Pete Seeger, whose music and activism inspired Americans for nearly three-quarters of a century, died Monday after a six-day stay in a New York City hospital. He was 94.
While known throughout the world for songs such as “Turn, Turn, Turn,” “Where Have All the Flowers Gone,” and “If I Had a Hammer,” Seeger was a native New Yorker who lived in the Hudson Valley and had close ties to the Capital Region.
“He was absolutely the real deal,” said Alan Chartock, president and CEO of WAMC/Northeast Public Radio, which aired a series of interviews from its large Seeger collection throughout most of Tuesday morning. “He had incredible courage. He would say things and mean them, and he didn’t care if they were unpopular or not. He was my hero.”
Giving his all
Two of Seeger’s final performances came in the Capital Region in 2013. While he considered himself semi-retired, Seeger performed with his sister Peggy at The Eighth Step in Schenectady in May and in September made a special appearance on the Saratoga Performing Arts Center stage at Farm Aid along with Willie Nelson, Neil Young, Dave Matthews and others. The Eighth Step event, which attracted more than 2,600 fans to Proctors, capped a long association with Margie Rosenkrantz, who first lured Seeger to the Eighth Step when it was in Albany in 1983.
“He and Peggy spent a lot of time preparing for that concert and he put his all into it,” said Rosenkrantz, Eighth Step director. “He did a few other things but never a complete concert, so I think it was sort of his swan song. It was such a complete honor to work with him, and a lot of fun besides.”
Seeger was born in New York City on May 3, 1919, and grew up in Patterson in Putnam County. His father, Charles Seeger, was a composer and musicologist trained at Harvard, and his mother, Constance de Clyver Edson, studied at the Paris Conservatory of Music and was a concert violinist.
Seeger first came into the national spotlight as a member of The Weavers, a singing group that topped the charts in 1950 with the hit song “Goodnight Irene.” Seeger had earlier performed with Woody Guthrie and the Almanac Singers back in 1940. He put his performing career on hold in 1943 to serve in the U.S. Army during World War II.
An activist much like his father, Seeger had become interested in communism as early as 1936, and had joined the Communist Party in 1942. While he was no longer officially connected to the party in 1949, he performed with black singer Paul Robeson, a socialist and Communist Party supporter, at a concert in Peekskill. That association and his earlier flirtations with communism resulted in Seeger being brought before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1955.
His lack of cooperation there led to a contempt of Congress citation and resulted in his being blacklisted from American commercial television until September of 1967 when he performed on “The Smothers Brothers Show.”
Advocate for Hudson
Seeger and his longneck five-string banjo were credited with keeping folk music alive in the 1960s, a decade dominated by rock ’n’ roll. While he was busy performing around the country, he also found the time to enter the environmentalist realm, creating The Hudson River Sloop Clearwater, an organization whose mission was to save the Hudson River and its surrounding tributaries from pollution. He also performed for various benefit events, and was a big supporter of National Public Radio and WAMC.
“Pete brought us hundreds of thousands of dollars,” said Chartock. “He gave us the rights to the only recorded biography he has, and he spoke with us a number of times on the air.”
When the pedestrian bridge over the Hudson River was being built near Poughkeepsie more than 10 years ago, Chartock started a movement to have the structure named after Seeger. The singer, however, balked at the idea.
“I had Governor [David] Paterson on board, [Assembly Leader] Shelly Silver and others, so it was going to be done,” remembered Chartock. “Then I got a phone call from one of Pete’s relatives who said to me, ‘Grandpa says cut it out.’ That’s how he was. We also got a phone call at the station from someone asking us to do something once, and this person said that Pete would want us to do it because of all the things he had done for WAMC. I said, ‘That’s a lie. That’s not Pete.’ He wouldn’t do things in that way.”
‘He talked the talk’
Local musician Michael Eck, also public-relations liaison for Proctors and Capital Repertory Theatre, got to know Seeger pretty well over the past 10 years.
“He was magnificent, and he was all the things you would think he would be from watching him on television or seeing him in concert,” said Eck. “He walked the walk and he talked the talk. He really brought that cliché to life, and he was very special in so many ways.”
“He performed in Beacon once and he was famous for not wanting to sign autographs,” remembered Eck. “He just didn’t like it. Well these kids approached him after the concert asking for his autograph and he told them he would make a deal with them. He reached into one of his bags and pulled out some plastic bags. He told them, ‘I will give you an autograph if you will go home and take these plastic grocery bags and walk around the house and your neighborhood picking up the trash.’ Later that night, when everything was wrapped up, wouldn’t you know it. There’s Pete Seeger walking around the building with one of those bags picking up the trash himself. He was 88.”
Seeger won a Grammy in 1997 for Best Traditional Folk Album for “Pete,” and was a nominee at the 2014 Grammy Awards for Best Spoken Word for “The Storm King,” a collection of stories and poems from around the world.
Seeger’s wife, Toshi, died on July 9 at the age of 91 after 70 years of marriage.