It is very sad news to share that legendary folk singer and activist Pete Seeger has died at the age of 94. His grandson, Kitama Cahill-Jackson, told press that he had died in New York hospital on Monday night after a short illness.
He will be remembered by many people for many different accomplishments, a very fulfilled life that most of us can only dream of. For me personally he was not just a folk singer but a relentless activist campaigning for a better world, he had no fear when it came to protecting our civil liberties. His presence brought an incredible solitude to crowds, he could rally strength and unity whether that was during Union strikes, the anti-war protests, campaigns for racial equality or the more recent anti-fracking and Occupy Wall Street protests. He’s desire was always to build a better and more civilized world, something that led many to campaign for him to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
There are so many songs that spring to mind as I write this and it’s only when you look back at Pete’s history that you appreciate what he was fighting against and not just what he was fighting for. It’s a different world today but civil liberties are still being eroded, something Pete has always been aware of. The famous protest song “Which Side Are You On?” was written in 1931 by Florence Reece, she was the wife of a union organizer for the United Mine Workers in Harlan County, Kentucky. This song along with the African American Spiritual “We Shall Not Be Moved” were released on an album in 1941 by The Almanac Singers…those songs became an important keystone to many protests and still are today. Whilst most immediately think of the Weavers as the group Pete gained fame through it was as a member of The Almanac Singers that he had his first taste of fame.
The group achieved popularity in the radical left / anti-fascist circles of early 1940s America. Millard Lampell, Lee Hays, Pete Seeger and americana godfather Woody Guthrie began playing together informally at the communal almanac house after Seeger and Hays had been playing left-wing political functions for a time. Mainstream national success began after the American Youth Congress meeting in Washington DC in February of 1941. Others who sang with the group at various times included folk / leftist legends such as Sis Cunningham, Peter Hawes, Butch Hawes, Bess Lomax, Cisco Houston, and Arthur Stern. Whilst these songs may sound tame by some of today’s standards the group were viewed as radical activists….this never dissuaded Pete who always stuck to his guns irrespective of political pressures placed on him by government.
Pete fell victim to the McCarthy witch-hunts of 1950s America and in 1955 he was subpoenaed to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee…he refused to testify. An indictment for contempt, a prison sentence and a travel ban didn’t knock this man down and despite being baned from many campuses he continued to write and sing. In that same year he wrote Where Have All the Flowers Gone? which was listed as one of the “Top 20 Political Songs” by the New Statesman in 2010. In the late 1950’s he also wrote “Turn! Turn! Turn!”
Turn! Turn! Turn! (with five extra verses)
Last year I wrote about Pete Seeger: The Storm King an audio book Pete released featuring a collection of stories, narratives, and poems that were set to multi-genre music from around the world including African Music, Blues, Bluegrass, Classical Guitar, Folk, Jazz, and Native American Music. It gave a great insight into a very beautiful mind it made me want to find out more…the following documentary was made in 2007…it’s the full version so find some time to watch it in full…what he achieved in his time is amazing.
He leaves a legacy that continues to inspire numerous people all over the world.
Where Have All the Flowers Gone?