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Tributes worldwide follow death of Pete Seeger

Pete Seeger was considered a giant in the folk world.

AP/File

Pete Seeger was considered a giant in the folk world.

Luminaries around the world — from President Obama to countless musicians whose work and lives were deeply influenced by Pete Seeger’s legacy — paid tribute Tuesday to the folk-music legend, who died Monday night in New York.

A Harvard College dropout who became the patriarch of the American protest song and an indefatigable champion of progressive causes, from civil rights and environmentalism to nuclear disarmament and world peace, Mr. Seeger was 94. His grandson, Kitama Cahill-Jackson, said he died after being hospitalized for six days.

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A revered figure in a folk-music tradition stretching from Woody Guthrie and Huddie Ledbetter to Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, and Peter, Paul and Mary, the banjo-picking Mr. Seeger recorded more than 100 albums, winning four Grammy Awards, including one for lifetime achievement.

He was widely known for such popular recordings as “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?,” a lilting antiwar ballad; “Which Side Are You On,” a stirring pro-union anthem; “The Hammer Song” (also known as “If I Had a Hammer”); and “Little Boxes,” a biting satire on the homogenization of postwar suburbia.

On Tuesday, Obama released a statement praising Mr. Seeger as a musician and social activist. “Once called ‘America’s tuning fork,’ Pete Seeger believed deeply in the power of song,” the statement read. “But more importantly, he believed in the power of community — to stand up for what’s right, speak out against what’s wrong, and move this country closer to the America he knew we could be. Over the years, Pete used his voice — and his hammer — to strike blows for worker’s rights and civil rights; world peace and environmental conservation. And he always invited us to sing along. For reminding us where we come from and showing us where we need to go, we will always be grateful to Pete Seeger.”

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Folk singer Tom Rush called Mr. Seeger “a giant.” In an e-mail to the Globe, he wrote, “there is a huge empty space on the music skyline now.”

EPA/FILE/1967

Pete Seeger championed labor unions, peace, and civil rights.

Other tributes came via social media, with figures ranging from former president Bill Clinton to musicians Arlo Guthrie, Rosanne Cash, and Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine offering praise on Twitter and Facebook.

Credited with almost single-handedly sparking the folk-music revival of the 1950s and ’60s, in part through helping to establish the Newport Folk Festival in 1959, Mr. Seeger also traveled the world seeking out and promoting music that appealed to his steadfast belief in cultural authenticity.

Perhaps unwittingly, he played a role in one of modern folk music’s most controversial chapters, when Bob Dylan appeared at the Newport festival backed by a rock band. Standing backstage, Mr. Seeger seemed visibly upset by Dylan’s choice to go electric. Rumors that Mr. Seeger tried to cut the electric cables with an axe proved untrue, and decades later, he said he was mainly frustrated with the poor sound quality onstage, which rendered Dylan’s lyrics virtually inaudible.

Yet his most enduring contribution to musical and social history may be his adaptation of “We Shall Overcome,’’ a venerable religious hymn taken up by striking tobacco workers in 1946 as their rallying cry.

As reworked by Mr. Seeger, the song became the quasi-official anthem of the 1960s civil rights movement, stirring crowds from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial to the streets of Selma, Ala. He first sang his version of the hymn for the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1957, a few months after the Montgomery bus boycott. According to Mr. Seeger, King turned to him the next day and said, “That song really sticks with you, doesn’t it?’’

Over a half-century later, Mr. Seeger joined Bruce Springsteen, a great admirer and interpreter of his songs, at a pre-Inaugural concert in 2009 honoring Obama, the nation’s first African-American president. On the site where King had once roused the nation with his dream of racial equality, the two musicians led the crowd in singing the Woody Guthrie anthem “This Land Is Your Land.”

A dedicated musicologist with a gentle, almost professorial manner and deeply populist sensibility, Mr. Seeger rambled across America in 1940 with Guthrie. That odyssey helped launch a 70-year career in which Mr. Seeger celebrated working-class America in his songs and the country’s natural wonders in his life’s work. His devotion to the plight of the American worker and to such causes as clean energy made every concert appearance and rally singalong an opportunity both to charm listeners and recruit them to his side.

“When I give an evening of songs, I’m circling around,’’ Mr. Seeger once reflected. “I may sing a union song, I may sing a peace song, I may sing a children’s song. The most important thing I try to get out of my concerts is a sense of participation.’’ He described his work in the 1940s as part of “a singing labor movement” and called his banjo a “machine [that] surrounds hate and forces it to surrender.”

