Pete Seeger

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Pete Seeger, 1955

Peter "Pete" Seeger (* 3. May 1919 in New York City , New York ; † 27. January 2014 ) was an American folk - musician , singer-songwriter and political activist and environmentalist , who with his songs, the peace movement , the union organized labor movement , the civil rights movement and other social movements first in the US itself, with increasing awareness inspired and internationally.

Although, as a supporter and representative of socialist positions, it was politically controversial, especially in his own country during the Cold War , Seeger is one of the cultural greats of the United States. He became world-famous in particular for his songs, which are now considered traditionals, Where Have All the Flowers Gone , We Shall Overcome , If I Had a Hammer and Turn! Turn! Turn!

Like his friend and musical companion Woody Guthrie , who died in 1967 and whose songs - especially This Land Is Your Land - Seeger played in changing formations until shortly before his own death, he influenced numerous artists of the following generations of folk and rock musicians , songwriters and protest singers who picked up, covered or reinterpreted his songs , including Bob Dylan , Joan Baez and Bruce Springsteen .

life and work

Early years

The Pete Seegers family of origin playing music in May 1921; two-year-old Pete on his father's lap at the harmonium

Pete Seeger was the son of the pacifist , politically active musicologist and composer Charles Seeger and the concert violinist and violin teacher Constance de Clyver Edson (1886–1975). After dropping out of sociology at Harvard University, he devoted himself to the collection and cataloging of traditional spirituals , gospels , southern states - blues , hillbilly music , bluegrass and country songs - a paid job at the Library of Congress , which Alan Lomax gave him had conveyed. While listening to numerous old records, he acquired an extraordinary knowledge of the roots of folk music . He also played these and his own songs with the five-string banjo in which he showed solidarity with the labor movement , with minorities and the Third World .

Pete Seeger (picture center left) performing at a CIO charity concert in 1944 in Washington, DC; Eleanor Roosevelt (center), the wife of the US President, was the guest of honor

In 1940 he met Woody Guthrie , who was almost seven years his senior , with whom he became friends and drove for a few months as a hobo (migrant worker) in freight cars and hitchhiking through the USA. Together they sang folk-oriented union songs, a. a. the well-known song Union Maid, written mainly by Guthrie after early music, with a refrain in which I'm sticking to the union is repeated. Guthrie said the lyrics to sing along, which Seeger took over and has since practiced successfully. In 1941, together with Woody Guthrie, Lee Hays and Millard Lampell, he founded the political folk group The Almanac Singers , which, in addition to their union songs such as Talking Union , which Seeger helped create, initially brought out an album of anti-war songs for John Doe . After the attack by Nazi Germany on the Soviet Union in 1941, the Almanac Singers, which were occasionally joined by other musicians such as Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee , supported the US intervention in World War II with the songs on the record Dear Mr. President . At the Almanac Singers, which saw itself as a kind of "singing" political "newspaper", Seeger appeared under the pseudonym Pete Bowers.

In the same year, together with Woody Guthrie and others, Seeger founded People's Song in New York, the first folk musicians' union to separate itself from scientific folk music organizations. In the 1940s he also played in clubs and was heard on the radio as a record publisher .

He often sang the 1936 song Joe Hill ("I dreamed I saw Joe Hill last night ..."), the melody of which Earl Robinson had composed for a poem by Alfred Hayes about the legendary migrant worker, unionist and folk-singer-songwriter Joe Hill , who was executed in 1915 on an unproven murder charge. In 1946/47 Woody Guthrie recorded Ballads of Sacco & Vanzetti in memory of the anarchist workers Sacco and Vanzetti who were executed in 1927 . The album was only released in 1960 and also contained Seeger's song Sacco's Letter To Son from 1951. Seeger had set Nicola Sacco's farewell letter to his son Dante to music.

At the Pacific War Seeger took part as an aircraft mechanic. At the same time, he often appeared in front of soldiers.

