Pete Seeger was a teenager in the 1930s when he heard an Appalachian balladeer perform on an old-fashioned, five-string banjo and fell in love with the instrument, the timeless melodies and, most of all, the words.
“Compared to the trivialities of most popular songs,” he said later, “the words of these songs had all the meat of human life in them.... They seemed frank, straightforward, honest.”
In time, Seeger would arm himself with a banjo, a guitar and the transformative power of music to battle injustice in America and become the folk legend behind numbers such as “We Shall Overcome,” “Where Have All the Flowers Gone” and “Turn! Turn! Turn!”
The iconoclastic singer, songwriter and social activist who influenced generations of performers, including Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen, died of natural causes Monday at New York Presbyterian Hospital. He was 94.
Seeger had been in “excellent shape” until he entered the hospital last week, said his grandson Kitama Cahill-Jackson, noting that his grandfather was still chopping wood 10 days ago at his home near Beacon, N.Y., overlooking the Hudson River.
A veteran of the labor, peace and civil rights movements, Seeger remained relevant as an activist into his 90s. He was equally musician and revolutionary, playing a major role in the folk music revival that began in the late 1950s while helping to craft the soundtrack of 1960s protests.
“At some point, Pete Seeger decided he’d be a walking, singing reminder of all of America’s history,” Springsteen said at the all-star Madison Square Garden concert marking Seeger’s 90th birthday in 2009.
“He’d be a living archive of America’s music and conscience, a testament to the power of song and culture to nudge history along, to push American events towards a more humane and justified end,” said Springsteen, who performed Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land” with Seeger at the Lincoln Memorial concert marking President Obama’s 2008 inauguration.
Gifted at connecting with audiences, Seeger called his ability to inspire regular folks to sing along his “cultural guerrilla tactic.” “There’s no such thing as a wrong note as long as you’re singing it,” he told the 15,000-strong crowd at his birthday celebration.
Seeger’s life of music and political activism could be summed up in “The Hammer Song,” the enduring anthem he wrote more than 60 years ago with his good friend Lee Hays to support the progressive political movement in the U.S.:
If I had a hammer
I’d hammer in the morning
I’d hammer in the evening
All over this land
I’d hammer out danger
I’d hammer out a warning
I’d hammer out love between my brothers and my sisters
All over this land.
Popularized by Peter, Paul and Mary in the 1960s, the song embodied the heart of Seeger: his musicality, his activism, his optimism and his lifelong belief that songs could and should be used to build a sense of community to make the world a better place.
“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.
After a slow start, they began attracting crowds, and then, as Seeger described it, “lightning struck”: Bandleader and composer Gordon Jenkins “fell in love with our work” and got the group a recording contract.
The Weavers’ early recording of Ledbetter’s “Goodnight, Irene” was a big hit. Soon, they were on the charts with other tunes, including a classic, “On Top of Old Smoky,” and “Kisses Sweeter Than Wine.” In all, the group sold 4 million or so records — astonishing at the time — and played top nightclubs in America.
As the group’s popularity grew, so did interest in Seeger’s connection to the Communist Party, which he had joined at Harvard. He once believed that the party would help the common man, he said, but had spurned it in disgust by 1949. Yet he never apologized for his earlier belief.
“I’d like to see a world without millionaires,” Seeger said in 1993.
Called before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1955 to explain his Communist Party membership, Seeger refused to answer questions about his personal beliefs and was held in contempt of Congress. Sentenced to a year in jail, he served a few hours before being released. The case was dismissed years later.
The controversy shattered Seeger’s career. He continued to record and make concert appearances but was barred from network TV for 17 years.
By the early 1960s, he had returned to performing at schools and colleges and came to view the blacklist as a blessing in disguise: He was showing “a whole generation of young people you didn’t need to depend on the commercial world to make a living.”
With other, younger folk singers, Seeger joined the anti-Vietnam War effort in the mid-1960s and traveled to Hanoi on a peace mission in the early 1970s.
When he finally returned to television in 1967 on “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour” on CBS, his antiwar song, “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy,” was censored. But after his performance was broadcast the next year, it was credited with helping to cement public opinion against the war.
He was also involved in environmental causes, including the cleanup of the Hudson River.
It was not uncommon to see Seeger, as he approached 90, holding a placard by the roadside near his upstate New York home as he stood with a small group protesting the war in Iraq.
As recently as 2011, he lent his voice to the Occupy Wall Street movement, leaning on two canes to march through crowds of New York City protesters before singing “We Shall Overcome” with a longtime collaborator, Woody Guthrie’s son Arlo.
In 2012, Seeger appeared on “The Colbert Report,” accompanying himself on banjo and singing in a thin but clear voice his 1969 song “Quite Early Morning.” Looking far younger than his 93 years, he credited “outdoor work,” including splitting logs, with keeping him healthy.
Seeger was awarded the National Medal of Arts in 1994, the same year he was honored by the Kennedy Center. In 1996, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He won three Grammys and last year received his 13th Grammy nomination.
His wife, Toshi, whom he married in 1943, helped produce thousands of his concerts; she died in 2013. He is survived by son Daniel; daughters Mika Seeger and Tinya Seeger; half sisters Peggy Seeger and Barbara Miserantino; eight grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.
When people asked the perennially upbeat Seeger if he ever got discouraged, he would reply: “I say ‘the hell with it’ every night around 9:30, then get up the next morning. Besides, if you sing for children, you can’t really say there’s no hope.”
[For the Record, 1:39 p.m. PST Jan. 28: An earlier version of this article said Pete Seeger invoked the 1st Amendment when he was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1955. He did not.]
Luther is a former Times staff writer.
Times staff writer Elaine Woo and former Times staff writer Valerie J. Nelson contributed to this report.