More than a half-century after he stood firm before the House UnAmerican Activities Committee, Pete Seeger was lending his voice and his name to the Occupy Movement and the cause of combating unrestrained capitalism. In between, he lent hope to hopeless causes, stood up for the downtrodden, and wrote and sung iconic anthems that got to the essence of what America was and could be if it would put hate and greed and violence aside.
Mr. Seeger, who died Tuesday at the age of 94, was involved in most of America's labor, peace and civil rights movements essentially from the time he walked dissatisfied out of Harvard in 1938 and began traveling around the country, picking up tunes and meeting embattled farm and factory workers. The death of the Hudson Valley resident has a particular resonance in the Berkshires, not only because he played at Tanglewood and many other county venues but because of his close connection with the Guthrie family.
Mr. Seeger met Woodie Guthrie at a benefit concert for migrant workers in 1940, and the two went on to form the Almanac Singers, a "folk" band -- Mr. Seeger thought the term "folk music" was too generic -- that through its social and political lyrics set the stage for the protest music of the 1960s. Mr. Seeger wrote and co-wrote songs, revived and updated songs he heard in his travels, and invited audiences to join in and make his music a communal experience.
"Every kid who ever sat around a campfire singing an old song is indebted in some way to Pete Seeger," Arlo Guthrie once said in tribute.
Like many young idealists of his era, Mr. Seeger joined the Communist Party only to abandon it in dismay and disappointment around 1950. Nonetheless, he was dragged before the bullying HUAC in 1955, where he angrily declared that he resented the implication that his past affiliation "made me any less of an American." Essentially blacklisted from radio, Mr. Seeger typically made the best of it by going out on the road and performing in small halls and on college campuses, building an audience that may not have found him otherwise. Banned from television until 1967, when the counter-culture Smothers Brothers invited him to perform, his Vietnam War protest anthem "Waist Deep in the Big Muddy" was cut short by censors. He performed it in full a year later, riding the wave of a protest movement that he was instrumental in creating.
Bruce Springsteen, who was heavily influenced by Mr. Seeger's music and activism in recent years, described him as "a living archive of America's music and conscience, testament to the power of song and culture to nudge history along, to push American events toward a more humane and justified ends." The occasion was a 90th birthday tribute to Mr. Seeger at Madison Square Garden. Four years later, Mr. Seeger has in place a legacy that will, through music and example, continue to push America to achieve its potential for the benefit of all Americans.