Raised in New York by two classically trained musicians, it is no surprise that Seeger took an early interest in music and songwriting. He found his first break at the turn of the 1940s while working at the Library of Congress in the Archive of American Folk Song, where he met longtime friend Alan Lomax. Before long, Lomax was featuring Seeger on his weekly radio show along with artists such as Leadbelly and Woody Guthrie. Seeger went on to found the band The Almanac Singers (which later became known as The Weavers), finding success in the national spotlight with songs like “On Top of Old Smokey” and a cover of Leadbelly’s “Goodnight, Irene.” Seeger embarked as a solo artist in the late 1950s, a time in which he released some of his best-known works, including “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” and “Turn, Turn, Turn.”
While his musical catalog is vast, celebrated, and wildly influential, it is Seeger’s work as an activist that makes him a true legend. In some instances, this is tied very closely with his music. The Almanac Singers’ 1941 release, Songs for John Doe, was censored as illegal by the U.S. government for its stance against American intervention in World War II and message that closely mirrored elements of communism. In 1955, Seeger was forced to testify before the House of Un-American Activities Committee. While he could have easily avoided punishment by pleading the Fifth Amendment, Seeger gave an impassioned defense of his rights to freedom of speech and association provided by the First Amendment. While this event led to Seeger being blacklisted from American television for many years, he proved to be on the right side of history and inspired countless people to protect their freedoms as U.S. citizens.
Seeger’s activism and support for social causes can be seen in every decade. He was highly involved with the Civil Rights movement, even being said to have been one of the main reasons for the adoption of “We Shall Overcome” as the movement’s anthem. Seeger spoke out against the Vietnam War in the 1970s and against Soviet oppression of its people during the Cold War of the 1980s. Furthermore, Seeger has championed numerous environmental causes, including founding the Hudson River Sloop Clearwater organization that was successful in cleaning out the pollution and toxic waste in the Hudson River.
Seeger was honored with a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1993 and inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996. Now in his nineties, his love of performing music and inspiring audiences has not waned. To celebrate his 90th birthday, Seeger headlined a concert at Madison Square Garden alongside Bruce Springsteen, Ani DiFranco, Joan Baez, Dave Matthews, and, appropriately, the son of former peer and bandmate Woody Guthrie, Arlo Guthrie.
Pete Seeger: May 3, 1919 – January 27, 2014