(1919 – 2014)
Although he's never made a Rock record, Folk music legend Pete Seeger is nonetheless an important Rock influence. That's partially a result of his songs, which have been widely covered by Rock and Pop acts. But Seeger's stature is more a matter of his uncompromising commitment to his ideals, which has made him a role model for politically committed musicians for multiple generations.
The Manhattan-born son of composer, ethnomusicologist and New Deal administrator Charles Louis Seeger Jr., Pete fell under the spell of Folk music in his teens, while traveling with his father and stepmother in the rural South. He learned the rudiments of five-string banjo, which would become his main instrument, from noted traditional musician Bascom Lamar Lunsford. In New York, he became involved in leftist politics and befriended Woody Guthrie, who joined Seeger's topical folk combo the Almanac Singers in the early 1940s. Seeger and ex-Almanac Singer Lee Hays subsequently formed the less overtly political Weavers, who scored a series of mainstream hits, including a version of Leadbelly's "Goodnight Irene" that topped the charts for 13 weeks in 1950.
Despite their more accessible approach, the Weavers became the victims of Red Scare blacklisting in 1953, with Hays and Guthrie both accused of having Communist Party ties. It caused their bookings and airplay to dry up virtually overnight. Two years later, in 1955, Seeger was subpoenaed to testify before the anti-communist House Un-American Activities Committee, but refused to testify against others or discuss his beliefs or political associations. The result was a 10-year prison sentence for contempt of Congress, which was overturned by an appeals court.
Seeger was a prominent presence in the Folk revival of the late 50s and early 60s (for which the Weavers were credited as an influence), both as a mentor to younger artists and as a respected voice of musical protest in support of civil rights, labor, environmentalism and anti-militarism. Meanwhile, many songs he’d written or popularized became Folk standards and/or mainstream hits for other artists, including "Turn! Turn! Turn!" (the Byrds), "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?" (the Kingston Trio) and "If I Had a Hammer" (Peter, Paul and Mary).
A longstanding opponent of the Vietnam War, Seeger made headlines in September 1967 when CBS TV executives ordered that his performance of the anti-war song "Waist Deep in the Big Muddy" on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour be cut from the broadcast. After considerable publicity, Seeger returned to perform the song on the show the following January.
In the decades that followed, Seeger continued to record and perform widely while remaining a tireless activist on behalf of a variety of causes. He maintained a longstanding association with the Hudson River Sloop Clearwater, which since 1966 has worked successfully to reduce pollution in the Hudson River.
Bruce Springsteen paid tribute to Seeger's influence with the 2006 album We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions, which featured 15 songs popularized by Seeger. On January 18, 2009, Seeger joined Springsteen onstage to sing Woody Guthrie's "This Land Is Your Land" in the finale of Barack Obama's inaugural concert in Washington, D.C. A longtime resident of New York's Hudson Valley, Seeger died in New York City in January, 2014, at the age of 94.