Socialist Folk Singing Legend Pete Seeger Dies at 94
Pete Seeger, the legendary folk singer, unabashed socialist and political activist, has died at the age of 94.
The left celebrated Seeger's art and commitment to progressive causes, but those on the right noted his embrace of American enemies during both the Cold War and Vietnam War. He raged against private wealth and marched with the "99 percent" of the Occupy Wall Street movement but died a millionaire.
Seeger's musical life influenced a generation of protest singers, and his far-left views on issues like war, capital punishment, the environment and capitalism epitomized his appeal to those in liberal circles. His hits included Turn, Turn, Turn, Where Have All the Flowers Gone and Goodnight, Irene, and those impacted by his work include Bruce Springsteen, Dave Matthews and, most notably, Bob Dylan.
Seeger spoke openly about his faith and leaned on Bible verses in some of his music, but his activism centered on supporting unions, applauding groups like Occupy Wall Street and emboldening liberal singers to protest with their melodies.
He took a page out of Woody Guthrie's biography, inscribing the phrase, "This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender" on his guitar. The instrument didn't take kindly to electricity, though, given Seeger's famous feud with Dylan after the latter plugged his guitar in during the 1965 Newport Folk Festival.
"I was furious that the sound was so distorted ... you couldn't understand [the song]," Seeger once said, recalling the musical dustup and defending his actions. Music critics wondered if Seeger feared an electrified Dylan might displace Seeger in the minds of protest singers.
Seeger embraced Communism early in his life, even if his official ties to the party waned in the late 1940s. He still supported Joseph Stalin and traveled to North Vietnam in 1972. Years later, his decision to back Stalin's murderous regime forced him to serve up a mea culpa to the press.
I apologize for once believing Stalin was just a hard driver, not a supremely cruel dictator,” he told The Washington Post in 1994.
The singer's anti-war bona fides began before America became embroiled in World War II and carried through the rest of his life.
The album Talking Union (1941-42) was adopted by American labour activists for generations, and the group, which was soon joined by the folk singer Woody Guthrie, also recorded anti-war ballads, which proved embarrassing when Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, and the American left became ferociously patriotic.
Later, his far-left ideology got him swept up in the House UnAmerican Activities Committee. He refused to talk about his views and was sentenced to a year in jail for Contempt of Congress but ended up serving only four days. The stigma hurt his career, but it didn't end it.
His musical life blossomed anew when he joined the '60s anti-war movement.
In 1966, Seeger recorded an anti-war anthem, "Bring 'Em Home," including lyrics in opposition to the Vietnam War: "For defense you need common sense/ Bring them home, bring them home/ They don't have the right armaments/ Bring them home, bring them home."
He long spoke out against private wealth and the capitalist system, but his talents earned him millions all the same. He gave some of his fortune away but "a recent estimate of his net worth pegged it at $4.2 million," according to Bloomberg.com.
President Barack Obama released a statement shortly after learning of Seeger's passing:
Over the years, Pete used his voice — and his hammer — to strike blows for worker’s rights and civil rights; world peace and environmental conservation. And he always invited us to sing along. For reminding us where we come from and showing us where we need to go, we will always be grateful to Pete Seeger.