Thursday, January 30, 2014

Pete Seeger

Pete Seeger, folklorist,banjo player, activist and singer-songwriter, died this week at the age of 94.  With Woody Guthrie, he ushered in the Folk Revival movement.  His songs with The Weavers became commercial hits, but he's perhaps best known for the civil rights song, We Shall Overcome, which he adapted from an old folk song.   He leaves behind a wealth of iconic American songs, as well as some world songs that have become American staples.  He also helped promote the careers of other folk revival singers, including Bob Dylan.

Folk Music Revival (1940s - 1950s)
Seeger and his group, the Almanac Singers, sang songs for the labor movement of the 1940s.   After that he sang with The Weavers (1948-1958).  These are some of the most famous songs popularized by the two groups:
  • Aunt Rhodie
  • Goodnight, Irene (originally by blues singer Lead Belly)
  • If I had a Hammer
  • Kisses Sweeter than Wine
  • Kumbaya
  • Michael, Row the Boat Ashore
  • On Top of Old Smoky
  • Sloop John B
  • So Long (It's been good to know you)
  • Wimoweh
Solo Career
Seeger was targeted by the McCarthy era House Unamerican Activities committee, making participation with the Weavers impossible, so he set out on his own.  His 1960 concert at Bowdoin College in Maine was recorded by the campus radio station and represents his wide-ranging interests in folk song.  He continued to celebrate American working people, in his American Industrial Ballads album (1957), one of many he recorded for the Folkways label.

Civil Rights & Peace Songs
Seeger was active in social causes throughout his life, and composed or adapted songs that became synonymous with those causes.  He participated in the Civil Rights movement, the peace movement of the 1960s, protesting the Vietnam War, and ecological causes.
  • We Shall Overcome:  Seeger's adaptation of an old folk song became the anthem of the 1950s and 1960s Civil Rights movement.
  • If I had a Hammer is one of the peace songs of the 1940s that became popular again during the 1960s protests against the Vietnam War.
  • Blowing in the Wind:  The folk trio, Peter, Paul and Mary recorded this song.
  • Turn, Turn, Turn:  The Byrds famously covered this song that Seeger fashioned from verses from the Bible (Ecclasiastes).  The song expresses hope for a time of peace.
  • Where Have All the Flowers Gone?  This anti-war song was recorded by Peter, Paul and Mary and Seeger himself
  • Waist Deep in the Big Muddy:  Seeger sang this song twice on the Smothers Brothers television show.  Network censorship of the song the first time backfired, leading to the second performance.
  • Folk trio Peter, Paul and Mary popularized these and other songs by Seeger
  • Bruce Springsteen is one of many artists who admires Seeger and his songs.  He recorded an album of Seeger's songs:  We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions.
Learn more about Pete Seeger, the folk music renaissance of the mid-20th century, and protest music:

Pete Seeger: The Power of Song  (PBS American Masters, 2007)
DVD Video 4305
Compact Disc 19166

Where Have All the Flowers Gone: The Songs of Pete Seeger
Compact Disc 11227

Washington Square Memoirs: The Great Urban Folk Boom, 1950-1970
Compact Disc 11082

Pete Seeger: The Complete Bowdoin College Concert (1960)
Compact Disc 21051

Songs of Struggle and Protest, 1930-1950
Compact Disc 8065

Many songs by Seeger and others in the Folk Music revival movement were published in Sing Out magazine.

Books & Songbooks by Pete Seeger:

Everybody Says Freedom, by Pete Seeger
ML 3550 .S43 1989

Carry it on! A History in Song and Picture of the Working Men and Women of America
M1977 .L3 C33 1985

How to Play the 5-String Banjo: A Manual for Beginners
MT 560 .S55 H6 1962

The Incompleat Folksinger
ML 60. S444 I5

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