From 1946

In 1946 he starred in the film To Hear Your Banjo Play and the following year he was involved in the production of the folk musical Dark of the Moon . That year he also published the Peoples Song Bulletin for the first time , the forerunner of Sing Out! After he had supported the progressive presidential candidate Henry A. Wallace in the election campaign in 1948 , Pete Seeger founded the quartet The Weavers , named after the play Die Weber by Gerhart Hauptmann , in 1949 together with the singer Lee Hays and Ronnie Gilbert and Fred Hellermann . Together with Lee Hays, he created the powerful song If I Had a Hammer in 1949 , which, described as communist, initially met with strong rejection, but was sung by Peter, Paul and Mary in 1962 and a year later by Trini Lopez but was very successful. The lyrical and at the same time political text is about the vehement commitment to justice, freedom and love between all people in the entire country, regardless of ethnicity and gender. In 1950, the Weavers with Goodnight Irene held the top of the charts for weeks at a time when other songs and performances had already been negatively registered by the FBI . On the B-side of the single was Tzena, Tzena, Tzena , with which the Weavers hit # 2 on the charts . Guthrie's song So Long It's Been Good to Know You also hit the charts. In the same year, the folk magazine Sing Out, co-edited by Seeger, was published for the first time ! , which served as a model for numerous other publications of a similar nature. It was around this time that the more than fifteen-year boycott of most of the US media against Pete Seeger began. The Weavers had to disband in 1953 because of the increase in political repression in the United States. In 1955 and 1959 they came together again for a short time and in 1959, for example, played the spiritual Kumbaya , which Seeger had sung alone the year before, later a song of the civil rights movement and now world famous.

During the McCarthy era , Seeger was also summoned to appear on the Un-American Activities Committee . As early as 1952 there was a statement there that he was a member of the Communist Party . He had never made a secret of the fact that he had joined their youth organization when he was a student. However, he left the organization before 1950, but remained true to communist ideals. He refused to testify before the committee in 1955, citing his constitutional rights , which in 1957 meant that he was convicted of subversive activities and disregard for the institution and that he had to report his stay to the authorities whenever he was in a narrowly delimited district of New York left. In 1961 a court sentenced him to ten years in prison. The verdict was appealed and revised in 1962, so that he was released after a year. In the years when he was on the so-called black list , Seeger earned a living for his family mainly through recordings and folk music lessons in schools and holiday camps.

Pete Seeger in Israel 1964

In 1959, at his and Theodore Biker's suggestion, the first Newport Folk Festival took place in Newport , Rhode Island , where Joan Baez made her debut. From 1963 to 1964 Seeger went on a world tour with his wife Toshi and their three children. He sang u. a. the Spiritual from the American Civil War Michael Row The Boat Ashore , a song that he had recorded with the Weavers, and We Shall Overcome , whose authors he had heard in 1945, because it the title of traditional gospel songs We Will Overcome Some Day reformulated would have. He also wrote other stanzas: We'll walk hand in hand and The whole wide world around . The song became - especially in the version by Joan Baez, for whom he was a role model and mentor - one of the hymns of the American civil rights movement and is now one of the most popular freedom songs worldwide. Even If I Had a Hammer , still popular today, is closely linked to the civil rights movement. Peter, Paul, and Mary sang the song during the 1963 March on Washington for Work and Freedom when Martin Luther King delivered his grand speech I Have a Dream on August 28, 1963 ; Joan Baez contributed to We Shall Overcome .

The now well-known song Guantanamera goes back to a poem written by the Cuban freedom fighter José Martí at the end of the 19th century . Seeger sang it in the original since the early 1960s with English spoken text passages about author and text, in 1963 once with the Weavers and from the 1990s also together with his grandson Tao Rodriguez-Seeger.

One of the most famous peace songs Where Have All the Flowers Gone had been written and composed by Seeger in 1955, based on a Russian folk song. It became known in the 1960s in the campaign against the Vietnam War in the version of Peter, Paul and Mary and a little later in particular by Joan Baez and is now considered an international anti-war song. During the Vietnam War, other protest songs were created : (If you like your Uncle Sam) Bring Them Home - later sung by Bruce Springsteen with an additional stanza against the Iraq war and Waist Deep in the Big Muddy , an anti- war song that was broadcast on CBS in mid-1967 was cut out. When this measure came to the public, Seeger was able to sing the song again on television in February 1968. The old 19th century Christian song How Can I Keep From Singing? He learned from Doris Plenn, a family friend who had written new verses around 1950. Seeger took up this and changed the original text. It was in this version that the song became popular in the 1960s. Traditionals like Down by the Riverside (Ain't Gonna Study War No More) and We Shall Not Be Moved (with a text that changes depending on the occasion) were also popularized by Seeger.

