Remembering Folk Music Legend Pete Seeger

February 11, 2014 | Brooklyn College

BROOKLYN, NY– Pete Seeger’s death at the age of 94 has left generations of people recalling his career as one of the most influential folk singers and activists of our time.

Since the early 1950s, the “nation’s troubadour of conscience,” as public radio host Steve Curwood once called Seeger, has had a connection to Brooklyn College. Seeger formed the band The Weavers with Fred Hellerman ’49, appeared on the radio with host Oscar Brand ’42, and led a sing-along at the college’s 2012 centennial celebration of friend and fellow folk legend Woody Guthrie.

At the center of a folk revival that began in the 1950s, Seeger’s strong conviction that folk music could be a galvanizing force sent him wherever he believed his performance could highlight a movement or spark activism: protest rallies, colleges, music festivals, concert halls, stadiums, and community and neighborhood gatherings. No venue was too large or too small for the things he believed in, among them the labor movement, environmentalism, and anti-war causes.

Seeger was ever-wary of celebrity, despite his popularity and accolades: a lifetime achievement Grammy Award (among his individual Grammys) in 1993, the National Medal of Arts a year later; and induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996.

“My job is to show folks that there’s a lot of good music in the world and if used right it will help to save the planet,” he was quoted as saying in 2009. To that end, with either a 12-string guitar or a 5-string banjo, and his bright tenor voice, Seeger would encourage audiences to sing along to songs—some of which he wrote, some of which he adapted from earlier traditional songs.

Many of his compositions would become classics of the American folk music canon: “If I Had a Hammer,” “Goodnight, Irene,” which became a number one hit, the anti-Vietnam war song “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” and the enduring civil rights anthem “We Shall Overcome.”

In 1949 Seeger formed The Weavers, along with Ronnie Gilbert, Lee Hays, and Fred Hellerman, a Brooklyn College graduate who had picked up the guitar in the Coast Guard. While at the college, Hellerman majored in English by day, and played with a folk group at nights. In a couple short years The Weavers became national stars, selling some four million singles and albums.

But the band, and Seeger’s resolve was tested in 1955 when he was subpoenaed by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) for his earlier membership in the Communist Party. He refused to testify about what he considered private beliefs, and as a result he was indicted for contempt of Congress. The indictment was later dismissed as faulty, but he was blacklisted, and The Weavers then disbanded.

“He appeared on my program when few others would have him,” says Oscar Brand, who continues to host the award-winning Oscar Brand’s Folksong Festival, the longest-running radio program with the same host.

“There was an honesty to him—a difficult honesty. Pete managed continually to tell the people around him, the people in schools and colleges, the people whom he met on the street, why he was doing what he was doing.”

A peer of the equally influential Woody Guthrie, whom he met in 1940 at a benefit concert for migrant workers in California, Seeger was mentor to younger folk singers such as Bob Dylan, Bernice Johnson Reagon (who founded the a cappella group Sweet Honey in the Rock), Joan Baez, and Don McLean. Even as newer musicians continued to draw inspiration from Seeger—among them Bruce Springsteen, Dave Matthews, Woody Guthrie’s son, Arlo, and John Mellencamp—Seeger himself kept performing, including an appearance President Obama’s 2009 inauguration, and at Occupy Wall Street protests.

In September 2012, Seeger shared the stage at the Walt Whitman Theater at the Brooklyn Center for the Performing Arts at Brooklyn College (BCBC) with Judy Collins, Steve Earle, Billy Bragg, and others at a 2012 centennial celebration of fellow folk legend Woody Guthrie

“I first met Mr. Seeger earlier in my career,” says Maria Conelli, dean of the School of Visual, Media, and Performing Arts. “It was a thrill then, but nothing could match the great pleasure of seeing him on Whitman stage as we celebrated Woody Guthrie. It was a delight to see him perform—a living moment in music history. He will be missed, but his legacy will endure.”

“He appeared here twice,” says Ray Allen professor of music at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center, and associate at the H. Wiley Hitchcock Institute for Studies in American Music, which co-hosted the event. “He also visited in October of 2001 to take part in a conference honoring his stepmother, the composer and folk music scholar Ruth Crawford Seeger. His half-brother, Mike, and half-sister Peggy were also here, and they performed together at a sold-out tribute concert.”

“He was my friend,” says Brand. “We were constantly meeting in the places where there were microphones and performances and audiences. He was a person of great ability. And he used his ability to reach the people.”

Contact: Ernesto Mora / 718-951-6377 / emora@brooklyn.cuny.edu