Arts, Culture & Media

Pete Seeger woke up America with songs across several cultures

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Credit: REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

Pete Seeger lived a full, fascinating and very public life. He went from Harvard dropout to being convicted of contempt of Congress to singing at Obama's inauguration.

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

Along the way, he won four Grammys (including a lifetime achievement award), wrote beloved hit songs, promoted folk music of many types, and was a political and environmental activist. He died in New York City yesterday at 94.

When President Obama paid tribute to the American folk singer and activist, he reminded us that Seeger saw music as more than entertainment.

"Once called 'America's tuning fork', Pete Seeger believed deeply in the power of song," the President said. Or as Seeger once put it, "I look upon myself as the planter of seeds." He took part in the civil rights movement and wrote the anti-Vietnam War anthem "Bring 'em Home" in the 1960s.

In the late 1950s and early 60s, Seeger was deemed a dangerous leftist. He was called before the congressional House Committee on Un-American Activities investigating communists. His refusal to talk about his political activities ended with Congress convicting him of contempt, though the conviction was later overturned.

He was key to reviving American folk music in the 1960s. And his interests were broad. If you look at Pete Seeger's discography, you will find he covered Cuban folk songs, African spirituals and traditional Irish tunes.

“Seeger was a great lover of Irish music,” Paddy Moloney, the founder and leader of The Chieftains told PRI's The World.  

“In Ireland, his music became popular during what’s known as the ballad boom of the late 1950s and 60s. Pete was also a songwriter and the people’s person out there in his compositions and songs and he put across that music so beautifully.”

“There was a fear that popular music like Bill Haley and the Comets and people like that would wipe out the whole Irish music scene, but that didn’t happen,” remembers Moloney. “Seeger played a huge part in keeping that going.”

Maloney says Seeger was like family, “He was one of ours.” When Seeger's half-brother Mike died a few years ago, Maloney says, "I was in touch with all the family. For me, it was like calling some cousins in Ireland. Pete was a great person, someone people admired, and when you heard his songs, you played along.” 

In this video, PRI's Studio 360 host Kurt Andersen interviews Seeger at his upstate New York home about Woody Guthrie's "This Land is Your Land." Seeger sings songs from other cultures in the videos below.

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