by Cliff Weathers, AlterNet.org
Pete Seeger, the activist and folk singer, died at a New York hospital last night at age 94. His grandson, Kitama Cahill-Jackson said the American musical legend passed on Monday night after six days in hospital.
Seeger was born in New York City into a musical and politically active family. His father, Charles, was musicologist and an anti-war activist during World War I, and had previously lost his position as the head of the music department at the University of California, Berkeley, because of his pacifist views. His mother, Constance, was a concert violinist and later a teacher at the Julliard School. His parents divorced when Seeger was seven, and he grew up in New York’s Lower Hudson Valley.
The banjo-picking troubadour sang for migrant workers, children, and political causes during his long career. During the 1960s Folk Revival, Seeger performed with Bob Dylan and at anti-Vietnam war protests. Seeger first gained fame as a member of the Weavers folk quartet in the 1940s. The group was made famous by its song, “Goodnight Irene.” As a songwriter, Seeger wrote “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?”, “If I Had a Hammer,” and “Turn, Turn, Turn.” He was also known for popularizing the civil rights anthem “We Shall Overcome.” His songs have been recorded by many artists, including The Kingston Trio, Marlene Dietrich, Peter, Paul & Mary, The Byrds, Judy Collins, and Bruce Springsteen.
He performed up until recent months, and remained politically active. In 2009, he performed in Washington, DC at a gala for Barack Obama’s inauguration. In October 2011, he marched through New York City as part of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Last year, he performed at Farm Aid, an annual benefit for family farmers.
During the McCarthy era in the 1950s, when thousands of Americans were accused of being communists or communist sympathizers, Seeger’s political views got him blacklisted and he did not perform on commercial television for more than a decade. In 1955, Seeger was subpoenaed to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee. He refused to plead the Fifth Amendment and instead defied the committee and refused to name personal and political associations on the grounds that it would be in violation of his First Amendment rights. Seeger stated: “I am not going to answer any questions as to my association, my philosophical or religious beliefs or my political beliefs, or how I voted in any election, or any of these private affairs. I think these are very improper questions for any American to be asked, especially under such compulsion as this.”
In 1943, Pete married Toshi Alina Ota. The couple remained together, living in upstate Beacon, NY until Toshi’s death six months ago.
When asked about his religious views, Seeger once replied: “I feel most spiritual when I’m out in the woods. I feel part of nature. Or looking up at the stars. [I used to say] I was an atheist. Now I say, it’s all according to your definition of God. According to my definition of God, I’m not an atheist. Because I think God is everything. Whenever I open my eyes I’m looking at God. Whenever I’m listening to something I’m listening to God.”
Cliff Weathers is a writer and editor at Alternet.org.
See Also: Seeger, Chapin Headline Health Rally, 9/23/2009
Photo Credits: Friends of The Nyacks, Doug Foster (YouTube Sept 2009)
From Clearwater.orgFondly referred to as simply “Pete” by friends and associates, Seeger planted the seed that started Hudson River Sloop Clearwater when he and a few friends, decided to “build a boat to save the river” with the belief that a majestic replica of the sloops that sailed the Hudson in the 18th and 19th centuries would bring people to the river where they could experience its beauty and be moved to preserve it.Seeger was able to inspire people to make the dream a reality; the keel was laid in October 1968 and christened with Hudson River water. The 106-foot sloop Clearwater was launched on May 17, 1969 at Harvey Gamage Shipyard in South Bristol, Maine, and the inaugural sail was to South Street Seaport in New York City, and then on to her permanent home on the Hudson River. Today, the sloop sails the Hudson River from New York City to Albany as a “Sailing Classroom”, laboratory, musical stage, and forum. Since her launch, over half a million people have been introduced to the Hudson River estuary. Many Hudson Valley residents can share stories of the days when they were in elementary school and their voyage on the sloop Clearwater.
Seeger and Hudson River Sloop Clearwater played an important role in the passage of laws to clean up the nation’s waters. In 1972 Seeger and the Clearwater crew sailed the sloop to Washington, DC while Congress was debating the Clean Water Act. Seeger personally delivered a petition with hundreds of thousands of signatures to Congress and then proceeded to hold a spontaneous concert in the halls of Congress. A few weeks later the Federal Water Pollution Control Act was passed in 1972 over then President Richard Nixon’s veto.