Labor’s troubadour: Pete Seeger gave voice to struggling Americans

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When we think of Pete Seeger, the influential folk singer who died Monday at 94, it’s impossible to talk just about his recorded output. For every tune he gave to the American songbook, such as “If I Had a Hammer,” he pursued a dozen political causes.

After succumbing to the allure of folk music in the 1930s, Mr. Seeger quit Harvard and devoted himself to what he considered the most honest music in the world.

He traveled the country, performing the songs that would spark the folk music revival of the 1950s and ’60s. Along the way, he became friends with giants like Woody Guthrie and Lead Belly. He also wrote songs that would become anthems themselves: “Turn, Turn, Turn” and “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” among them.

His passion for economic justice led him into the American Communist Party, but it wasn’t a long association. His leftism earned him a spot on the blacklist in the 1950s that blocked the careers of many artists. During the Red Scare, Mr. Seeger appeared before the House Un-American Activities Committee investigating communist activity in the arts. His gutsy defiance and humor in the face of congressional bullying earned him admirers around the world.

As a champion of labor, civil rights and environmentalism, Mr. Seeger rarely met a protest he didn’t support. One revolution he did reject was the electrification of folk music led by Bob Dylan in 1964 at the Newport Folk Festival.

In 2008, at President Barack Obama’s inauguration, Mr. Seeger performed Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land.” He leaves a legacy of causes and songs that put common people first.


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