The legendary Pete Seeger died this week at the age of 94. The world lost not only an iconic folk singer and songwriter, but also a counterculture activist, an environmentalist, and a tireless advocate for civil rights and social justice. He wrote or popularized songs that spoke to millions during the tumultuous social and political change of the 1950s, ‘60s, and ‘70s: “If I Had a Hammer,” “We Shall Overcome,” “Where Have all the Flowers Gone?”, and “Turn! Turn! Turn!”
Seeger came by music naturally: his father was a Harvard-trained musicologist who had developed an interest in folklore, his mother was a concert violinist, and his stepmother a modernist composer. Traveling with his father through the mountains of North Carolina at an early age, he developed a keen interest in the music of the American South. Southern gospels and protest songs from the fields and factories taught Seeger a new history of the South—a history that supported his radical politics.
His songs were often an evolution of these old gospel songs or bible verses. In The Storied South: Voices of Writers and Artists, author William Ferris interviews Seeger, who explains the complex origins of one of the greatest protest songs of the American civil rights movement, “We Shall Overcome.” You can read an excerpt from that interview in UNC’s Carolina Arts and Sciences Magazine.
On the loss of Seeger, Ferris said: “We lost a great oak who sheltered and nurtured so many with his songs that inspired social justice.”
Seeger believed in the power of bringing people together with song, in the community of music. Folk music for Seeger was the music of and for the people—struggling people, working people, oppressed people. He explores his journey through music further in another great interview by Fiona Richie and Doug Orr, authors of the upcoming book Wayfaring Strangers (UNC Press, Fall 2014). They spoke with Seeger in December 2010 at his New York home as they conducted research for Wayfaring Strangers. Their interview was broadcast on Ritchie’s radio show, “The Thistle and Shamrock®.” Ritchie says of the interview:
Winner of two awards at the New York Festival of Radio Programming and Promotion, “The Wisdom of Pete Seeger” is one of our best received radio shows. So how did it all come about? A wintry train journey up the eastern shore of the Hudson River to Duchess County near the town of Beacon, NY, took us towards the high ridge home of Pete and Toshi Seeger. “Homestead” may be a better way to describe the scene of their original house, a log cabin built by Pete on land he cleared in 1947, that sits adjacent to their present home. Newly chopped wood was piled by the door, a daily chore for Pete, now over 90. The aroma of hot soup filled the air. This was the setting for one of the my most enjoyable radio interviews. I traveled there with Doug and Darcy Orr and we shared lunch with the Seegers before settling in for a chat with Pete. Anecdotes, insights, memories and music flowed around the kitchen table.
Pete Seeger believed that a song could change the world. He leaves us with a joyous and hopeful legacy.
Ritchie excerpt © Fiona Ritchie.
The Thistle & Shamrock® is a service mark of Fiona Ritchie.