Iconic American folk singer Pete Seeger has died aged 94.
A long-time socialist activist, Seeger’s music is a history of great American movements of the twentieth century – from industrial trade unionism to the Civil Rights battle against segregation and the protests against the Vietnam War.
Here’s a brief run through his life as the voice of the struggle for justice and equality.
1. Which Side Are You On?
After dropping out of Harvard Pete Seeger went on to co-found the Almanac Singers in 1940 with Millard Lampell. The group was a ‘Popular Front’ of communists, socialists and liberals who railed against racism, war and capitalism. Their music grew out of the militancy of US industrial unionism and CIO – one of the largest movements of organised labor in history. Seeger sang in the group, which also included folk icon Woody Guthrie, under the pseudonym ‘Pete Bowers’ to avoid his father getting heat in his government job.
This recording is from their 1941 album Talking Union.
2. Jarama Valley
During his teens Seeger had been a strong supporter of the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War. When the fascist threat intensified during the Second World War he and the Almanac Singers temporarily buried their hatchet with President Roosevelt to support the war effort. In 1941 they released Dear Mr. President, an album named after a solo written by Pete Seeger which included the lines ‘So, Mr. President, / We got this one big job to do / That’s lick Mr. Hitler and when we’re through, / Let no one else ever take his place / To trample down the human race.’
But, sensing this had fallen somewhat short and keen to maintain the anti-fascist lineage of Spain, they returned two years later with an album entitled Songs of the Lincoln Battalion.
Pete Seeger sang in the 1950s with The Weavers. Though he had begun drifting away from Soviet Communism and his affiliation to the US Communist Party in the late 1940s this period of his career was marked by persecution under the Red Scare. He was summoned to the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in 1955 where he was alone among the many witnesses to follow the 1950 conviction of the Hollywood 10 not to plead the Fifth Amendment. His powerful testimony pronounced, “I am not going to answer any questions as to my association, my philosophical or religious beliefs or my political beliefs, or how I voted in any election, or any of these private affairs. I think these are very improper questions for any American to be asked, especially under such compulsion as this.”
Initially convicted in 1961 for refusing to answer questions at that hearing, his conviction was quashed on appeal in 1962. Despite this, and despite their enormous popularity, The Weavers were to find themselves blacklisted from appearing on radio stations and venues around America for much of the decade. Against this backdrop their music became less overtly political, but Seeger still found time to popularise this 1930s spiritual in their 1959 album Travelling on with The Weavers. It was to become iconic of the early 1960s hippy culture.
Seeger was later to say of his communism, “I still call myself a communist, because communism is no more what Russia made of it than Christianity is what the churches make of it.”
4. We Shall Overcome
Pete Seeger was instrumental in making We Shall Overcome the hymn of the Civil Rights Movement in 1960s America. Slowing down a 1930s gospel spiritual by Louise Shropshire that had as a refrain “I’ll overcome someday”, Seeger changed the chorus to use the word “shall”. He also added some of the songs more memorable verses – “We’ll walk hand in hand” and “The whole wide world around”. He popularised this version of the song, which had been consistently sung in its older form since the ’30s, by singing it at the Highlander Folk School – a Tennessee educational centre with roots in the Appalachian labour unions which provided one of the nodal points for the development of the Civil Rights Movement.
In 1957 Pete Seeger sang We Shall Overcome to an audience which included Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who later marked it out as a favourite of his. The song was sung by a 22-year-old Joan Baez at the March on Washington in 1963 and its chorus was referenced by President Lyndon Johnson in his Congress speech responding to the violence in Selma, Alabama in 1965. MLK recited the words to the song in his final sermon in March of 1968 and Seeger was among those singing it days later at his funeral.
5. Waist Deep in the Big Muddy
Seeger was also active in the anti-Vietnam War protests of the late 1960s, controversially releasing Waist Deep in the Big Muddy in 1967. The song, which speaks about “a big fool” of a captain who drowned while insisting a battalion “push on” in the mud, was widely seen as a parody of President Johnson. The above version aired on CBS in January 1968 after being cut when it was first recorded in ’67. Its presence on a comedy show – The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour – at such a sensitive time attracted a lot of criticism from the mainstream press.
But, unbowed by this, Seeger released the even more strident Bring ‘Em Home a year later and in 1972 visited North Vietnam with his family.