Pete Seeger woke up America with songs across several cultures

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: The environment was one of the issues that the late Pete Seeger embraced in his later years. News of his death is resonating today far beyond his home along the Hudson River. Seeger's songs of equality resonated with anti-apartheid activists in South Africa, for example. And throughout his long career, Seeger borrowed from countless musical traditions, from Cuban folk songs to traditional Irish tunes.

[Pete Seeger musical audio]

Werman: Pete Seeger performing a traditional Irish ballad, called "Mrs. McGrath" there. And that's where Paddy Moloney comes in. He's founder and leader of The Chieftains. Paddy, what did Pete Seeger's music mean to you, especially when you heard him perform songs from the Irish songbook?

Paddy Moloney: Well, this is it. You know, he was a great lover of our music. And in Ireland, his music became popular during what was called "The Ballad Boom" of the late 50, 60s. And during that boom in Ireland, you know, they were to be heard all the time at concert sessions.

Werman: You mentioned the fifties and sixties. In the folk world, folk music just was universal. It flowed across borders, and Pete Seeger was kind of the first song archaeologist that I know of, who also performed the music. And I'm just curious to know, how influential was that for folk musicians in the British isles to have this very ernest, American guy who said, "It's important to play the old stuff."

Moloney: Well, it is important. And he was also a songwriter. He was, you know, the people's person out there, in his compositions and songs. And he put across that music so beautifully, and one day.. He feared that, you know, that popular music, you know, Bill Haley and the Comets and people like that were going to wipe out the whole Irish music scene, but that didn't happen. And he played a huge part in keeping that going. And the likes of the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem, who fall in together with him and that sort of thing, and you can hear him in their music and songs, you know, which is very much what Pete would be about. You know, the continuation, to making sure that it's not going to be a lost cause, and that songs would live on forever. Think about it. They have.

Werman: I gather one of the last conversations you had with Pete Seeger was over the phone, not long after the funeral of Mike Seeger, his brother. His half-brother, rather.

Moloney: Yeah, I was very much disappointed. I couldn't make it across from Ireland for the funeral, because Mike became very dear to me, through our mutual friend, mister Cooder, Ry Cooder. And when all of that happened, I was in touch with all the family. To me, it's just like phoning some cousins down at the south of Ireland, or that, you know. This was a family steeped in this tradition, and Pete was a great person up there. A person who people admired. And you hear the songs when they were being sung, and I'd be playing along with them. You know, the problem was he was almost like one of ours. He was one of ours, in fact, you know... Because he came from a different family, and yet he was as Irish as Irish could be. And his interpretation of "Mrs. McGraw" says it all, too. You know, that's another great Irish ballad.

Werman: Well, we'll go out with some more of "Mrs. McGraw" from Pete Seeger. Paddy Moloney, founder and leader of The Chieftains. Thanks so much for your memories of Pete.

Moloney: You're very welcome. Thank you.

["Mrs. McGraw" music]