From 1960

In the 1960s, during the renaissance of folk music, Seeger reached the hearts of young audiences with his songs for peace, equality for blacks and for the emancipation of working people. At the now popular Newport Folk Festival , where the little-known Bob Dylan , whose role model was Seeger, performed in 1963 and 1964, he came on stage in 1965 with an electric guitar. Seeger, who continued to play the traditional banjo or his twelve-string acoustic guitar, wanted to turn the power off. The audience booed Dylan, so that Dylan broke off his performance after two stanzas. Seeger later stated that he was mainly angry because the loud PA system had lost the great words of the Dylan songs. For Dylan's first album, Seeger had campaigned with Columbia Records producer John Hammond , with whom Seeger had already been under contract.

Folk singer Judy Collins also referred to Seeger, performed in Newport and played with Turn! In 1963 . Turn! Turn! a song that Seeger wrote in 1950 and published in 1962. The Byrds reached the top of the charts in 1965.

In 1966, Pete and Toshi Seeger co-founded the Clearwater environmental protection organization with the aim of investigating and removing pollution from the Hudson River and its surroundings. The group became known through the sailing ship Clearwater, on which environmental protection programs for schoolchildren and student groups have been taking place regularly since 1969 in cooperation with schools and universities. His song That Lonesome Valley was also composed in 1969. Other folk songs dealt with the environmental problems of the river and river valley. The annual Clearwater Festival (The Great Hudson River Revival) , initially co-organized by Pete and Toshi Seeger, developed from the various activities, where bands from different musical genres appear to finance the Clearwater projects.

The younger Don McLean became interested in the Weavers' songs at an early age. In the late 1960s he met Pete Seeger, who became his friend and sponsor, personally and worked with him on the Clearwater Project. Seeger and McLean sang together on the 1974 Clearwater album the famous popular song Oh Shenandoah , which has been covered many times . Seeger released a new version on the album American Favorite Ballads in 2002 . In 1973 the record Rainbow Race was released , the title track of which was My Rainbow Race , which became very popular, especially in Norway. In the spring of 1970 Seeger sang together with Johnny Cash on his TV show on ABC a . a. the Worried Man Blues and alone - with a text against the Vietnam War - Bring 'em Home .

In 1972 Pete Seeger's book The Incompleat Folksinger came out, which became a standard work on American folk music. Other publications were American Favorite Ballads (1960), The Bells of Rhymney (1964), How to Play the Five-String Banjo (1965) and Henscratches and Flyspecks (1973). He introduced the so-called "Seeger banjo" with a neck three frets longer. In 1993 he published Where Have All The Flowers gone , which was published in 2012 in German under the title Tell me where the flowers are .

Pete Seeger at a concert in 1986

In the 1980s and 90s, things grew quieter around Seeger. He toured several times with Arlo Guthrie , continued to play for political, social and charitable causes, was involved in environmental protection and sang with children's groups. In February 1986, Pete Seeger took part internationally in the Festival of Political Songs in East Berlin . There he wore u. a. May There Always Be Sunshine , his adaptation of a Soviet song, which he published in a live version for the first time in 1965 and released on a joint record in 1975 as a duet with Arlo Guthrie. He then performed another program in Essen.

Since 1990

In 1991, Seeger founded NYC Street Singers , a multicultural and multiethnic singing group from New York City. His intention was to form a large group of singers who would sing in the streets at parades, street parties or demonstrations. The New York Unitarian Church provided rehearsal rooms for the large choir . As a thank you, the Street Singers gave two benefit concerts, the proceeds of which were used to finance the renovation of the church for disabled people.

