His music catalog and social activism spanned six decades, but now a major folk voice has been silenced. Beacon resident Pete Seeger died Monday night in New York City after being hospitalized for six days.
As a teenager in 1936, Seeger joined the Young Communist League. An early recording features Seeger on "c" for Conscription, a track that appeared on Songs for John Doe, the 1941 debut album of the Almanac Singers, an influential early folk music group.
Seeger said he eventually "drifted away" from the Party in the late 1940s because of the brutality of Stalin. He gained fame as a member of The Weavers, the quartet formed in 1948. Leadbelly’s "Goodnight Irene" is one of their most beloved hits.
The Weavers brought the song "Wimoweh" from South Africa, which would in 1961 become a No. 1 hit for The Tokens in the form of "The Lion Sleeps Tonight"
Pete Seeger: "It was a hit song way back in '39...for a South African record company called Gallo, which was the main record company in South Africa, run by white folks but sold records to black folks and an African named Solomon Linda recorded this with four other young men called the Evening Birds. It was the biggest hit record they ever had. Near the end of the record he improvised a little phrase, and on the Weavers record I copied this little improvisation."
In the 1950s, Seeger's left-leaning politics got him blacklisted from television and radio.
Seeger was one of the folk singers who popularized the spiritual "We Shall Overcome." It' s been said he introduced it to Dr. Martin Luther King and it became the marching song for the American Civil Rights Movement during the 1960s.
Pete Seeger: "The royalties for this song, you'll be glad to know, go to a non-profit committee known as the 'we shall overcome fund,' and every year they give away some thousands of dollars for the purpose of African-American music in the south."
Seeger's time on the blacklist ended with his September 1967 performance on CBS TV's "Smothers Brothers" show.
Pete Seeger: "Dick and Tom said let us have Seeger on. Columbia says well let us think about it. In October, they relented. I sang 'Waist Deep In The Big Muddy'- it didn't mention President Johnson by name but implied he was a damn fool for not getting out of Viet Nam. The CBS higher-ups listened to it - they let me be on the program but they censored that one song. Tom and Dick made use of the print media and they got their point across. 'CBS is censoring our best jokes and censoring Pete's best song.' Finally, in January, CBS says ok, ok you can sing the song."
By that time, young Americans who knew the music through chartmakers like the Byrds and Bob Dylan, knew the man, a face that quickly came to be regarded as one representing the people, the anti-war movement, then the ecology and the Hudson River.
Clearwater's Linda Richards: "Pete thought that if he built a boat he could save a river. Well, he created more than that. He created a vibrant, influential community that spreads environmental ethic, meaningful music, the joy of learning and the value of working together. His gift to the Hudson Valley is the sloop, Clearwater, and all the treasures that come with it. What an honor it is to continue Pete's dream, and what an honor it's been to know him."
Greenburgh Town Supervisor Paul Feiner is writing to Governor Andrew Cuomo and members of the New York state legislature, urging them to consider naming the new Tappan Zee bridge in honor and in memory of Pete Seeger. "I can't think of anything that would be more appropriate than naming the Tappan Zee Bridge for a world class leader. A world class bridge deserves to be named for a world class environmentalist who will continue to inspire people to keep the river clean."
Seeger performed Woody Guthrie's "This Land Is Your Land" with Bruce Springsteen at the 2009 Barack Obama inaugural. Folk legend. American icon. Dead at 94.
Sloop Clearwater will sail on as a symbol of and testament to Pete Seeger’s great legacy, a man who made the Hudson river and all of its communities a better place.