US folk singer and songwriter whose radical politics made him a target of the anti-communist blacklist in the 1950s
Seeger made his first recordings in New York in 1940 with the Almanac Singers musical collective. The album Talking Union (1941-42) was adopted by American labour activists for generations, and the group, which was soon joined by the folk singer Woody Guthrie, also recorded anti-war ballads, which proved embarrassing when Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, and the American left became ferociously patriotic.
However, the Almanacs regained some respectability with their musical tributes to the war effort. The Sinking of the Reuben James, written by Guthrie, became an anthem of battle courage, the Office of War Information hired them to sing for overseas broadcasts to US troops – and the FBI watched them closely. The group dissolved as various members were called to second world war duty. Seeger was drafted into the army and went to the Pacific in 1942. The following year he married Toshi Ohta.
In December 1945, a group of musicians, choral directors and union educators met at Seeger's New York apartment to form People's Songs. A quasi-political movement with far-flung chapters and a booking agency, People's Songs furiously promoted the "hootenanny" – informal sessions where musicians and fans traded songs and shared leftwing political enthusiasms. At first welcomed by the press and labour organisations, People's Songs fell victim to the cold‑war atmosphere. It was left badly exposed politically by its participants' intense involvement in the radical 1948 Progressive party presidential campaign of Franklin D Roosevelt's former vice‑president Henry Wallace.
The successor to People's Songs was Sing Out!, a mini-movement and magazine of topical songs. It was never as successful, but it kept the radical flame alive through the 1950s McCarthy witchhunts. Indeed, Sing Out! survives to this day.
In 1948, together with Lee Hays and other veterans of the Almanacs, Seeger formed the Weavers. A brief triumph followed. In 1950 they had a multimillion sales chart success with Goodnight, Irene – first popularised by Lead Belly (Huddie Ledbetter) – and a string of other hits followed including So Long, The Roving Kind, On Top of Old Smokey and Kisses Sweeter Than Wine. They were one of the most successful musical acts in America.
Then came the blacklist. The Weavers were banned from radio and television, and even some concert halls. With their scheduled appearances and commercial recording contracts cancelled, the group dissolved in 1953.
On Christmas Eve 1955 the Weavers, back for one concert, appeared at Carnegie Hall, New York. The event was packed out. But in that time Seeger retreated to the small, leftwing world of summer camps and radical unions, for which he performed and recorded steadily. Most notable in retrospect was his music for children: American Game and Activity Songs for Children (1962) included such numbers as Skip to My Lou and Yankee Doodle.
In the 1960s came the folksong revival, and later the folk-rock boom caught up with him. Covers of songs he wrote or recorded became global hits. There was most notably Peter, Paul and Mary – but also the Kingston Trio and Trini Lopez – with If I Had a Hammer and Where Have All the Flowers Gone? Meanwhile, his rendition of We Shall Overcome became a virtual anthem for the civil rights movement of the early 1960s, and Seeger marched and provided entertainment for numerous desegregationist demonstrations
That newer generation of commercial folk musicians owed him a deep debt: Peter, Paul and Mary regarded themselves as the Weavers' successors, and singers from Joan Baez and Judy Collins to Joni Mitchell, Arlo Guthrie and Bob Dylan – a self-described disciple of Woody Guthrie – appeared on stage with Seeger and honoured him with tributes. If I Had a Hammer, written by Seeger and Lee Hayes for the Almanacs in 1950, seemed to express the idealism of the younger generation for revived liberalism and even for the martyred President John F Kennedy.
Pete was born in New York City, the son of Constance de Clyver Edson, a concert violinist and teacher, and the musicologist Charles Seeger, who chaired the music department at the University of California at Berkeley and was one of the originators of ethnomusicology. He was also deputy director of the Federal Music Project, set up as part of Roosevelt's new deal in the 1930s and legitimising labour and left-leaning songs as part of the basic American folk repertoire. Constance and Charles divorced, and in 1931 he married the musicologist and composer Ruth Crawford. Of their three children, Peggy and Mike followed Pete in becoming active in collecting, playing and disseminating folk music, though only Pete achieved stardom.
He started playing the ukulele aged eight, and played the tenor banjo in the jazz band at his private school. He heard the five-string banjo for the first time when he was 16 at a folk and dance festival in Asheville, North Carolina, which inspired his choice of instruments.
Seeger went to Harvard University to read journalism and sociology, and joined the Young Communist League there. He was to drift out of the Communist party of the United States in the 1950s but continued to describe himself quietly as a communist with a small "c".
In 1939, during his second year, Seeger dropped out of Harvard, persuaded by Guthrie that he could "learn more from hitting the road than from hitting the books". The musicologist and great promoter of American folk music Alan Lomax introduced him to Lead Belly and helped him join the staff of the Archives of American Folk Music, at the Library of Congress, travelling widely to seek out legendary blues and labour singers.
The following year he met Guthrie again at a migrant-worker benefit in California. During their travels across America, Seeger learned much about Guthrie's style. After returning to New York, Seeger set about finding ways to promote the ideals they shared.
His second political apex, after his blacklisting, came in the 1960s, with the challenges to liberalism and the division of the US over the Vietnam war. In one of the media scandals of the day, he appeared on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour to sing the anti-Lyndon B Johnson song Waist Deep in the Big Muddy, though his segment was cut from the broadcast version. Undaunted, he appeared again in a later show. Soon after, the Smothers Brothers themselves, one of them rumoured to be a Trotskyist sympathiser, were dropped from the CBS network.
Although overshadowed by political-minded rock'n'roll, Seeger remained a favourite of peaceniks at demonstrations, teach-ins and sing-outs of all kinds. With surprising nimbleness, he continued to adapt to changing situations and political issues. In 1969 he and friends launched the sloop Clearwater in the Hudson, beginning a decades-long campaign to clean that river, which was close to his long-term home in Peekskill, New York, and to publicise the ecology movement.
Meanwhile, folk music increasingly became a sort of permanent counterculture of political intention. It was popular from campus and urban neighbourhoods to the small towns where ageing new leftists embraced the music of their new neighbours.
Rounder Records, Flying Fish and others took over the territory of Seeger's old producer, Folkways, even as musical boundaries blurred. Newer, radical-minded singers such as Holly Near, Don McLean and Bruce Cockburn drew fairly directly upon the Seeger legacy, but it would also be difficult to detach the underlying tradition from the supercharged sounds of Springsteen.
In 1979 the Weavers reunited for a concert at Carnegie Hall, filmed for the much-admired documentary, The Weavers: Wasn't That a Time (1982), the event found the media, including the New York Times, downright sentimental and perhaps a little guilty toward the formerly persecuted artists.
Through all this, Seeger endured and performed steadily, in later years most often with his grandson Tao Rodríguez. A popular radio series biography about the artist and his music, Pete Seeger: How Can I Keep from Singing?, aired on more than 200 stations in the summer and autumn of 2008, and 40 artists (including Springsteen, John Mellencamp, Arlo Guthrie, Ani DiFranco, Taj Mahal and Dave Matthews) joined to celebrate his 90th birthday at Madison Square Garden, New York, in 2009.
During the inauguration weekend for Barack Obama in 2009, Seeger, on stage with Tao and Springsteen, delivered a rousing version of the Woody Guthrie favourite This Land Is Your Land. It was an extraordinary moment in American life with the singer-rebel at the very centre.
Toshi died last year. Seeger is survived by his son, Daniel; daughters, Mika and Tinya; Tao and five other grandchildren; a great-grandson; and Peggy.
• Peter Seeger, folk musician, born 3 May 1919; died 27 January 2014
The folk singer believed in handing on the traditions he had done so much to save, so that others could carry them forward. It was his greatest achievement
You didn't have to listen to Pete Seeger's music to feel his effect on the popular music of the last 70 years. It was his influence that set the moral compass of many great singers and songwriters, ensuring that even in the times when the music industry threatened to be washed away by the tide of its own most bloated, celebrity-worshipping, money-grubbing excess, the voice of a social conscience could still be heard.
Along with Woody Guthrie and Lead Belly, he brought the music of the dirt farms, the sweat shops and the lonesome highways into America's – and later the world's – living room. By refusing to allow traditional forms of musical expression to die, by "sowing the music of the people", as he put it, he ensured its availability for infusion into later developments, serving to keep a sense of moral purpose alive even when that seemingly fragile element appeared to have been asphyxiated.
He was not a crusader on behalf of some academic notion of authenticity; he knew that music had to evolve, but he preferred it to retain a core of accessibility and potential relevance to a mass audience. Yet although his own style of performance – lively but dignified, informal but literal, paying no heed to the devices of showbiz stagecraft – may have been rendered obsolete by the discoveries of those who owed him a great deal, nevertheless everyone knew the lanky, unstylish figure and what he stood for, and that was more than enough.
When Bruce Springsteen and Ry Cooder released albums during the run-up to the 2012 US presidential election, using their songs to make strong and unequivocal statements on behalf of those weakened and dispossessed by the activities of the super-rich, they were following the example of Bob Dylan, whose early protest anthems, such as Blowin' in the Wind and The Times They Are a Changin', emerged from the scene that Seeger had done much to nurture.
The unknown Dylan had benefited from Seeger's patronage, and all acknowledged his crucial role. When Springsteen recognised the need to drag himself out of a becalmed period at the start of the new millennium, it was to Seeger's music that he turned for inspiration. The Seeger Sessions, with their joyful singalong versions of We Shall Overcome and Jacob's Ladder, would be the catalyst for his artistic regeneration.
It was the perfect of example of Seeger's belief in the folk process, the invisible but enduring mechanism by which source material survives being handed on and transformed at the hands of successive eras. Speaking to Alec Wilkinson of the New Yorker, Springsteen remarked that Seeger "had a real sense of the musician as historical entity – of being a link in the thread of people who sing in others' voices and carry the tradition forward … and a sense that songs were tools, and, without sounding too pretentious, righteous implements when connected to historical consciousness".
Where did the story begin? The day in 1936, perhaps, when the 17-year-old Seeger heard Bascom Lamar Lunsford, the "Minstrel of the Appalachians", play the banjo at a festival of folk music in North Carolina and took up the instrument with such aptitude and devotion that his own subsequent book, How to Play the 5-String Banjo, became and remains a standard text for students of the instrument. The son of a composer-violinist mother and a father who was an eminent musicologist, Seeger embarked on a lifelong mission to demonstrate that seemingly archaic forms could be absorbed and recycled by younger performers. They might never have picked a boll of cotton or worked in a turpentine camp or come any closer to a southern prison farm than the dean's office at an Ivy League college (Harvard, in his own case), yet they could achieve a degree of transformative empathy with those who had direct experience of such things.
Or maybe it was when, in 1940, he was introduced to Woody Guthrie by the great musicologist Alan Lomax, a friend of his father and for whom he was working as an assistant at the Library of Congress, putting his enthusiasm to good use by sorting through and untangling various forms of American vernacular music. Guthrie and Seeger would come to represent different poles of the same world: one a self-mythologising drifter with an outsider's wild charisma, the other a steadfast, reassuring figure amid turbulent times.
A year later, Seeger joined the Almanac Singers, whose repertoire expressed their identification with the struggle of labour unions; within a further 12 months he had become a card-carrying member of the American Communist party. Soon he would be helping to found the People's Songs organisation, with the aim of spreading the gospel of songs dealing with the lives of real people in the real America, the miners and mill workers and sharecroppers on southern plantations, a world away from the sophisticated classes celebrated in the songs of Broadway and Tin Pan Alley.
He accomplished that with the Weavers, the group he formed in 1950, and who would establish a template for the folk revival of that decade and its transmutation in the early 1960s. Despite maintaining the focus on songs of social relevance, they often wore formal dress in concert and their recordings were lavishly orchestrated by the Broadway arranger Gordon Jenkins. Their hits included Lead Belly's Goodnight, Irene, the Israel folk song Tzena, Tzena Tzena and Kisses Sweeter Than Wine: hardly the anthems of a coming revolution, but in 1952, at the height of the anti-communist witch hunt, their known sympathies got them blacklisted by radio and TV stations and concert promoters. Seeger's refusal to divulge his political beliefs in front of the House Un-American Activities committee that year exposed him to the kind of ordeal unimaginable to any popular singer today, its last echo probably coming in the vendetta waged against John Lennon, an opponent of the Vietnam war and other US-sponsored conflicts, by J Edgar Hoover's FBI.
At a time when the word of the gathering folk revival was spread by magazines, Seeger wrote a column for the influential Sing Out! and co-founded Broadside, which published Dylan's songs. With his own compositions, including If I Had a Hammer and Where Have All the Flowers Gone, he and his co-authors gave younger folkies – the Kingston Trio, Trini Lopez, Peter, Paul and Mary and their legions of imitators around the world, at first clean-cut but gradually more picturesquely dishevelled – the cornerstones of a basic repertoire, soon to be augmented by the Dylan songbook. An idea of his standing among his contemporaries at that time could be gauged from Johnny Cash's words when introducing Dylan to the audience at the 1964 Newport Folk Festival: "We think he's the best songwriter of the age since Pete Seeger."
In the eyes of some members of later generations, Seeger assumed the role of a politely tolerated uncle who would seldom be asked about his heroic deeds in past wars. He can be seen in that role in Murray Lerner's film of Dylan at Newport, an event which Seeger co-founded and on whose board he served. In 1963 Seeger is standing discreetly behind Dylan and alongside Joan Baez, the Freedom Singers and Peter, Paul and Mary during the festival's finale, singing Blowin' in the Wind. A year later he is sitting to one side of Dylan, listening intently and tapping his foot to Mr Tambourine Man, his thoughts only to be imagined as the singer's new visions unfold – "Then take me disappearing through the smoke rings of my mind/ Down the foggy ruins of time" – with no reference to iron-ore miners or civil-rights marchers. In 1965, Seeger is not seen but we know he is behind the scenes, arguing with the sound crew as Dylan's new electric band blasts out Maggie's Farm and Like a Rolling Stone. In the first and most enduring version of the story, Seeger attempted to take a fire-axe to the electric cabling in order to cut the amplification. Thereby, the tale implies, he would restore the music to its prelapsarian state of acoustic purity.
As a foundation stone of that particular hall of the many-mansioned Dylan legend, the incident ranks second only to the enraged fan's cry of "Judas!" at Manchester's Free Trade Hall the following year. But Seeger's own version, told in No Direction Home, Martin Scorsese's Dylan documentary, was slightly different. "I was the MC that night," he said. "He was singing Maggie's Farm and you couldn't understand a word because the microphone was distorting his voice. I ran to the mixing desk and said: 'Fix the sound, it's terrible!' The guy said: 'No, this is what the young people want.' And I did say that if I had an axe I'd cut the cable. But I wanted to hear the words. I didn't mind him going electric."
Powerfully affected by the widespread publicity given to the incident, Seeger resigned from the festival board, retreated from music for a while and turned his attention to the environment. Once again he was setting a trend followed by younger performers, such as Jackson Browne, Graham Nash, Bonnie Raitt and their fellow members of Muse – Musicians United for Safe Energy – featured in the No Nukes concert at Madison Square Garden in 1979.
As Lauren Laverne, the BBC6 Music DJ, succinctly put it, it was Seeger's destiny to be "loved and hated by precisely the right people". He was on the side of working people, refugees from fascist regimes, nuclear disarmament and the earth's threatened natural resources, and against segregationists, Stalinists and the military-industrial complex. Nor, despite advancing age, did he cease from mental fight. He and Springsteen sang Guthrie's This Land is Your Land together at Barack Obama's inauguration in 2009, and four years later, aged 92, he recorded Dylan's Forever Young with the Rivertown Choir, a group of deprived kids he had been mentoring for the previous five years. And when thousands of Norwegians gathered in Oslo in 2012 to mourn the victims of the mass murder on Utoya island, they sang My Rainbow Racewhich he had written in 1972, when his country was engaged in criminally murderous activity in south-east Asia: "Some want to take the easy way/ Poison, bombs – they think we need 'em/ Don't they know you can't kill all the unbelievers/ There's no short cut to freedom".
Pete Seeger took the long road, a road that never ends, and which he lit so that others might find their own way along a righteous path.