Pete Seeger dead at 94

Just saying his name in some quarters starts an argument. But for more than 70 years, his voice, his music, his legacy defined the American folk tradition and, through his patient and constant efforts, preserved much of our musical heritage to be enjoyed by generations far into the future.

Pete Seeger, who always let his music do his talking for him, died of natural causes last night. He was 94.

Many will focus on his wretched politics. A former member of the Communist party (he quit in the 1940's), Seeger referred to himself as a "communist with a small 'c'." How much do we judge an artist by his political beliefs compared to the largeness of his talent and his impact on society? It will vary among all of us. Some of you may never be able to get beyond his anti-capitalist beliefs. And his idea of what America should be was clearly at odds with what the majority of us believe.

But for many of us, we can look beyond his misguided, even childish notions of politics to glory in his music.

What was his music? It was loosely defined as "folk music," but it was much more than that. His repertoir ran the gamut from Scotch-Irish traditional songs, to Mississippi Delta blues, to traditional (and non-traditional) children's songs, to Gospel favorites, to songs of work, play, love, danger, disaster, injustice, war, peace, and the quiet struggle of ordinary people's lives.

His were the songs of the American experience, gathered and collated over a lifetime. It is a priceless collection for which future generations will enjoy only because of Seeger's abiding love and passion for music.

He was singing about civil rights before civil rights were cool. He was singing about our polluted rivers and lakes before environmentalism was even an issue. He mentored a generation of folk artists and supplied them with musical ammunition to right obvious wrongs like Jim Crow.

New York Times has their usual stellar obit:

Mr. Seeger was signed to a major label, Columbia Records, in 1961, but he remained unwelcome on network television. "Hootenanny," an early-1960s show on ABC that capitalized on the folk revival, refused to book Mr. Seeger, causing other performers (including Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and Peter, Paul and Mary) to boycott it. "Hootenanny" eventually offered to present Mr. Seeger if he would sign a loyalty oath. He refused.

He toured the world, performing and collecting folk songs, in 1963, and returned to serenade civil rights advocates, who had made a rallying song of his "We Shall Overcome."

Like many of Mr. Seeger's songs, "We Shall Overcome" had convoluted traditional roots. It was based on old gospel songs, primarily "I'll Overcome," a hymn that striking tobacco workers had sung on a picket line in South Carolina. A slower version, "We Will Overcome," was collected from one of the workers, Lucille Simmons, by Zilphia Horton, the musical director of the Highlander Folk School in Monteagle, Tenn., which trained union organizers.

Ms. Horton taught it to Mr. Seeger, and her version of "We Will Overcome" was published in the People's Songs newsletter. Mr. Seeger changed "We will" to "We shall" and added verses ("We'll walk hand in hand"). He taught it to the singers Frank Hamilton, who would join the Weavers in 1962, and Guy Carawan, who became musical director at Highlander in the '50s. Mr. Carawan taught the song to the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee at its founding convention.

The song was copyrighted by Mr. Seeger, Mr. Hamilton, Mr. Carawan and Ms. Horton. "At that time we didn't know Lucille Simmons's name," Mr. Seeger wrote in his 1993 autobiography, "Where Have All the Flowers Gone." All of the song's royalties go to the "We Shall Overcome" Fund, administered by what is now the Highlander Research and Education Center, which provides grants to African-Americans organizing in the South.

When you're a young, pre-teen boy, you don't give much thought to the politics of a song. You only know that a particular song is fun to sing and the words move you. My memories of Seeger will always be of more traditional folk songs like "This Land is Your Land," "Greenland Whale Fisheries," "Michael Row the Boat Ashore," and, a family favorite, "We are Marching to Pretoria." It didn't matter to me that a Communist was singing these songs. What mattered is that they were good songs and that you were singing them with your family.

Thousands of songs, millions of words, they will live on teaching us the power of music to change the world. As Seeger said, ""The key to the future of the world is finding the optimistic stories and letting them be known."

A fine epithet for a musical giant.

Thomas Lifson responds:

Sorry, but he was an unrepentant communist. He was part of a movement that saw art as a servant of politics, so that is hopw his art must be judged. I would no more honor or mourn Seeger than I would an unrepentant "small 'n' Nazi."