- 12 Feb 14
The passing of Pete Seeger at age 94 marked the end of an era in popular music. An iconic presence, he was instrumental in the writing of the great American songbook and leaves an enormous legacy as a musician and a political artist. Greg McAteer pays tribute...
Designer clothes, bling, Mercedes, hyperventilating fans – we could be talking about an average production weekend at Hot Press. Actually, this is a list of the sort of things that pop stars often seem to prioritise, over and above the dreary business of making music.
But then, it 's difficult to imagine many contemporary musicians settling for the life Pete Seeger chose. For long periods he traversed the United States by thumb, crashing on couches, depending on the kindness of strangers for his daily bread.
Born into middle-class comfort in 1919, he was nonetheless ill-disposed towards life on easy street. His mother was a composer and, later, his stepmother an author whose children’s books drew on folk music.
His father was a musicologist and a conscientious objector during the First World War. His great-grandfather had been an anti-slavery campaigner; war poet Alan Seeger was his uncle. His half-siblings Peggy and Mike (who died in 2009) were musicians too. In other words, protest songs were in his blood.
In 1935 he attended a folk festival in Asheville and saw a five-string banjo played for the first time. The banjo would become his trademark instrument. Reed-thin and straight as a die, with his long-neck banjo thrust aloft, he cut an iconic figure.
A year after that fateful folk festival, he enrolled in Harvard, a classmate of John F. Kennedy. Unsettled by the vast suffering caused by the Great Depression, Seeger dropped out of college and fell into the peripatetic lifestyle that was to characterise the next half-century of his life. During his travels he encountered both Lead Belly and Woody Guthrie, with whom he would collaborate as part of the Almanac Singers. He became a fixture on radio, gaining a reputation as one of America’s most charismatic performers. He claimed to have learned a little from everyone he met and amassed an enormous repertoire.
His wanderings were interrupted by the Second World War, in which he served. On returning to civilian life he formed The Weavers with Lee Hays, Ronnie Gilbert and Fred Hellerman. After signing to Decca Records, they found themselves with a number one hit. Both Hays and Seeger, though, were ‘fingered’ as members of the Communist Party by FBI informants.
The band were soon blacklisted and found it difficult to make a living from touring. Seeger was summoned before McCarthy’s House Committee of Un-American Activities. His answers judged too evasive, he was sentenced to a year in prison for contempt of Congress, although he never served time behind bars.
As the ’50s progressed and the folk revival took hold, the anti-communist paranoia of the McCarthy era subsided and the band made a comeback.
He remained a committed socialist and, having helped introduce the anthem ‘We Shall Overcome’ to the folk canon, became inextricably linked to the civil rights movement. As he grew older he became involved in environmental issues, too. At the age of 92 he joined Occupy Wall Street activists on a 30-block march across Manhattan. In 2006 his iconic status was set in stone with Bruce Springsteen’s Seeger Sessions, for which the Boss covered standards made popular by Seeger. Toshi, his wife of 70 years, died in 2013. Seeger joined her on January 27.