The Kennedy Center

Pete Seeger


(singer/songwriter, born May 3, 1919, New York, New York; died January 27, 2014, New York, New York)

Pete Seeger is arguably the most influential folk artist in the United States. He was instrumental in popularizing the indigenous songs of this country, and his own songs, among them "If I Had a Hammer," "We Shall Overcome," "Turn, Turn, Turn," and "Where Have All the Flowers Gone," have served as anthems for an entire generation of Americans.

Born into a family of Juilliard music professors, Seeger spent his early years in private schools and studied sociology at Harvard College. His first exposure to folk music came at age 16--at a folk festival he attended with his father in Asheville, North Carolina. But it was in 1938, when he dropped out of Harvard after two years to ride the rails and hitchhike all over the United States, that he immersed himself in that music. He traveled all around the country collecting songs, meeting the greats of American folk music: Leadbelly, Woody Guthrie, and Earl Robinson. Two years later he became an assistant in the Archive of Folk Song at the Library of Congress.

In 1940, with Guthrie, he founded one of the best-known folk groups, the Almanac Singers. It was a loosely knit group described by Woody's son Arlo as comprising of "anybody who happened by." They sang at labor meeting and gatherings of migrant workers, composing prounion and antifascist songs, although a good part of their repertory came from traditional folk songs.

With America's entry into World War II, Seeger was drafted and the group broke up, but not before it had recorded several influential albums. After the war he again formed another group. The legendary Weavers sparked the urban folk song revival of the 1950s and served as the model for the protest songwriters of the following decade. The Weavers followed the tradition of the Almanac Singers, performing at picket lines and union meetings until they were hired by the Village Vanguard in New York. A two-week engagement grew to a six-month booking and a recording contract. Their records included "Tzena Tzena," "On Top of Old Smoky," and "Goodnight, Irene," the longest-tenured No. 1 song in the Top 100 charts from 1948 to '75. At the height of its popularity, the group was attacked as subversive, and Seeger refused to answer questions about Communist affiliations. The McCarthy-era blacklist kept the Weavers out of concert halls and off television, and the group was forced to disband.

Against all odds, Seeger maintained a solo career through the late '50s and was in the forefront of the civil rights and anti-war movements in the '60s, when his songs were performed by other musicians in fields ranging from folk, to country and rock. He became an icon on college campuses. By the end of the decade Seeger was considered an institution in American folk and pop music, "a father figure whose contributions as an artist and writer were highly valued by people of all ages in and out of the music field" (The Encyclopedia of Folk, Country, and Western Music). A prolific composer, Seeger has written more than 100 songs in addition to manuals on playing the 5-string banjo and 12-string guitars. Dubbed "America's tuning fork" by Carl Sandburg, Seeger is the living embodiment of America's traditions in folk music and as such has made a distinguished contribution to the music of the 20th century.
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