Pop focus: Pete Seeger

Pete Seeger, who died at age 94, earlier this week was a musical and American institution.

Early in his career, alongside Woody Guthrie and others, he helped rediscover and revive folk songs that might otherwise have been lost to the passage of time. He also wrote a few well-known tunes of his own, and popularized many others.

As a member of the Weavers, he hit the pop charts with a version of "Good Night Irene," but soon afterward ran afoul of the House Un-American Activities Committee in Congress during the McCarthy Era.

Seeger and other folk singers were branded as communists for their political leanings and views and their music was blacklisted. Unlike other artists who simply hushed up or played along, Seeger stood up. The transcript of his appearance before the HUAC in 1955 is a portrait of reason and courage in the face of intolerance and paronoia:
I decline to discuss, under compulsion, where I have sung, and who has sung my songs, and who else has sung with me, and the people I have known. I love my country very dearly, 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. I will tell you about my songs, but I am not interested in telling you who wrote them, and I will tell you about my songs, and I am not interested in who listened to them.
After years on the blacklist, Seeger reemerged during the folk revival of the early 1960s, becoming a prominent presence at Civil Rights and anti-war rallies and on TV. He had his own public TV music program,  "Rainbow Quest," on which he presented a wide variety of music from guests such as Johnny Cash, Donovan, the Stanley Brothers, Doc Watson and Judy Collins.

And he courted controversy again, when the Smothers Brothers invited him on their program to perform "Waist Deep in the Big Muddy," a song about America's qaugmirous involvement in Vietnam. He sang the song on the show in 1967, but the performance was cut by censors. However, the Smothers Brothers pressured the network and he was invited back again to sing it in 1968 in a performance that aired nationwide.

From there, Seeger became a fairly regular presence on TV. He appeared on, and recorded an album for, "Sesame Street."

Songs most associated with Seeger include "Where Have All the Flowers Gone," "If I Had a Hammer," "We Shall Overcome," "Turn, Turn, Turn" and "Guantanamera."

With his sweet tenor voice and easygoing approach, Seeger turned all his performances into sing-alongs, whether he was playing at an outdoor rally or in Carnegie Hall. He was famous for shouting out the lines of songs so the audience could easily join in on the next verse. He wrote a book on how to play 5-string banjo and inspired Bob Dylan, the Byrds and many others to perform folk songs and write their own.

Below are a few videos featuring Seeger's performances and a selection of vintage pictures.

Seeger with the Weavers

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