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How Folk Music Changed Pete Seeger and How He Helped Change the World

Pete Seeger (1919-2014)
Pete Seeger (1919-2014)
Josef Schwarz via Wikimedia Commons

Pete Seeger, who died on Tuesday at the age of 94, intended to be a journalist. Toward that end, he studied sociology at Harvard, but wanderlust led him away from books and on a bicycle tour of New England.

Ultimately, Seeger's stories were told not in newspaper stories or in books, but in songs -- American songs you know well, even if you don't recognize their names; songs that changed the world.

Ironically, most of those songs were popularized by others. Seeger became a renowned (and later infamous) folk singer in his own right, but his tunes are often thought of as "belonging to" other performers.

His "If I Had a Hammer" was a hit for Peter, Paul and Mary; his song "Where Have All the Flowers Gone" (about the death of American soldiers in World War II) was a Top 20 single for the Kingston Trio (who initially took authors' credit for the tune, mistaking it for a traditional number). The Sandpipers made a career out of Seeger's "Guantanamera," and the Byrds scored with "Turn! Turn! Turn! (To Everything There Is a Season)" and "The Bells of Rhymney," both by Seeger.

Seeger was amused by the notion of anyone's ownership of music. "The songs belong as much to the people who hear them as they do to the people who write them or sing them," he told Hit Parader magazine in 1967.

This generosity of spirit wasn't peacenik rhetoric. Onstage, Seeger was as likely to lead sing-alongs of others' music (especially Judy Collins, Joni Mitchell, and Leonard Cohen -- Seeger appeared to favor Canadian songwriters) as he was to perform his own material.

 

Pete Seeger in 1967.
Pete Seeger in 1967.
James Kavallines via Wikimedia Commons

Later, that largess would wreck his career -- in the '50s, Seeger was a member of the Weavers, one of the successful combos in show business -- and make him a martyr. Forced to appear before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1955, he was one among very few who refused to give names of fellow Communists working in the entertainment industry. Rather than pleading the Fifth Amendment -- another popular ploy chosen by many of his colleagues -- Seeger chose jail.

An appeal eventually kept him from serving time, but the experience changed him. He dumped his upscale showbiz career and returned to his folkie roots, traveling the country, playing small clubs, or, more often, singing around campfires and at public grammar schools.

In the '60s, Seeger stumped for the African-American Civil Rights movement, singing "We Shall Overcome" at rallies across the nation, unwittingly transforming this old spiritual into a protest standard.

Some of us, hearing of his death, probably thought about dusting off an old Pete Seeger record or two and playing them in his honor. It seems likely that Seeger would have preferred that we play someone else's record in his honor instead.

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