RIP: Pete Seeger, The Power of Song

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Pete Seeger: 1919 – 2014 (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Pete Seeger (1919-2014) was a one-of-a-kind American musician who celebrated American roots music all his long life. He died Monday, January 27th, in his log cabin home in upstate New York. He was a ripe 94 years old. His long musical career started in the 1940s on radio broadcasts. As a member of the folk group The Weavers, he enjoyed a number of hit songs, especially Huddie Ledbetter‘s (Leadbelly’s) song “Goodnight Irene“. It topped the chart for over 3 months in 1950. Too bad Ledbetter died before the royalties came in.

Seeger was both thrown in jail for his protest songs and for putting himself on the line. The 2 songs that got him in trouble were “Tomorrow is a Highway” and “If I Had a Hammer“. J. Edgar Hoover’s files on him must be a foot thick. But he also performed at Barack Obama’s inauguration. Justice was finally served and Seeger got his due.

He kept the classic old-timey songs alive by resurrecting them and dusting them off throughout his life. His music championed the Civil Rights Movement as well as protesting the war in Vietnam. Without his efforts many of this classic musical Americana would have been lost. We owe him a big debt of gratitude.

I’ve always been moved by two particular songs popular in the 1960s: “Where Have All the Flowers Gone” and “Turn Turn Turn”. When I hear them I wonder where are the singer-songwriters writing and performing these songs today? The world is still a mess, but there are just a handful of bands: Michael Franti and Spearhead, Rage Against The Machine, Ben Harper; Joan Baez’ torch still burns bright. Phil Ochs is gone, and I haven’t heard much from Tom Paxton. But I am dismayed by the vapidity and emptiness of so much of today’s pop music when I hear Seeger’s timeless songs. He was never afraid to dream of a better world.

Inscribed on Seeger’s banjo: “This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender.” Click here for the Oct 2012 NPR story. (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Where Have All the Flowers Gone:

Here are 3 iconic songs, a medley: