Born on 3 May 1919, and immersed in music by his parents – Charles Seeger, a musicologist, and Constance de Clyver Edson Seeger, a concert violinist – Pete Seeger got his big break in 1940.
His parents were helping famous folk team John and Alan Lomax to transcribe songs recorded in the south.
Woody Guthrie was persuaded to come to Washington to record them and Seeger accompanied him in the studio.
The results were eventually published as a book: Hard Hitting Songs for Hard Hit People.
“I went out west with Woody,” says Seeger. “He taught me how to sing in saloons, how to hitch-hike, how to ride freight trains. Then I went out on my own.”
Guthrie, he says, taught him how to busk. “He’d say put the banjo on your back, go into a bar and buy a nickel beer and sip it as slow as you can. Sooner or later, someone will say, ‘Kid, can you play that thing?’ Don’t be too eager, just say, ‘Maybe, a little.’
Keep on sipping beer. Sooner or later, someone will say, ‘Kid, I’ve got a quarter for you if you pick us a tune.’ Then you play your best song.” With that advice, Seeger supported himself on his travels.
Seeger, Lee Hays, Ronnie Gilbert and Fred Hellerman started working together as The Weavers. They were signed to Decca Records by Gordon Jenkins, who was the company’s music director and an arranger for Frank Sinatra.
The group recorded a repertoire that stretched from If I Had a Hammer to a South African song, Wimoweh (the title was Seeger’s mishearing of “Mbube”, the name of a South African hit by Solomon Linda).
Another of Seeger’s songs, Where Have All the Flowers Gone?, became an antiwar standard and in 1965, The Byrds had a #1 hit with a folk-rock version of Turn! Turn! Turn!, Seeger’s setting of a passage from the Book of Ecclesiastes.
In 1955, at the age of 36, Seeger was subpoenaed to appear before the American House of Representatives Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC).
He refused to talk to the Committee and was indicted on 10 counts of contempt of Congress and convicted.
The conviction was overturned on a technicality, but the hearing’s effect stretched long in to the future, both for Seeger personally, and for the folk music movement he represented.
In 1959, Seeger was among the founders of the Newport Folk Festival. The Kingston Trio‘s version of his Where Have All the Flowers Gone? reached the Top 40 in 1962, soon followed by Peter, Paul and Mary’s version of If I Had a Hammer, which rose to the Top 10.
Although he recorded dozens of albums, Seeger distrusted commercialism and was never comfortable with the idea of stardom. He invariably tried to use his celebrity to bring attention and contributions to the causes that moved him, or to the traditional songs he wanted to preserve.
Seeger died in January 2014 in New York. He was 94.