How Pete Seeger Put the Politics in Folk Music

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Pete Seeger, banjo, music

Legendary folk singer, songwriter, song collector, and political activist Pete Seeger died of natural causes in New York on Monday at the age of 94, the New York Times reports. Seeger is most famous for both writing and covering some of the most important folk and protest songs in the last century. His music was a key influence on the early folk movement of the 1960′s including Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, and Peter, Paul, and Mary.

Early in his career, Seeger worked with renowned folk song collector Alan Lomax archiving folk music at the Library of Congress, choosing the songs that were thought to best represent American folk music. Seeger’s parents were both classically trained musicians and his father was an ethnomusicologist. After working at the Library of Congress, Seeger joined two folk groups, the Weavers and the Almanacs, and collaborated with folk greats including Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly.

The Weavers did manage to popularize Leadbelly’s “Goodnight, Irene” by singing a cleaner version (also, being white helped), but Seeger’s music for the remainder of his career would be devoid of such compromise. Seeger’s leftist politics became increasingly infused in his music, both in the songs he wrote and the traditional folk songs that he adapted.

Seeger’s vision of melding music and politics — using traditional musical forms as a catalyst for change — would be his greatest legacy. Seeger used folk music to advance his political causes throughout his career. He sang anti-war songs, pro-union songs, songs about the environment, and songs in support of civil rights. Seeger was even found in contempt of the court and indited after failing to give satisfactory testimony to the House of Un-American Activities Committee in 1955. He got let off on a technicality before being thrown in prison to serve his one-year sentence.

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