Pete Seeger, a Harvard College dropout who became the patriarch of the American protest song and indefatigable champion of progressive causes, from civil rights and environmentalism to nuclear disarmament and world peace, has died at a hospital in New York. He was 94.
Seeger’s grandson, Kitama Cahill-Jackson, says Seeger died Monday night after being hospitalized for six days.
Part of a folk-music tradition stretching from Woody Guthrie and Huddie Ledbetter to Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, and Peter, Paul and Mary, the bearded, banjo-picking Mr. Seeger recorded more than 80 albums for children and adults, winning Grammy Awards for Best Traditional Folk Album in 1997 and 2009.
He was widely known for such popular recordings as “Where Have All the Flowers Gone,” a lilting anti-war 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.
Credited with almost single-handedly sparking the folk-music revival of the 1960s, in part through his role in establishing the Newport Folk Festival, he 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, though, and decades later, he said he was mainly frustrated with the poor sound quality onstage, which rendered Dylan’s lyrics -- which Mr. Seeger felt were important to hear -- 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 Mongtomery 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 honoring Barack 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 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 by his side. 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 -- blue skies, clean rivers, and unspoiled vistas -- in his life’s work. His devotion to the plight of the American worker and to causes like 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 five-string 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 ukelele 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 himself 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 is survived by the couple’s three children, Daniel, Mika, and Tinya, and six grandchildren.
In the face of industry blacklisting, rock-throwing mobs, even death threats, Mr. Seeger, who joined the American Communist Party during the ’40s, never softened 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 refused at first but later relented under pressure from the show’s hosts, both staunch admirers of Mr. Seeger’s.
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. Bruce 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 on 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.
Joseph P. Kahn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.