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Pete Seeger

Folk singer

Folk singer

Born: May 3, 1919; Died: January 27, 2014

Pete Seeger, who has died aged 94, was a highly influential musician who helped create the modern American folk music movement. He co-wrote enduring anthems such as If I Had A Hammer, Turn, Turn, Turn and Where Have All The Flowers Gone but he was always more than a singer. He was also a campaigning environmentalist and anti-war protester and was sentenced to prison for refusing to testify to Congress about his time in the Communist Party.

The hysteria over Seeger's political beliefs had a profound effect on his career. He was blacklisted and his music banned from television and radio throughout the 1950s and early 1960s, but he refused to give up and went out on the road, discovering the causes that mattered to him.

By the time of the blacklisting, Seeger, with his band The Weavers, had helped set the stage for a national folk revival. The group - made up of Seeger, Lee Hays, Ronnie Gilbert and Fred Hellerman - produced hit recordings of Goodnight Irene, Tzena, Tzena and On Top Of Old Smokey.

He also was credited with popularising We Shall Overcome, which he printed in his publication People's Song in 1948. He later said his only contribution to what became the anthem of the civil rights movement was changing the second word from "will" to "shall".

He was born in New York City into an artistic family (his mother, Constance, played the violin; his father, Charles, was a music teacher). He says he remembered falling in love with folk music for the first time when he was 16 and attended a music festival in North Carolina.

He went out and learned the five-string banjo, an instrument he rescued from obscurity and played the rest of his life in a long-necked version of his own design. On the skin of Seeger's banjo was the phrase "this machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender".

He went to Harvard to study sociology but dropped out in 1938 after two years and hit the road, picking up folk tunes along the way. By 1940, with Woody Guthrie, he was part of the Almanac Singers and performed benefits for disaster relief and other causes.

His career was always tightly linked with his political activism, in which he advocated causes ranging from civil rights to the clean-up of the Hudson River. He was a member of the Communist Party but left in 1950 and later renounced it.

In 1955, he was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee but refused to reveal whether he had sung for Communists.

"I love my country very dearly," he said, "and I greatly resent this implication that some of the places that I have sung and some of the people that I have known, and some of my opinions, whether they are religious or philosophical, or I might be a vegetarian, make me any less of an American."

He was charged with contempt of Congress, and although the sentence was overturned on appeal, it meant he was blacklisted and kept off television for more than 10 years. Instead, he went out on the road touring college campuses.

"The most important job I did was go from college to college to college to college, one after the other, usually small ones," he said. "And I showed the kids there's a lot of great music in this country they never played on the radio."

His return to commercial network television was on the highly rated Smothers Brothers variety show in 1967 although CBS cut out his Vietnam protest song Waist Deep In The Big Muddy, and Seeger accused the network of censorship.

His output included dozens of albums and singles for adults and children. He also was the author or co-author of American Favourite Ballads, The Bells Of Rhymney, How To Play The Five-String Banjo, Henscratches And Flyspecks, The Incompleat Folksinger, The Foolish Frog And Abiyoyo, Carry It On, Everybody Says Freedom and Where Have All The Flowers Gone.

He appeared in the films To Hear My Banjo Play in 1946 and Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon in 1970. A reunion concert of the original Weavers in 1980 was filmed as a documentary Wasn't That A Time. By the 1990s, no longer a party member but still styling himself a communist with a small c, Seeger was heaped with national honours. President Bill Clinton hailed him as "an inconvenient artist who dared to sing things as he saw them".

He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996. Ten years later, Bruce Springsteen honoured him with We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions, a rollicking reinterpretation of songs sung by Seeger.

A 2009 concert at Madison Square Garden to mark his 90th birthday featured Springsteen, Dave Matthews, Eddie Vedder and Emmylou Harris among the performers.

Seeger's sometimes ambivalent relationship with rock was most famously on display when Dylan "went electric" at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival.

Witnesses said Seeger became furious backstage as the amped-up band played, although just how furious is debated. Seeger dismissed the legendary tale that he looked for an axe to cut Dylan's sound cable, and said his objection was not to the type of music but only that the guitar mix was so loud you couldn't hear Dylan's words.

Seeger maintained his reedy 6ft 2in frame into old age, though he wore a hearing aid and conceded that his voice was pretty much shot. He relied on his audiences to make up for his diminished voice, feeding his listeners the lines and letting them sing out.

"I can't sing much," he said. "I used to sing high and low. Now I have a growl somewhere in between."

Nonetheless, in 1997 he won a Grammy for best traditional folk album for Pete.

Pete married Toshi Seeger in 1943 and lived by the Hudson River for the rest of their lives together. He sang to raise money to clean the river and also offered his voice in opposition to racism and the death penalty.

He was pre-deceased by his wife Toshi and is survived by their three children.

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