Folksinger, political activist and environmentalist Pete Seeger died Monday night (Jan. 27) at New York Presbyterian Hospital where he had been under treatment for the past six days. He was 94.
Over his long career, Seeger had many connections to country music, usually through his friendships or associations with such political progressives as Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Emmylou Harris and Nanci Griffith.
He was the guest of honor at last year’s Farm Aid benefit, the charity Nelson co-founded and continues to lead. Harris was among the performers who paid tribute to Seeger at the Madison Square Garden concert that celebrated his 90th birthday.
Cash returned the favor later by featuring Seeger on his ABC-TV show.
Seeger co-wrote “Gotta Travel On,” the song that made Billy Grammer a star in 1959 and led to his induction into the Grand Ole Opry.
Vern Gosdin recorded one of Seeger’s most famous tunes, “Turn! Turn! Turn!” The song topped the pop charts for the Byrds for three weeks in 1965. Nanci Griffith sang on the 1998 tribute album, Where Have All the Flowers Gone: The Songs of Pete Seeger.
Among other notable songs that came from Seeger’s pen are “Kisses Sweeter Than Wine” and “Where Have All the Flowers Gone.”
As a member of the Weavers folk group, Seeger sang on five pop hits during 1951-52 — “The Roving Kind,” “On Top of Old Smoky,” “Kisses Sweeter Than Wine,” “When the Saints Go Marching In” and “Wimoweh.”
In 1964, his rendition of “Little Boxes” rose to No. 70 on Billboard’s pop chart.
Seeger’s instruction book, How to Play the 5-String Banjo, which he first published in 1948, rivaled Earl Scruggs’ high profile radio and TV appearances in making that instrument popular among young musicians.
In 1993, Seeger was given the Lifetime Achievement Grammy award. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996.
Seeger was born May 3, 1919, in New York City, the son of a musicologist father and a concert pianist mother. His half sister, Peggy, and half brother, Mike, would also become prominent musicians.
From his teen years onward, Seeger was concerned with the plight of the working class, particularly the nonunionized, migrant workers and blacks.
In 1941, he co-founded the Almanac Singers, a group that included Woody Guthrie , one of his chief musical influences. He joined the Communist Party USA in 1942 but eventually left it, largely in reaction to the atrocities committed by Russian leader Joseph Stalin.
His leftist politics led to his being blacklisted from radio and television throughout much of the ’50s and ’60s. During the ’60s, he was one of the most persistent and vocal supporters of the Civil Rights movement. His version of “We Shall Overcome” became one of the movement’s most popular anthems.
He was also a long-standing and outspoken opponent of the Vietnam War.
In the late ’60s, he broadened his political concerns to embrace environmentalism, particularly the cleaning up of the Hudson River.
He continued to agitate for social justice and against America’s wars virtually until the end of his life. At his 2013 Farm Aid appearance, he led the crowd in the peace-seeking “If I Had a Hammer” and the assertively populist “This Land Is Your Land.”