Peter Seeger was born in New York City on May 3, 1919, and briefly attended Harvard before dropping out to pack up his banjo and take to the open road. His father, Charles Seeger, was a well-known ethnomusicologist and member of the Industrial Workers of the World, a radical labor group. His mother, Constance de Clyver Edson, taught violin.

Mr. Seeger took up the banjo and ukulele at an early age. Building on a childhood passion for the American folk tradition, he began traveling the United States collecting songs from the factory workers and farmhands who soon became his lifelong constituents. After serving in World War II, he joined the popular folk group the Weavers in 1949 and performed with them for the next decade.

In 1943, Mr. Seeger married Toshi-Aline Ohta. Six years later, the couple bought a plot of land along the Hudson River 60 miles north of Manhattan, where they lived thereafter. Mr. Seeger often credited his wife for holding their family together while he rambled, recorded, and protested. He built their first home and, well into his 80s, retained the wiry physique of a devoted outdoorsman with a passion for hand tools. His wife died last July; he leaves the couple’s three children, Daniel, Mika, and Tinya; and eight grandchildren.

In the face of industry blacklisting, rock-throwing mobs, even death threats, Mr. Seeger, who joined the American Communist Party during the ’40s, did not soften his political beliefs despite an investigation by the House Un-American Activities Committee, during which he refused to cooperate fully or capitulate by taking a loyalty oath.

Acquitted of contempt of Congress charges in 1962, by which time he had cut his ties to the Communist Party, he was nevertheless banned from network television for nearly two decades. His prime-time return, on CBS’s “The Smothers Brothers Show,” was predictably controversial. Mr. Seeger insisted upon singing a blistering anti-Vietnam War song he’d composed titled “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy.”

The network initially refused to air the taped segment but later relented under pressure from the show’s hosts, both staunch admirers of Mr. Seeger’s, and allowed him to perform the song.

In 1996, ending a 13-year recording hiatus, Mr. Seeger released “Pete,” a critically acclaimed album produced by Paul Winter. By that time, a cultural establishment that had once shunned Mr. Seeger for being too radical politically and too indifferent commercially had begun to embrace him as a national treasure.

Meanwhile, he’d enlisted in another ambitious cause: cleaning up the Hudson River, an effort begun in 1969 with the construction and launch of the sloop Clearwater. Over the next four decades, Mr. Seeger and his boat were instrumental in undoing years of pollution that had despoiled the river, a success many had once thought impossible.

During the mid-’90s, while continuing to perform at venues ranging from elementary schools to Carnegie Hall, Mr. Seeger was awarded a National Medal of Arts, a Kennedy Center Lifetime Achievement Award, a Harvard Arts Medal, and a plaque in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Springsteen, who released a 2006 tribute album titled “We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions,” and Bonnie Raitt were among the many contemporary artists hailing Mr. Seeger for having melded American roots music with political activism, however risky it was at the time.

“Pete saw himself as a citizen-artist,” Springsteen said in the PBS documentary “Pete Seeger: The Power of Song.” His greatest gift, said Raitt, was “shepherding songs of peace and justice” during times when there wasn’t much of either.

Reached by phone Tuesday while traveling abroad, Newport Folk Festival founder George Wein, who visited Mr. Seeger earlier this month, said, “His legacy was the power of song. It meant everything to Pete, it was the way he brought people together.

“The idealism and purity in this man’s soul affected me very much. Without Pete, we never would have had a Newport Folk Festival. He was the only one who could get all the artists. Pete was the beacon who drew them there.”

A 2009 Madison Square Garden concert celebrating Mr. Seeger’s 90th birthday drew a host of luminaries, including Springsteen, Joan Baez, Emmylou Harris, John Mellencamp, and Roger McGuinn, whose former group the Byrds had a hit in 1965 with their folk-rock version of Mr. Seeger’s “Turn! Turn! Turn!,”a song based on passages from the Book of Ecclesiastes.

Mr. Seeger maintained a high profile until the end, particularly at the Newport Folk Festival. Over the years, he had become Newport’s moral compass and spiritual guide to younger artists.

At the 2011 event, Mr. Seeger, one of the last standing bridges between the original vanguard and those carrying the folk torch forward, lamented that he didn’t have much voice left. But that didn’t stop him from rallying the weekend’s performers in rousing singalongs of folk standards such as “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?”

Joseph P. Kahn can be reached at jkahn@globe.com. James Reed of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Material from the Associated Press was also used.
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