The Man Who Made Folk Music Matter
For more than 70 years, Pete Seeger led the charge of a fingerpicking revolution that hummed from the farm to the White House
Calling Pete Seeger a legend almost undersells his legacy. When the folk icon and lifelong activist passed away at age 94 on Jan. 27, effusive tributes poured in. Again and again, they reiterated his roles as a living avatar of the last century — he served in World War II, fought for civil rights and nuclear disarmament, and performed at President Obama’s 2009 inauguration — and as a musical godfather to everyone from Bob Dylan to Mumford & Sons. To fully understand the man that he was, though, one needs to look at not just his artistry but his integrity.
Take this story: Seeger had found moderate success with the Weavers, a band at the forefront of the postwar folk revival, when he was accused of being a Communist and summoned to testify in front of the House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1955. “I resent very much and very deeply the implication of being called before this committee that in some way because my opinions may be different from yours…that I am any less of an American than anybody else,” he told the panel — though he did offer to sing for them. He was found in contempt and blacklisted; his association with Communism had already made it difficult to book gigs, but when the opportunity came to make money by lending the Weavers’ music to an advertisement for cigarettes, Seeger walked away rather than sell out. “He could have taken a much more comfortable path,” says Bill Nowlin, the cofounder of Rounder Records, a leading champion of folk-music preservation. “He would have had numerous options available to him…. But I’m impressed with how he lived his life. He was steady. He was constant.”
That was Seeger in a nutshell: an uncompromising crusader who spent his entire life putting the music and the message above all else. Even in his later years, when most artists spend their time in reflection, Seeger maintained his perpetual frenzy. “Whenever I fret about something I think I’m supposed to be doing, I think, ‘What would Pete do?'” says Ani DiFranco, who captured one of Seeger’s final recordings on her 2012 album, ¿Which Side Are You On? “Because he wouldn’t care about any of that. The career is an afterthought — it’s an accident. In his old age he was still focusing on making the world a better place, and not ‘the legacy of Pete Seeger.'”
That outlook only helped to grow his legend, especially among the new wave of folk-inspired performers who owe the roots of their art to Seeger. “More than anybody else I can think of, he’s responsible for the preservation of American folk songs,” says Old Crow Medicine Show frontman Ketch Secor, one of the many artists carrying Seeger’s revivalist torch. Indeed, the Weavers almost single-handedly rescued “Goodnight Irene,” “On Top of Old Smoky,” and other traditional tunes. “Before Pete Seeger, there was nobody scholarly with a banjo,” Secor says. “He put the banjo in our hands.” Songs Seeger penned — including “If I Had a Hammer (Hammer Song)” and “Turn! Turn! Turn!” — would inspire countless covers, but perhaps his greatest triumph was putting the protest singer at the forefront of the struggle for social equality. (He played a key role, for example, in making the gospel spiritual “We Shall Overcome” an anthem for the civil rights movement.) “He was a great teacher of the activist spirit — that you don’t even fight to win, let alone for your own glory,” says DiFranco. “You fight because it is a joyous thing to do.”
Secor concurs: “It’s like Johnny Appleseed, you know? He would go out there and plant. The American folk song is richer because of what Pete gave.”