For more than 70 years, there were few other musicians who stumped as tirelessly for folk music as Pete Seeger. The reed-thin singer and songwriter best known for songs like “If I Had A Hammer” and “Where Have All The Flowers Gone?” died on Monday at 94 of natural causes, leaving behind a legacy of activism, charity and community that will be hard to match.
Seeger, who influenced several generations of activist singers — from Bob Dylan to Bruce Springsteen and Rage Against the Machine’s Tom Morello — not only played folk music, but served as a kind of living museum of the genre, enthusiastically performing and promoting activist music until shortly before his death.
1. Fought For Unions, Against War With A Banjo And A Smile
Seeger, known for playing a well-traveled five-string banjo and singing with a smile, began singing in support of unions in the 1940s, playing benefit concerts for migrant farm workers in California.
In addition to stumping for the labor movement in the 1950s, he also headlined countless anti-Vietnam rallies in the 1960s and marched and sang in support of the civil rights movement. His adaptation of the spiritual “We Shall Overcome” became a civil rights anthem. He continued his activism into the 1990s and 2000s, protesting the Iraq war and protesting during Occupy Wall Street while walking on two canes.
2. Blacklisted And Indicted By Congress
After joining the Communist party in 1942, Seeger was blacklisted and held on 10 charges of contempt of Congress in 1957 after refusing to answer questions in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee two years earlier; he was also sentenced to a year in prison.
The indictment led to the breakup of his band the Weavers and his absence from TV for nearly two decades. He left the party around 1950, but the association stuck with him for decades, even after his indictment was overturned in 1962.
3. Jammed With Lead Belly And Woody Guthrie
After attending Harvard for two years (where he joined the Young Communist League), Seeger dropped out to move to New York, where folk archivist Alan Lomax introduced him to blues icon Lead Belly. He also hooked up with another folk legend, Woody Guthrie, with whom he performed benefits for migrant farm workers in California.
4. Inspired Generations Of Singers
Much like Guthrie mentored him, Seeger served as a guru to 1960s folk singers Bob Dylan and Don McLean, Joan Baez, Arlo Guthrie and the Byrds (who had a hit with his “Turn, Turn, Turn”). His influence stretched into the 1980s through Bruce Springsteen and Billy Bragg and the 1990s with Rage Against The Machine.
Springsteen released We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Session in 2006, which included some of Seeger’s best-known songs, and performed “This Land Is Your Land” with him at President Obama’s 2009 inauguration.
5. Mumford & Sons, Think About It
It’s hard to imagine that British folk revivalists Mumford & Sons would exist if it weren’t for Seeger.
6. Born Into It
Seeger was born on May 3, 1919 in New York to a father who was a conscientious objector during World War I and a well-known music scholar. His mother was a violinist and composer, while his stepmother wrote children’s books that often featured references to folk music. He was briefly classmates with John F. Kennedy at Harvard.
7. He Did It All
In addition to anti-war, anti nuclear power and pro-union singing, Seeger also recorded children’s songs (“I Know an Old Lady (Who Swallowed a Fly)”), formed the environmental organization Hudson River Sloop Clearwater and played everywhere from coffee houses to camps to Carnegie Hall. He also co-founded the Newport Folk Festival.
8. Heavy Medal Shelf For Humble Man
Through more than seven decades of singing and activism, Seeger collected a raft of awards, including induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996, a National Medal of Arts in 1994, a lifetime achievement Grammy in 1993 and induction into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1972.
9. He Paid Tribute To Woody In The Coolest Way
Woody Guthrie was known for wielding a guitar that read “This machine kills fascists,” an idea Seeger paid homage to by scrawling, “This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender” on his banjo.
10. He Said This To The House Un-American Committee During The ‘Red Scare’ Hearings
“I have sung in hobo jungles, and I have sung for the Rockefellers, and I am proud that I have never refused to sing for anybody. I have never done anything of any conspiratorial nature. … I love my country very deeply.”
11. It’s All Love
According to the Washington Post, When once asked what inspired his songs, Seeger said, “I call them all love songs. They tell of love of man and woman, and parents and children, love of country, freedom, beauty, mankind, the world, love of searching for truth and other unknowns. But, of course, love alone is not enough.”
12. Bad-Ass To The End
Despite failing health and frailty, Seeger was a giant until the end. According to his grandson, Seeger died on Monday night after spending six days at New York Presbyterian Hospital. Four days before he entered the hospital though, he was chopping wood.