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Pete Seeger dies at 94; balladeer was America's conscience

An advocate for peace and civil rights, Pete Seeger helped spark the folk music revival with his five-string banjo and songs calling for justice.

January 27, 2014|By Claudia Luther | This article has been corrected, as indicated below.

Pete Seeger was a teenager in the 1930s when he heard an Appalachian balladeer perform on an old-fashioned, five-string banjo and fell in love with the instrument, the timeless melodies and, most of all, the words.

"Compared to the trivialities of most popular songs," he said later, "the words of these songs had all the meat of human life in them.... They seemed frank, straightforward, honest."

In time, Seeger would arm himself with a banjo, a guitar and the transformative power of music to battle injustice in America and become the folk legend behind numbers such as "We Shall Overcome," "Where Have All the Flowers Gone" and "Turn! Turn! Turn!"

The iconoclastic singer, songwriter and social activist who influenced generations of performers, including Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen, died of natural causes Monday at New York Presbyterian Hospital. He was 94.

Seeger had been in "excellent shape" until he entered the hospital last week, said his grandson Kitama Cahill-Jackson, noting that his grandfather was still chopping wood 10 days ago at his home near Beacon, N.Y., overlooking the Hudson River.

A veteran of the labor, peace and civil rights movements, Seeger remained relevant as an activist into his 90s. He was equally musician and revolutionary, playing a major role in the folk music revival that began in the late 1950s while helping to craft the soundtrack of 1960s protests.

"At some point, Pete Seeger decided he'd be a walking, singing reminder of all of America's history," Springsteen said at the all-star Madison Square Garden concert marking Seeger's 90th birthday in 2009.

"He'd be a living archive of America's music and conscience, a testament to the power of song and culture to nudge history along, to push American events towards a more humane and justified end," said Springsteen, who performed Woody Guthrie's "This Land Is Your Land" with Seeger at the Lincoln Memorial concert marking President Obama's 2008 inauguration.

VIDEO: Pete Seeger sings "Turn! Turn! Turn!"

Gifted at connecting with audiences, Seeger called his ability to inspire regular folks to sing along his "cultural guerrilla tactic." "There's no such thing as a wrong note as long as you're singing it," he told the 15,000-strong crowd at his birthday celebration.

Seeger's life of music and political activism could be summed up in "The Hammer Song," the enduring anthem he wrote more than 60 years ago with his good friend Lee Hays to support the progressive political movement in the U.S.:

If I had a hammer

I'd hammer in the morning

I'd hammer in the evening

All over this land

I'd hammer out danger

I'd hammer out a warning

I'd hammer out love between my brothers and my sisters

All over this land.

Popularized by Peter, Paul and Mary in the 1960s, the song embodied the heart of Seeger: his musicality, his activism, his optimism and his lifelong belief that songs could and should be used to build a sense of community to make the world a better place.

"I'd really rather put songs on people's lips than in their ears," he said.

VIDEO: Pete Seeger and Arlo Guthrie sing "This Land Is Your Land"

As a member of two influential folk groups, the Almanac Singers and the Weavers, Seeger wrote or co-wrote "We Shall Overcome," the anthem of the civil rights movement based on an early 20th century gospel song; "Where Have All the Flowers Gone," which became an anti-Vietnam War protest song; and another political anthem, "Turn! Turn! Turn!," which turned to a passage from the Bible — "to everything there is a season" — for the lyrics.

"Pete is America's tuning fork," author and oral historian Studs Terkel once wrote. "His songs capture the essence and beauty of this country."

Photographs of the tall, lanky Seeger in buoyant performance often show his head lifted, as if he had spotted his place in heaven and wanted to bring everyone else along. A storyteller known more for his charisma and message than for his voice, he is credited with single-handedly popularizing the five-string banjo. His was inscribed: "This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender."

He was born May 3, 1919, in Patterson, N.Y., into a musical family that was rich in religious dissenters, abolitionists and Revolutionary soldiers and "shot through with pedagogues," according to Seeger.

His father, Charles Louis Seeger, was a noted musicologist and educator, and his mother, Constance de Clyver Edson, was a violinist and teacher. After his parents divorced, his father married Ruth Crawford, a composer.

Young Peter attended boarding school in Connecticut before enrolling at Harvard University, where he majored in sociology.

Never an enthusiastic student, he dropped out of Harvard in 1938 after attending an Appalachian song and dance festival in Asheville, N.C., with his father. While there he heard "Aunt" Samantha Bumgarner, who was "picking a banjo and singing old ballads and having so much fun," he later recalled.

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