American music has many diverse strains – from the blues of the Mississippi Delta to the jazz of 52nd Street, and everything in between. But it’s no exaggeration to state that Pete Seeger is American music. Though the singer-songwriter-activist died on January 27 at the age of 94, his song – a song filled with honesty, integrity, compassion, conscience and bold simplicity – will continue to be sung by every man, woman and child who picks up an instrument with the belief that music can make the world a better, and more charitable, place in which to live.
Seeger has been frequently described as a folk singer, and he was, indeed, a singer for all folks. If Pete’s only accomplishment was to have helped popularize and transform the spiritual “We Shall Overcome” into an anthem, his place in culture would have been ensured. But Seeger’s influence on the entire rock and roll generation – a generation in which youth shared his belief that the establishment could be peacefully challenged – can’t be underestimated. His composition “Where Have All the Flowers Gone” became a hit for the Kingston Trio and Johnny Rivers, and his “If I Had a Hammer” was indelibly recorded by Peter, Paul and Mary as well as Trini Lopez. His adaptations of “Turn! Turn! Turn! (To Everything There is a Season)” and “The Bells of Rhymney” were adopted by The Byrds, and “Guantanamera” was memorably sung by The Sandpipers. Such was the power of Pete Seeger’s music to blur lines of genre, age and background. He also memorably engaged audiences in sing-alongs of the music he loved, sharing the work of Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Phil Ochs and so many others in his performances. A survivor of the blacklist, Seeger never stopped taking the world’s stages, even throughout the numerous periods when controversy threatened to derail his career. His spirit proved indomitable as he enthusiastically delivered messages of peace, civil rights and harmony with nature and each other.
To everything, there is a season. Pete Seeger, the man, might be gone, but his music will continue to resonate for each person who passes on a favorite song – whether of protest or of celebration – to a friend, hoping that it may augur a brighter day to come.