"I'd really rather put songs on people's lips than in their ears," he said.
As a member of two influential folk groups, the Almanac Singers and the Weavers, Seeger wrote or co-wrote "We Shall Overcome," the anthem of the civil rights movement based on an early 20th century gospel song; "Where Have All the Flowers Gone," which became an anti-Vietnam War protest song; and another political anthem, "Turn! Turn! Turn!," which turned to a passage from the Bible — "to everything there is a season" — for the lyrics.
"Pete is America's tuning fork," author and oral historian Studs Terkel once wrote. "His songs capture the essence and beauty of this country."
Photographs of the tall, lanky Seeger in buoyant performance often show his head lifted, as if he had spotted his place in heaven and wanted to bring everyone else along. A storyteller known more for his charisma and message than for his voice, he is credited with single-handedly popularizing the five-string banjo. His was inscribed: "This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender."
He was born May 3, 1919, in Patterson, N.Y., into a musical family that was rich in religious dissenters, abolitionists and Revolutionary soldiers and "shot through with pedagogues," according to Seeger.
His father, Charles Louis Seeger, was a noted musicologist and educator, and his mother, Constance de Clyver Edson, was a violinist and teacher. After his parents divorced, his father married Ruth Crawford, a composer.
Young Peter attended boarding school in Connecticut before enrolling at Harvard University, where he majored in sociology.
Never an enthusiastic student, he dropped out of Harvard in 1938 after attending an Appalachian song and dance festival in Asheville, N.C., with his father. While there he heard "Aunt" Samantha Bumgarner, who was "picking a banjo and singing old ballads and having so much fun," he later recalled.
Seeger was enthralled by the old-fashioned five-string banjo. "I liked the rhythms," he said. "I liked the melodies, time-tested by generations of singers." Above all, he said, he was drawn to the unfussy, down-to-earth lyrics.
"They sang of heroes, outlaws, murderers, fools," Seeger said. "They weren't afraid of being tragic instead of just sentimental."
For a time, Seeger played banjo for children in his aunt's classroom. At 17, he met celebrated musicologist Alan Lomax, who hired him to transcribe songs from the Library of Congress collection. Through Lomax, he met Huddie "Lead Belly" Ledbetter, king of the 12-string guitar and a living archive of black American music, who broadened Seeger's musical horizons.
"I think of Lead Belly always sitting up straight and singing right out straight," Seeger once said, using a description that could apply to his own musicianship. "No slyness, no finagling, no tricks."
On March 3, 1940, at a "Grapes of Wrath" migrant worker benefit concert, Seeger met Guthrie. The renaissance of the American folk song could be pegged to that night, Lomax later said.
Seeger rejoined Guthrie and Millard Lampell in New York City, playing the "subway circuit" — left-wing fund-raising parties. They soon formed the Almanac Singers, which also included Hays and a changing cast of others. The group sang such activist tunes as "The Talking Union Blues" and the pacifist song "The Ballad of Oct. 16."
When the Almanac Singers prepared to play before about 1,000 longshoremen, Seeger later said, he heard some of them say, "What the heck are these hillbilly singers coming here for? We have work to do." By the time the group was done performing, the union members were on their feet.
Singing for union causes became almost a religion for Seeger, who — along with Guthrie and Ledbetter — helped bring folk music from the country into the big cities, mixed with a heavy dose of politics.
Seeger offered a simple analysis of his partnership with Guthrie: "I didn't play too fancy — just gave him the right note at the right time with the right rhythm."
This same modesty led Seeger to try to share the credit and profits on songs he recorded. He was "a hunter and gatherer" who edited and adapted songs "from half-remembered hymns and renewable folk tunes, Bible verses and poets' words, traditional songs that need a little tinkering," The Times said in 1998. Seeger was the first to acknowledge his source material.
The Almanac Singers broke up with the advent of World War II and Seeger served in the Army Special Services, entertaining troops in the U.S. and the South Pacific. After the war, Seeger formed the Weavers with Hays and others.