Folk musician Pete Seeger overcame the blacklist during the McCarthy era in the '50s
and persevered, writing and performing seminal folk songs that influenced the
development of some of the 1960s' most important recording artists, including Bob
Dylan, Joan Baez, Judy Collins, Roger McGuinn and Joni Mitchell.
Seeger was born 80 years ago today in New York into a musical family. His musicologist
father and violinist mother both taught at the Juilliard School of Music and his younger
sister Peggy eventually became a folk musician.
Seeger played banjo and ukulele as a child. When he was a teen he met folk archivist
Alan Lomax and became interested in folk music. Seeger then embarked on the journey
that shaped his entire life. He travelled around the country as a hobo to absorb the
traditional music of America's regions.
After serving in the Army and attending Harvard University for a few
years, Seeger befriended Woody Guthrie. He and Guthrie played together
in a group, the Almanac Singers, which often played free at union meetings
and strikers' demonstrations. Seeger was developing his political side,
which became more important to his music as his career progressed. Seeger's leftist beliefs eventually got him blacklisted during the
McCarthy era. In 1948 Seeger had to appear before the House UnAmerican Activities
Committee, but he refused to testify.
That same year Seeger formed the popular folk group the Weavers. Though the
Weavers had big hits with such songs as "On Top of Old Smokey" and Leadbelly's
"Goodnight Irene," the band's career stalled when the Communist witchhunts progressed
in the '50s.
Seeger continued to perform outside the U.S., telling stories of American folk music and
spreading civil rights and environmentalist messages. Some of the songs Seeger is
best known for singing include "Guantanamera" (RealAudio
excerpt), "Wimoweh," "We Shall Overcome" and "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?"
Seeger's career was revitalized in the '60s, when youth -- angered by the Vietnam War --
identified with his anti-war messages. In 1965 the Byrds topped the U.S. singles chart
with "Turn, Turn, Turn" (RealAudio
excerpt), Seeger's adaptation of a Biblical passage.
Beginning in the mid-'70s, Seeger performed with Guthrie's son, Arlo. He also published
instructional books and records for the banjo and guitar, which have
been used by myriad aspiring musicians.
In 1993 Seeger issued Live at Newport, which offered previously
unreleased recordings made at the historic Newport Folk Festival between
1963 and 1965. Seeger had been a big champion of the festival and of the
many young folk artists who first received national attention at the events.
Appleseed Recordings and Red House Records released Where Have All the
Flowers Gone: The Songs of Pete Seeger, a tribute CD on which Collins, Bruce
Springsteen, Billy Bragg, Jackson Browne, Ani DiFranco and others covered songs
popularized by Seeger.
In 1996 Seeger was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and issued his first
album of new material in more than a decade, Pete. The LP won the 1997
Grammy Award for Best Traditional Folk Album.
Later this month, Smithsonian Folkways will issue a Seeger collection titled
Headlines & Footnotes. The CD will include new, previously released, and
previously unavailable live and studio tracks.
Other birthdays: James Brown, 66; Frankie Valli, 62; Peter Staples (The Troggs), 55;
Mary Hopkin, 49; Christopher Cross, 48; and David Ball (ex-Soft Cell), 40.