28 Jan 2014

Pete Seeger: 10 things you should know

The iconic folk singer and activist Pete Seeger has died at the age of 94. Channel 4 News looks back on his life – and the 10 things you should know about one of America’s fathers of folk.

1. Anti-electro

Pete Seeger was renowned as one of Bob Dylan’s biggest musical influences and he reportedly urged John Hammond to produce Dylan’s first LP. However their relationship was not without its difficulties: Seeger reportedly threatened to cut the wires to Dylan’s soundboard at the Newport Folk Festival 1965, after being frustrated with the electronic direction in which Dylan’s music was heading.

2. Pete and the army

Although he was a passionate pacifist for most of his life, Seeger was drafted into the army in 1942, the same year he joined the American Communist party. His passion for music was already apparent however, and he spent most of his time playing to entertain his fellow troops.

3. TV blacklist

As his ties to the Communist party became known, Seeger and his folk band the Weavers were blacklisted from appearing on television. This ban would last for most of the 1950s until 1968 when he appeared on the CBS variety show The Smothers Brothers.

4. Chart topper

Seeger performed with many musical legends such as Bruce Springsteen, Woody Guthrie, Jonny Cash and Stevie Wonder throughout his long career. But although he never sought commercial success, Seeger and his band the Weavers topped the charts in 1950 for 13 weeks with their hit Goodnight Irene.

5. From Vietnam to Wall Street

A warrior for political activism, social justice and civil rights, Seeger spent most of his life campaigning. This included being part of the anti-Vietnam war movement in the 1960s and Occupy Wallstreet in October 2011, despite being in his early 90s.

6. Like father, like son

The son of Charles Seeger, himself an established composer, musicologist and teacher, Pete spent his early adulthood performing under the name Pete Bowers so as to not compromise his father’s career.

Pete followed in his father’s footsteps, not only in persuing his passion for music but also in preaching his pacifist beliefs. His father was fired from his teaching position at the University of California due to his outspoken views opposing world war I. And years later Pete himself gained attention for speaking out against world war II.

7. ‘This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender’

Seeger’s banjo (see below) was marked with the motto “this machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender,” in homage to Woody Guthrie’s guitar which was famously emblazoned with “this machine kills fascists”. In an interview in 1971 Seeger said: “I look at my job as trying to tell a story. I use songs to illustrate my story and dialogue between songs to carry the story forward.”

8. Nobel peace prize

In 2008, 3,000 people signed a petition for Seeger to win the Nobel peace prize. The petition was unsuccessful, but Seeger will be remembered as much for his message of equality, peace and justice, as for his music.

Pete Seeger, 2009 (G)

9. Rock ‘n’ roll

Seeger was given a place in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996, where he performed live at the induction dinner with fellow musical legend Stevie Wonder.

10. A grammy at 94

Seeger was already the winner of three Grammy awards, and was nominated again last Sunday in the spoken word category for his 2013 album The Storm King.