How Folk Music Changed Pete Seeger and How He Helped Change the World

Categories: R.I.P.

Josef Schwarz via Wikimedia Commons
Pete Seeger (1919-2014)

Pete Seeger, who died on Tuesday at the age of 94, intended to be a journalist. Toward that end, he studied sociology at Harvard, but wanderlust led him away from books and on a bicycle tour of New England.

Ultimately, Seeger's stories were told not in newspaper stories or in books, but in songs -- American songs you know well, even if you don't recognize their names; songs that changed the world.

Ironically, most of those songs were popularized by others. Seeger became a renowned (and later infamous) folk singer in his own right, but his tunes are often thought of as "belonging to" other performers.

His "If I Had a Hammer" was a hit for Peter, Paul and Mary; his song "Where Have All the Flowers Gone" (about the death of American soldiers in World War II) was a Top 20 single for the Kingston Trio (who initially took authors' credit for the tune, mistaking it for a traditional number). The Sandpipers made a career out of Seeger's "Guantanamera," and the Byrds scored with "Turn! Turn! Turn! (To Everything There Is a Season)" and "The Bells of Rhymney," both by Seeger.

Seeger was amused by the notion of anyone's ownership of music. "The songs belong as much to the people who hear them as they do to the people who write them or sing them," he told Hit Parader magazine in 1967.

This generosity of spirit wasn't peacenik rhetoric. Onstage, Seeger was as likely to lead sing-alongs of others' music (especially Judy Collins, Joni Mitchell, and Leonard Cohen -- Seeger appeared to favor Canadian songwriters) as he was to perform his own material.

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Seeger's music also helped keep hope alive in Spain during the long nightmare of the Franco dictatorship. Music can be a powerful tool for social justice as well as a beautiful art form.

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