GWEN IFILL: Now a remembrance of folk legend Pete Seeger, his distinct voice, his music, and his influence.
Jeffrey Brown has an appreciation.
JEFFREY BROWN: Pete Seeger lived the life of performer, folklorist, and activist for more than 60 years, with his trademark five-string banjo nearly always close at hand.
Over those decades, he wrote and co-wrote a long list of songs that became American standards, and left a lasting mark on several generations. Seeger got his start in the late 1930s, and by 1940, he was performing with Woody Guthrie and others as the Almanac Singers.
PETE SEEGER, musician: I had a good ear. And I could accompany him on anything. I didn’t have to hear it once. The first time I heard it, I could hear a chord change coming. And I couldn’t get — and I didn’t play anything fancy. I just gave him a good solid backing. I didn’t try and play fancy breaks or anything.
JEFFREY BROWN: After World War II, Seeger helped form the Weavers, a group that gave rise to a folk music revival across the U.S. Along the way, he joined the Communist Party, then renounced it.
But, in 1955, he confronted the House Un-American Activities Committee and was blacklisted for 10 years. In those years, he played in coffeehouses and for college crowds and, in later life, said it was the high point of his career.
PETE SEEGER: I tell people nobody can prove a thing, but, obviously, if I didn’t think music could help save the human race, I wouldn’t be making music.
JEFFREY BROWN: As the 1960s dawned, Seeger turned his music and liberal activism to a series of causes, from social justice and Vietnam, to conservation, notably the cleanup of the Hudson River, and civil rights. In doing so, he helped make “We Shall Overcome” an anthem for the movement.
PETE SEEGER: No one can tell what a song can do. All you can do is quote people who said, well, that song changed my life or something like that. And leaders like Dr. King have testified how important music has been in the movement. John L. Lewis said a sing movement is a winning movement.
JEFFREY BROWN: Years later, Bruce Springsteen’s album “We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions” helped introduce the folk icon to an entirely new audience.
The two also performed in 2009 at a Washington concert for President Obama’s first inauguration.
Today, the president issued a statement, saying: “Pete Seeger believed deeply in the power of song. But, more importantly, he believed in the power of community — to stand up for what’s right, speak out against what’s wrong, and move this country closer to the America he knew we could be.”
Seeger was still pursuing that goal late in life. He joined an Occupy Wall Street march in 2011, and walked through the streets of Manhattan with the help of two canes to protest what he saw as corporate greed.
Last year, in one of his final interviews, he spoke with Mountain Lake PBS in Plattsburgh, New York, at his home and hailed the value of traditional folk music.
PETE SEEGER: I think we learn the history of our country by knowing some of the old songs, whether they are love songs, or satirical songs, or adventure stories put into verse. I think you learn history. And to learn the history of your own country is an important thing.
JEFFREY BROWN: Pete Seeger died of natural causes Monday night in New York. He was 94 years old.
And now some thoughts about Pete Seeger and his work from his longtime friend Peter Yarrow of the famed folk trio Peter, Paul and Mary. Their recording of Seeger’s “If I Had a Hammer” was a top 10 hit in 1962. And he was with Pete Seeger in the hospital last night before he died.
Well, thank you so much for joining us.
And perhaps I will ask you to put it in personal terms first. How would you describe Pete Seeger’s influence on you?
PETER YARROW, musician: He was — as Mary said about Pete Seeger and the Weavers, we were Seeger’s raiders.
He gave our life direction. He was our inspiration. He lived his ethic. And his whole perspective, which was that music was there to bring people’s hearts together, was really the basis for Peter, Paul, and Mary’s doing what we did, and always using the music when we were called upon to be a part of the March on Washington in ’63, the Selma, Montgomery, march, the anti-war movement, and even through today.
And it never stopped. And Pete was always there as a beacon of what was possible if you made that kind of commitment. He was extraordinary.
JEFFREY BROWN: How did he — did he see himself with a mission, if that’s the right word?
PETER YARROW: Well, I think he did.
I think he believed he had a mission. But I don’t think he was — it was presumptuous on his point. It was just the way things were. Remember, he came out of a period in the blacklist when he and the Weavers were just not allowed to perform anywhere. And it was a very, very difficult time. And it destroyed their career, when they had actually ushered in the beginning of what could have been the folk renaissance in the ’50s with “Irene, Goodnight” and “Tzena, Tzena, Tzena,” huge hits.
And so, for him, the struggle was just what he did. And he saw himself, I think, in those terms. But it wasn’t a sense of arrogance or presumption about it. He was the most humble guy you ever met.
JEFFREY BROWN: And that folk tradition that, of course, he was so much a part of, it was interesting for me to read that he wasn’t born to it, certainly not to the rural tradition, but he learned it, he took to it, he clearly wanted to foster it for many generations.
PETER YARROW: Well, it was his passion.
And it wasn’t — whatever it was that brought him into it — and I know there was a kind of an — a very erudite background from which he came, and his father, Charles Seeger, was a musicologist. And it was — he had the strong background, but, to Pete, it meant not just the music. It was living the commitment.
And, you know, Pete was — did receive a sentence — it was never served — from the House Un-American Activities Committee. He refused to answer. He took his stand and he never faltered. So, you know, his immersion in it was a love for common human beings.
And he wrote that way, and he wrote about it. And you can understand his words. They were very simple. You know it was:
(singing): Where have all the flowers gone, long time passing, Where have all the…
It’s not hard to understand, or:
(singing): If I had a hammer.
It was there. It was easy, easy to grasp, never, never apart from the most common, decent kind of communication between people.
JEFFREY BROWN: All right. Well, that’s a wonderful way to end.
Thank you so much, Peter Yarrow, on the life and work of Pete Seeger. Thanks so much.
PETER YARROW: Thank you.