Bruce Springsteen sang in 1997 for the Seeger tribute CD Where Have All The Flowers Gone . Other well-known musicians also contributed Seeger songs to this double album, which was released in 1998, such as Jackson Browne and Richie Havens . On April 25, 2006, Springsteen released an album entitled We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions as a tribute . For this, Springsteen had recorded 15 songs that Seeger had made famous.

Seeger took part in the manifestations against the Iraq war in early 2003 with his famous songs. In some cases he wrote new lines with current reference.

The documentary Pete Seeger: The Power of a Song came out in 2007 and traces the story of his life. In addition to musical documents from all phases of his work, statements by Seeger, his relatives and companions are shown. In one of the film interviews, folk musician Tom Paxton characterizes Pete Seeger as follows:

"He stood for justice. He had powerful enemys, who wanted that voice of justice to go away, but he stayed and kept singing. ”Loosely translated: “ He stood for justice, and he had powerful enemies who wanted this voice of justice to disappear. But he stood up and went on singing. "

In September 2008, the independent label Appleseed Recordings released the newly recorded album At 89 , followed in 2010 by an album with children's songs Tomorrow's Children together with the Rivertown Kids . In addition to performing in the US and Canada during the summer of 2008, Seeger played live on the Late Show with David Letterman on September 29, 2008 , encouraging the audience to sing along to the chorus of a political song.

Pete Seeger during the ceremony for Barack Obama's induction into office on January 18, 2009 in Washington, DC

On January 18, 2009, Seeger was one of the musicians who played in front of the Lincoln Memorial at the We Are One Open Air concert for the inauguration of the 44th President of the USA, Barack Obama , in Washington . Bruce Springsteen, Seeger and Tao Rodriguez-Seeger performed together, performing all of the stanzas of Woody Guthrie's “left-wing patriotic” song This Land Is Your Land , including the often left out. As so often before, Seeger asked the crowd to sing along and announced the lyrics.

For his 90th birthday, some of his well-known companions met with him, including Bruce Springsteen, Joan Baez, Richie Havens, Kris Kristofferson , Emmylou Harris and Eddie Vedder and appeared together on behalf of the environmental protection organization Clearwater .

Pete Seeger at a gig in New York at the age of 92, with the accompanying instrument typical of most of his songs, a five-string banjo , June 2011

Despite his old age, Seeger took part in a solidarity demonstration for Occupy Wall Street on October 21, 2011 and spoke out in favor of decentralized structures of the movement. He performed together with other well-known musicians; Among other things, the proceeds went to the Clearwater project. Shortly after the death of his wife Toshi, Pete Seeger sang at the Farm Aid Festival in Saratoga Springs, New York on September 21, 2013 If I Had a Hammer and - accompanied by famous friends - This Land is Your Land , against a verse the fracking in New York added. In November 2013 he had sent a letter to the Russian President Putin , in which he demanded the release of the imprisoned Greenpeace activists from the Arctic Sunrise .

Death and retrospect

Pete Seeger died in a New York hospital on January 27, 2014 at the age of 94. Numerous obituaries paid tribute to his life's work, although during his lifetime - strongly polarizing - he had often met with approval or rejection. President Obama paid tribute to his commitment to workers' rights, civil rights, world peace and environmental protection. In the opening concert of his South Africa tour in Cape Town on January 28, 2014 Bruce Springsteen commemorated his friend and hero Pete Seeger with the song We Shall Overcome . Also, John Mellencamp and Neil Young depressed like many other artists from their respect.

Pete Seeger released more than a hundred albums over several decades and performed publicly until shortly before his death; last, like for 40 years every year on Thanksgiving Day with Arlo Guthrie in November 2013 in Carnegie Hall in Manhattan. He often added stanzas to his songs depending on the political occasion. In his obituary, the editor-in-chief of the German-language music magazine Folker, Michael Kleff, recorded the original sound from an interview with Seeger, where he described his principle: think globally, act locally , a motto widespread today that was not yet formulated in the early days . In another conversation with Kleff a few years before his death, he had emphasized that the world could not survive as long as private property was the "god of all gods". Seeger was not primarily oriented towards commercial success, rather he was convinced that with his songs and actions he could work together with others effectively against war and social injustice, for equality and environmental protection and to fight for a better world. In the obituary of the New York Times, on which numerous commemorative articles were based, Jon Pareles quotes a quote by Pete Seeger from 1994 in which his optimism becomes clear:

"The key to the future of the world is finding the optimistic stories and letting them be known."
("The key to the future of the world is to find the optimistic stories and tell them on.")

