How Pete Seeger Put the Politics in Folk Music

Pete Seeger, banjo, music

Legendary folk singer, songwriter, song collector, and political activist Pete Seeger died of natural causes in New York on Monday at the age of 94, the New York Times reports. Seeger is most famous for both writing and covering some of the most important folk and protest songs in the last century. His music was a key influence on the early folk movement of the 1960′s including Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, and Peter, Paul, and Mary.

Early in his career, Seeger worked with renowned folk song collector Alan Lomax archiving folk music at the Library of Congress, choosing the songs that were thought to best represent American folk music. Seeger’s parents were both classically trained musicians and his father was an ethnomusicologist. After working at the Library of Congress, Seeger joined two folk groups, the Weavers and the Almanacs, and collaborated with folk greats including Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly.

The Weavers did manage to popularize Leadbelly’s “Goodnight, Irene” by singing a cleaner version (also, being white helped), but Seeger’s music for the remainder of his career would be devoid of such compromise. Seeger’s leftist politics became increasingly infused in his music, both in the songs he wrote and the traditional folk songs that he adapted.

Seeger’s vision of melding music and politics — using traditional musical forms as a catalyst for change — would be his greatest legacy. Seeger used folk music to advance his political causes throughout his career. He sang anti-war songs, pro-union songs, songs about the environment, and songs in support of civil rights. Seeger was even found in contempt of the court and indited after failing to give satisfactory testimony to the House of Un-American Activities Committee in 1955. He got let off on a technicality before being thrown in prison to serve his one-year sentence.

Seeger’s version of the traditional gospel song “We Will Overcome” — changed to “We Shall Overcome” — became an anthem of the civil rights movement in the 1960′s. That song is one of the prime examples of Seeger’s work, a traditional piece of music reworked to effect real social change.

That idea was a huge influence on the folk revival of the 1960′s, and continues to resonate with musicians today. Musicians as diverse as Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Dave Matthews, Emmylou Harris, Joan Baez, and many others across genres have been influenced by Seeger’s music and his message. Any artists who use music to further a political message, or believe that music has the ability to effect social change, owe something to Seeger, whether their preferred form is rap, punk rock, country, or folk. “The history of Pete’s life is the history of music changing the world,” Rage Against the Machine frontman Tom Morello told the Rolling Stone back in 2007.

Seeger remained politically active even in recent years. He attended an Occupy Wall Street demonstration in New York City, wrote a song about the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, and sang Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land” with Bruce Springsteen at the 2009 inauguration of President Obama. In September he sang “This Land Is Your Land” again, this time with Willie Nelson, Neil Young, John Mellencamp, and Dave Matthews at Farm Aid.

Seeger has received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Grammys, a National Medal of Arts, and was inducted into the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame in 1972. “My job,” Seeger said in 2009, per the New York Times, “is to show folks there’s a lot of good music in this world, and if used right it may help to save the planet.” Anyone who believes in that message should tip their hat or plant a tree or put on a folk record to honor of the death of Pete Seeger.

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