Pete Seeger changed America through song

A folk singer, an activist, a perennial thorn in the side of the unjust powers-that-be, Pete Seeger was as gritty and durable as the American dirt he stomped upon for 94 years. Leading with song and a determined voice, the steel pen behind If I Had a Hammer helped inspire a legion of populist poets, including Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen.

Mr. Seeger, whose gentle-sounding music was the seed that grew into serious rock 'n' rebellion, died in New York late Monday of natural causes.

As well as calling him "the father of American folk music," the Boss, who recorded a 2006 tribute album called The Seeger Sessions, dubbed his mentor, friend and fellow Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductee "a stealth dagger through the heart of our country's illusions about itself."

And that's just about right. Mr. Seeger didn't suffer fools; instead, he aimed his nimble words and that lively five-string banjo straight at them.

Mr. Seeger filled epic, iconic swaths of his near-century of life marching for civil rights alongside Martin Luther King Jr. or protested labor strife, war and environmental harm. Looking like Santa Claus' thinner brother, Mr. Seeger was in his 90s when he took sides with Occupy Wall Street, leading the masses in yet another refrain of We Shall Overcome, a song he helped popularize in the mid-20th century when he was one of our greatest national gadflies.

In 2009, Mr. Seeger famously played a pre-inaugural concert for President Obama, teaming with pal Springsteen on Woody Guthrie's This Land Is Your Land. About Mr. Seeger's death, Obama issued a statement celebrating "America's tuning fork:" "Over the years, Pete used his voice — and his hammer — to strike blows for worker's rights and civil rights; world peace and environmental conservation. ... For reminding us where we come from and showing us where we need to go, we will always be grateful to Pete Seeger."

Mr. Seeger, who also had a hand in writing such hits as Where Have All the Flowers Gone? and Turn! Turn! Turn! (the latter a No. 1 for the Byrds), believed first and foremost in the power of song and, more to the point, the power of the chummy group sing-along. He won four Grammy Awards, including a lifetime achievement designation in 1993, all because he knew how to get people, no matter how weak-voiced, crooning with him.

"I'd really rather put songs on people's lips than in their ears," he said.

And boy, was he good at it, especially with his most famous cut, written in 1949 (with Lee Hays) with the belief that progress and economic development could help boost the human condition:

If I had a hammer,

I'd hammer in the morning,

I'd hammer in the evening,

All over this land,

I'd hammer out danger,

I'd hammer out a warning,

I'd hammer out love between,

My brothers and my sisters,

All over this land.

Whereas he influenced a sprawling future of singer-songwriters — also including John Mellencamp, Emmylou Harris, Dave Matthews — Mr. Seeger's hand in reviving folk and Americana music in the 1950s and '60s was inspired by the greats who came before him, legends such as Guthrie and Lead Belly, whose Goodnight Irene Mr. Seeger covered as a member of neo-folk progenitors the Weavers. That song was a No. 1 hit for 13 weeks in 1950, selling 2 million copies.

Mr. Seeger's life was curiously layered and complex: He was born in Manhattan — a city boy! — and yet his soul was as rootsy and Middle American as you get. He both served in the U.S. Army and vocally supported many presidents. And yet he was also convicted of contempt of Congress in 1955 when he refused to testify about his past membership in the Communist Party. As a result, he was blacklisted by television networks until 1967.

While Mr. Seeger never changed, the times certainly did. In 1994, at the Kennedy Center Honors, where the country's most cherished pop-cultural artists are celebrated, President Bill Clinton described Mr. Seeger as "an inconvenient artist who dared to sing things as he saw them." Once considered the most anti- of Americans, Mr. Seeger was once again being embraced as one of our greatest patriots.

Mr. Seeger was in New York Presbyterian Hospital for six days before he died; he was unable to speak or, most cruelly in his case, sing out loud, for three of those days. But among the legacies Mr. Seeger leaves behind are friends, fans and folk-rock giants whom he ably taught to do the singing, and the fighting, for him.

Mr. Seeger is survived by a son Daniel; his daughters, Mika and Tinya; a half-sister, Peggy; and six grandchildren.

Information from the Los Angeles Times, USA Today and Times wires was used in this report. Sean can be reached at sdaly@tampabay.com.

LISTEN

Folk icon Pete Seeger's songbook is sterling on its own -- and even better when you consider the artists he inspired: Springsteen, Dylan, the Byrds to name a few. Click here to listen to a Spotify playlist of Pete and his pals.

Pete Seeger changed America through song 01/28/14 [Last modified: Tuesday, January 28, 2014 4:03pm]

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