Well-known songs by Pete Seeger are:

Together with the Weavers he sang, composed and arranged:

  • If I Had a Hammer , 1949
  • Goodnight, Irene , ( Lead Belly ), 1950
  • Kisses Sweeter Than Wine , 1950
  • I Got a Home in Dat Rock ( Traditional Spiritual Edited)
  • Tzena, Tzena, Tzena , originally Hebrew, arranged by Gordon Jenkins for The Weavers , English and Hebrew, 1950
  • So Long It's Been Good to Know You , 1950 (by Woody Guthrie, with guitar since 1940)
  • Sixteen Tons , ( Merle Travis ), live in the early 1950s with Seeger as lead singer and on the 1955 revival on which the record The Weavers at Carnegie Hall is based.
  • Wimoweh (1952, adaptation of a title by the South African musician Solomon Linda , 1939)


Pete Seeger was married to the filmmaker and environmentalist Toshi Seeger, née Ohta (1922–2013). The couple had three children and had been married for almost 70 years. His father's second wife was the composer Ruth Crawford Seeger (1901–1953). He is the half-brother of the folk singer and songwriter Peggy Seeger (* 1935) and nephew of the poet Alan Seeger (1888–1916). He was also a brother-in-law of the Scottish folk singer Ewan MacColl , who was married to Seeger's half-sister Peggy for the third time.



Documentary film

  • Jim Brown: Pete Seeger: The Power of a Song - Documentary 2007, aired on PBS on the American Masters series on August 26, 2011 (video, 83 min., Online on; Co-produced by his grandson, the filmmaker Kitama Jackson.

Stage processing

  • We Shall Overcome - Pete Seeger ; Biographical-musical staging by Heiner Kondschak (direction, musical direction and actor of the older Pete Seeger) in cooperation with the ensemble of Theater Lindenhof u. a., Germany 2016 (premiere September 15, 2016)

