When I saw the news of Pete Seeger’s death earlier this week, I tried to think back to the first time I heard a Pete Seeger song. It’s hard to pin down. Typically what I heard were covers by other artists: “If I Had a Hammer” and “Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream” sung by Peter, Paul and Mary; “”Turn! Turn! Turn! (To Everything There is A Season)” sung by the Byrds, “Where Have All the Flowers Gone” sung by The Kingston Trio — you get the picture. I think “Little Boxes” may have been the first song I heard Pete sing, and you might know that one was actually written by someone else. To be honest, I thought for years that it was a Bob Dylan song. Apparently I’m not the only one who wasn’t sure who wrote what. I was long grown before I understood who Pete Seeger was and had some insight into the depth of his contribution to American folk music.
Pete Seeger was a controversial figure whose music was an expression of his political beliefs. He was nominated multiple times for a Nobel Peace Prize (at last count one petition had reached 3,000 signatures), but he did not receive one. He appeared to be embarrassed by the attention.
Clearwater’s Great Hudson River Revival, an annual fundraiser started by Pete and his wife Toshi in the late 1960s as the Hudson Valley Folk Picnic, is still in full swing today, supporting the work of a nonprofit organization formed to educate people about Hudson River environmental issues.
David Dunaway’s biography of Pete was aptly named: How Can I Keep From Singing? As long as there were issues to be confronted, Pete was there with his voice and his banjo.
Democracy Now’s story includes interviews with Pete from 2004 and from a few months ago. NPR has made available their 2005 “Sing Out!” concert, featuring Pete Seeger and others at the Keswick Theatre in Philadelphia.