Pete Seeger spent most of his 94 years making music and making change. His musical legacy is exceeded only by his legacy as a tireless activist for peace and justice.
Seeger, who died Monday in New York, championed folk music as a vital part of America’s heritage — and a big part of that heritage was advocating for various causes through music.
He sang songs by Woody Guthrie (“This Land Is Your Land”), Lead Belly (“Good Night Irene”) and Malvina Reynolds (“Little Boxes”). He adapted the old spiritual “We Shall Overcome” to become the anthem of the Civil Rights movement and he eloquently captured the truth of war in the heartbreaking simplicity of his song “Where Have All the Flowers Gone.”
Seeger’s death sent a wave of grief through the nation, but especially in the Bay Area, where his evocative songs and calls for social activism had a special resonance.
“We all got our politics from Pete Seeger,” said singer Linda Ronstadt, whose earliest musical memories were of listening to records by Seeger’s folk revival outfit The Weavers. “He woke up my consciousness to the power of music to make people aware. People tried to discredit him. They tried to put him out of the limelight. They tried to say he was a communist. But while we would wring our hands, Pete Seeger would go out and change things. He set such a brilliant example for us at every age.”
Armed with his 12-string guitar and five-string banjo, Seeger advocated for civil rights, the labor movement and the environment, and railed against war. He battled McCarthyism in the ’50s and marched with Martin Luther King Jr. in the ’60s. He used all the fame that came his way to affect change and impressed that power on others. He often recorded songs that he felt deserved a bigger spotlight.
“He was the only person to record my signature ‘Vietnam Song’ and he told me that he left Columbia Records over a dispute with them about releasing it as a single in 1972,” said “Country Joe” McDonald, leader of the psychedelic rock group Country Joe and the Fish. “That says a lot about the man.”
In 2009, after appearing with Bruce Springsteen at the Lincoln Memorial before Barack Obama’s inauguration, Seeger celebrated his 90th birthday party at Madison Square Garden featuring performances by Springsteen, Joan Baez, John Mellencamp, Dave Matthews, Emmylou Harris and others, with proceeds going to the environmental group he founded to clean up the polluted Hudson River.
In the Bay Area, Seeger’s influence and advocacy could be felt in any number of social and political moments over the years. His deft musical touch enabled him to draw people together.
“The thing that makes a great songwriter is honesty, passion and poetic turn of a phrase while staying simple and clear — showing the listener something they know but in a way they don’t,” said Bay Area singer Matt Nathanson. “This is why Pete Seeger was a monster writer. These were his engines. As a listener, you always knew where he was coming from and he shifted the way you saw things.”