Widely accepted as a great American radical hero, Pete Seeger was not only a gifted and prolific troubadour dedicated to preserving the heritage of folk music but a fearless warrior for change who inspired generations of protest singers with his vast array of politically and socially-conscious songs. As the driving force behind both The Almanac Singers and The Weavers, Seeger initially became a permanent fixture of post-war radio but then found himself on the blacklist during the end of the McCarthy era due to his strong left-wing beliefs. On his solo return in the early 1960s, he continued to rally against the establishment by campaigning tirelessly in support of civil rights, international disarmament and the environment. And although this fighting spirit undoubtedly cost him greater commercial appeal, few musicians have garnered as much respect.
Born in Patterson, NY in 1919 to a violinist mother and musicologist father, Seeger first took up the ukulele while at boarding school but after hearing a five-string banjo at a folk festival aged 17, switched his instrument of choice. On losing his sociology scholarship at Harvard University in 1938, he toured his home state with a travelling puppet theater, worked with field music collector Alan Lomax at Washington D.C.'s Archive of American Folk Song in a role which laid the foundations for his own future body of work and performed regularly on Columbia Broadcasting show "Back Where I Come From."
In 1940, Seeger helped to form The Almanac Singers, a musical collective designed to promote progressive causes which at various points included seminal figures Woody Guthrie and Lead Belly in its line-up, and two years later was drafted into the Army to entertain the American troops in the South Pacific. Following his discharge, he established People's Songs, a nationwide organisation intended to create and distribute songs of labor and the American People which later worked on Henry A. Wallace's unsuccessful 1948 presidential campaign, and wrote the first version of his hugely successful How to Play the Five-String Banjo guide.
Seeger then enjoyed his biggest commercial success when he teamed up with former bandmate Lee Hays to form The Weavers, a less overtly-political quartet who sold millions of records with their renditions of traditional folk songs and spirituals including a 13-week chart-topper in the shape of "Goodnight, Irene." Sadly, the band's career came to an abrupt halt in 1953 when they were blacklisted over their left-wing views and two years later, Seeger was subpoenaed to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee where he was subsequently convicted of contempt for refusing to answer any questions that violated his fundamental constitutional rights, a charge which was then overturned in 1962.
Disillusioned by the band's agreement to record a jingle for a cigarette advertisement, Seeger officially left The Weavers in 1958 to embark on a solo career, recording a string of albums for Moe Asch's Folkways Records label and touring the college campus circuit. Seeger and his music then became a focal point in both the nuclear disarmament movement, where the likes of "Where Have The Flowers Gone?" and "Turn! Turn! Turn!" were adopted as anthems, and the Civil Rights Movement, where he organised a landmark benefit concert at Carnegie Hall and introduced protest song "We Shall Overcome" to a wider audience, earning the respect of Martin Luther King Jr. in the process.
Alongside the various rallies he organized and participated in, Seeger also found the time to help curate the Newport Folk Festival, famously inviting Bob Dylan to the 1965 event, only to then attempt to pull the plug on his set over his use of electric instruments. Seeger's media blacklist ended in the same year when he appeared on "Rainbow Quest" (PBS 1965-66), a regionally broadcast folk music show produced by his wife Toshi-Aline Ota. But he continued to court controversy, attacking Lyndon Johnson's war policies during a performance of "Waist Deep In The Big Muddy" on "The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour" (CBS 1967-69) two years later.
Seeger began to focus more on his environmental commitments during the '70s, most notably co-founding the Hudson River Sloop Clearwater, an organisation renowned for launching both a floating classroom named the Sloop Clearwater and an annual music festival, The Great Hudson River Revival. But although his recording output slowed down during the next two decades, he remained a popular draw on the live circuit and regularly performed at outdoor folk concerts and benefit gigs. While in 1997, he picked up his first ever regular Grammy Award at the age of 77 when Pete won Best Traditional Folk Album.
Seeger continued to add to his tally of accolades, gaining entry into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, receiving the nation's highest artistic honor at the Kennedy Center and earning an Arts Medal from the same Harvard University he had failed to graduate from sixty years previously. While after making a surprise studio comeback with 2008's At 89, he celebrated his 90th birthday with an all-star show at Madison Square Garden, recorded an album with long-time collaborator Lorre Wyatt and paid tribute to his former mentor Guthrie on the mostly spoken word, Pete Remembers Woody. Following a short illness, Seeger passed away peacefully in his sleep in 2014, leaving behind a large loving family and almost a century's worth of powerful political music.
Cast (Feature Film)
Music (Feature Film)
Misc. Crew (Feature Film)
Misc. Crew (Special)
Forms The Almanac Singers
Scores 13-week US number one with The Weavers' "Goodnight, Irene"
Blacklisted by radio/TV for left-wing views
Adapts "We Shall Overcome" as Civil Rights anthem
Wins first Grammy at age of 77 for <i>Pete</i>