seeger traveled to the Northwest in the early ’40s with fellow folksinger Woody Guthrie. While in Seattle, the two were introduced to the hootenanny, a party of sorts at which musicians joined together to sing songs and share stories.
Honey, a musician himself, shared the stage with Seeger in 1997 at the Seattle Folklife Festival.
“He was a great storyteller. He had an encyclopedic memory. But he was always a humble man,” said the UWT professor, who knew Seeger for decades.
Often politically charged, several of Seeger’s own compositions became anthems within his lifetime, including “Where Have All The Flowers Gone” and “We Shall Overcome,” which he based on a spiritual tune.
Seeger and Guthrie started the Almanac Singers in the early 1940s, and in 1949 Seeger was a founding member of another key folk group, the Weavers. Those groups opened the way for Bob Dylan and another generation of folk music singer/songwriters in the 1960s and ’70s.
The Weavers had a No. 1 hit with a version of Leadbelly’s “Good Night, Irene” and by 1952 had sold more than 4 million records. The members soon drifted apart, however, after being blacklisted for links to the Communist Party.
Seeger also wrote the modern classic “Turn! Turn! Turn!” with lyrics from the Bible’s Ecclesiastes and “Where Have All the Flowers Gone” with Joe Hickerson. But he was modest about his songwriting.
“Hardly any of my songs have been written entirely by me,” he once said in an interview. “I swiped things here and there and wrote new verses” to old tunes.
Seeger, born May 3, 1919, in Patterson, N.Y., was the son of two teachers at the famed Juilliard School of Music — his father an ethnomusicologist and his mother a violinist.
Vince Brown, an Olympia-based musician, said of Seeger: “He was truly inspiring. The thing that most inspired me — music has meaning. It’s always communicating something. Pete was very careful in his message. He was very aware that what he was doing mattered.”
Seeger, Brown said, made the connection between meaning and music.
“He seemed to be such a humble person,” Brown said. “He never seemed to waver from the notion that everyone mattered. He broke down the barrier between performer and audience. It can’t be about one person. It has to be about everyone working together.”
Jody Mackey, manager at the Olympia cafe and gathering spot Traditions, was deaf until she neared 4 years old. As she got older, she never sang. But one day, she did, before an audience.
“I gathered up my courage. I got up and sang that song. I was so afraid. I couldn’t breathe.”
She sang one of the songs that Pete Seeger sang. It’s the song that says: “I’m gonna lay my burden down, down by the riverside, and I’ll study war no more.”
She sang in front of the Tivoli Fountain on the Capital Campus.
“People got up and sang with me,” she said Tuesday. “I was really scared, but at the end I was so happy. Pete Seeger has been an inspiration throughout my life. Pete kept those songs alive.”
Dick Meyer, owner of Traditions in Olympia, said Seeger “has been such a monumental, instrumental figure for so long.”
Beyond the music, Meyer said, Seeger inspired people “whether for the environment, peace issues, poverty or social justice issues. He was a part of a number of people who were trying to describe political change. There’s always been a cutting edge trying to move society forward in humane ways. He’s been a part of that movement.”
Seeger had been a Communist Party member but left about 1950. Still, he refused to answer questions from the U.S. House of Representatives Un-American Activities Committee in 1955, was prosecuted and was sentenced to a year in jail in 1961. The conviction was overturned on appeal, but Seeger’s career did not begin to recover until the Smothers Brothers invited him to appear on their television show in 1967.
Seeger won just one Grammy for an album, 1997’s “Pete” in the best traditional folk album category. He also received a Lifetime Achievement Grammy in 1993.Staff writers John Gillie and C.R. Roberts contributed to this report.