Web links

Commons : Pete Seeger  - collection of images, videos and audio files

Individual evidence

  1. Origin: traditional gospel We Will Overcome Some Day .
  2. with Lee Hays, sung by the Weavers .
  3. Obituary. Obsessed with folk. The US musician Pete Seeger has died . 3sat online, January 28, 2014.
  4. Christoph Wagner: Pete Seeger (1919-2014). Music from the poison cabinet ., 6. February 2014.
  5. Barbara Muerder: Pete Seeger. The Good Soul of America ( February 22, 2014 memento in the Internet Archive ) ; - Pages about pop culture, January 29, 2014.
  6. Article in the English language Wikipedia under en: Union Maid .
  7. Bernd Pickert: So long, it's been good to know ya. In: the daily newspaper , January 28, 2014.
  8. Biography in the English language Wikipedia under en: Lee Hays .
  9. Biography in the English language Wikipedia under en: Millard Lampell .
  10. a b c d e Pete Seeger. Folk memorial or Stalin's songbird? Retrieved December 2, 2018 . . Wasser-Pravda, January 28, 2014, updated version of an article first published in 2009
  11. ^ A b Karl Fluch: Folk singer Pete Seeger dies ;, January 28, 2014.
  12. Excerpt from Guthrie / Seeger: Ballads of Sacco & Vanzetti - Guthrie's setting of a Vanzetti letter (Vanzetti's Letter) and Seeger's setting of the last Sacco letter to his son (Sacco's Letter To Son) (Flash file, approx. Eleven minutes)
  13. Maik Brüggemeyer: The heart of the American folk tradition - To the death of Pete Seeger . Rolling Stone online January 28, 2014.
  14. ^ Remembering Pete Seeger and his Jewish influence . Heritage Florida Jewish News, Jan. 31, 2014.
  15. Sing Out! Story .
  16. Julian Weber: catchy tune of the movement. In: the daily newspaper , January 28, 2014.
  17. Following legend Pete Seeger is dead. In: Süddeutsche Zeitung , January 28, 2014.
  18. a b c "We shall Overcome" In: ORF , January 28, 2014.
  19. Article in the English language Wikipedia under en: Waist Deep in the Big Muddy .
  20. Martin Shilton: Pete Seeger: 10 great songs ., January 28, 2014.
  21. a b c d e f g Jon Pareles: Pete Seeger, Champion of Folk Music and Social Change, Dies at 94. In: The New York Times , January 28, 2014 (English).
  22. Article in the English language Wikipedia under en: How Can I Keep From Singing?
  23. Pete Seeger is dead. In: Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung , January 28, 2014.
  24. Down by the Riverside also with Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee , later as Study War No More with the Rainbow Kids.
  25. a b Colin Moynihan: Pete Seeger Leads Protesters, on Foot and in Song . New York Times online, October 22, 2011
  26. Article in the English language Wikipedia under en: Clearwater Festival
  27. Pete Seeger: Tell me where the flowers are , (illustrated by Lars Henkel), Ed. Book Guild, Frankfurt am Main 2012, ISBN 978-3864060069 .
  28. a b c d Michael Kleff: Obituary for Pete Seeger. Master of Folk ( Memento from February 9, 2014 in the Internet Archive ) . WDR3 online, January 28, 2014, with audio file.
  29. Song dictionary, article on May there always be sunshine
  30. ^ Warren R. Ross: Speaking truth to power, with banjos and boats: Pete Seeger's struggle for justice. , UU World, July / August 1996; Retrieved August 21, 2014.
  31. Tom Paxton in the introductory phase of the documentary Pete Seeger: The Power of a song from 2007, about 1: 15-1: 27 min.
  32. Video Pete Seeger at Letterman September 29, 2008 (AdobeFlash Player 9 required) ( Memento from July 11, 2012 in the web archive )
  33. Felix Bayer: An upright man. In: Spiegel Online , January 29, 2014.
  34. Pete Seeger died - he died at the age of 94. American folk music legend fought for a better world ., January 28, 2014.
  35. a b Alexandra Topping: Pete Seeger dies aged 94. In: The Guardian , January 28, 2014 (English).
  36. John Mellencamp , Willie Nelson , Dave Matthews , Neil Young
  37. ^ Andy Greene: Neil Young, Dave Matthews, Jack Johnson Triumph At Soggy Farm Aid ;, September 22, 2013
  38. Dieter Baretzko: From powers and people. In: Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung , January 28, 2014.
  39. Obituary. Singer for a New World ( Memento from February 24, 2014 in the Internet Archive ) ; Kleine Zeitung , January 28, 2014.
  40. a b President Obama pays tribute to US folk singer Seeger . BBC online January 28, 2014.
  41. ^ Brian Ives: Bruce Springsteen, John Mellencamp & Neil Young Remember Pete Seeger ( January 31, 2014 memento in the Internet Archive ) ,, January 29, 2014.
  42. Father of the American folk scene "Tell me where the flowers are" ( Memento from February 21, 2014 in the Internet Archive ) . MDR online, January 31, 2014.
  43. Volker Petersen: The following Pete Seeger is dead. In: n-tv , January 28, 2014.
  44. Article in the English language Wikipedia under en: Goodnight, Irene .
  45. Article in the English language Wikipedia under en: Tzena, Tzena, Tzena .
  46. The eldest son died in 1944 at the age of six months, plus two sons and a daughter.
  47. Pete Seeger Appreciation Page ( Memento from September 25, 2015 in the Internet Archive )
  48. USA: Freemuse Award winner Pete Seeger dies at 94. Retrieved December 2, 2018 . In: Freemuse , January 29, 2014 (English).
  49. Presentation of the play We Shall Overcome - Pete Seeger on the web domain of the Theater Lindenhof.
  50. ^ Moritz Siebert: Celebrated premiere of Kondschak piece "We Shall Overcome" at the Mössinger Kulturherbst. In: Schwäbisches Tagblatt , September 17, 2016.