Pete Seeger singing for Eleanor Roosevelt - Photo by By FSA/OWI (http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/fsa.8d41984) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons (http://bit.ly/1cv3CBx)

Pete Seeger singing for Eleanor Roosevelt – Photo by By FSA/OWI (http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/fsa.8d41984) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons (http://bit.ly/1cv3CBx)

Pete Seeger, a folk music legend and mentor to Bob Dylan and Billy Bragg, among others, died Monday in New York City. He was 94 years old, born in 1919 — let that sink in for a minute. The man had seen a lot of life, and built a musical career on issues of justice in art. He was married to his wife, Toshi, for almost 70 years before her death in July.

(Bob Seger is still working on his night moves, despite some folks who have confused the two.)

Seeger was born in Manhattan to Charles and Constance Seeger. Both parents were musical — Charles taught ethnomusicology at Yale and Berkeley; Constance taught violin — and both were committed pacifists, an ideology they brought to their children at an early age. Charles and Constance divorced when Seeger was seven but remained close in their parenting efforts, sending Pete to music camp in the mountains of Asheville, North Carolina, which is were he was first captivated by the sounds of the five-string banjo.

At the outset of World War II, Pete co-founded The Almanac Singers with Woody Guthrie, Lee Hays, and Millard Lampell. They wrote songs criticizin g the draft and racism, for which they were closely monitored by government officials. Seeger’s connections with the Communist Party of the United States of America earned him special vigilance, and he was eventually called to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). His refusal to testify put him in contempt of Congress, for which he was indicted and sentenced to serve 10 years in prison; a successful appeal kept him out of jail.

Seeger’s political activism (my colleague Mark Silk has written more about that legacy of his) came from a belief born in childhood and nurtured as an adult that all people were equal, a theme woven into his music throughout his decades-long career. There may not have been anyone who had the mark on folk music that Seeger has had, from its roots to the present day. One of the most famous songs he wrote, “Turn! Turn! Turn!” — sung by the Byrds — was taken almost word for word from the King James Version of the book of Ecclesiastes, that mournful book that insists “there is nothing new under the sun” and “everything is meaningless:”

To everything – turn, turn, turn
There is a season – turn, turn, turn
And a time for every purpose under heaven

A time to gain, a time to lose
A time to rend, a time to sew
A time to love, a time to hate
A time of peace, I swear it’s not too late!

Something of a religious wanderer, Seeger’s family background had WASP-y roots, and he joined a Unitarian Universalist congregation in New York City mostly “because I had a chorus and we needed a place to rehearse.” In an interview with Beliefnet in 2006, Seeger opened up about his evolving faith:

“I feel most spiritual when I’m out in the woods. I feel part of nature. Or looking up at the stars. [I used to say] I was an atheist. Now I say, it’s all according to your definition of God. According to my definition of God, I’m not an atheist. Because I think God is everything. Whenever I open my eyes I’m looking at God. Whenever I’m listening to something I’m listening to God.”

 

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