Pete Seeger, 1919–2014.

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Photo by Sam Falk/The New York Times

And a hero has gone. May we all try to live with even a fraction of the dignity, compassion, spirit and mindfulness that he did, and may we all carry his music in our hearts along the way. Goodnight, Pete.

Pete Seeger, Songwriter and Champion of Folk Music, Dies at 94

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My father gave me this record when I was about 3 or 4 years old, and some of my earliest memories are of listening to it on the stereo in his studio—and, of course, singing along. When I was a little older, maybe 6, we listened more to Pete’s political songs like “Little Boxes” and “What Did You Learn in School Today,” and Dad explained to me what the words were all about. I learned what activism is. Big lessons for a little kid, but Pete (and Dad) made a huge impact on me and started to shape my social, political and ethical beliefs at a very early age. We’d go to see him play down by the Hudson River at the annual Clearwater Festivals, and later on, when Evan and I moved to Beacon, Pete became our neighbor. I’d see him at the train station all the time, and he kept on playing at local benefits in Beacon and Newburgh well into his 90s. The last time I saw him play was a few years ago in front of a small group of captivated children on the dock of the Hudson River, surrounded by the mountains and with his beloved Toshi nearby. I’ll miss you, Pete. Sorry to see you go.

If you have memories of Pete Seeger, whether from growing up in the Hudson Valley or from being a part of the political folk movement yourself or just from listening to his records, I’d love to hear them. Please feel free to share.

“I decline to discuss, under compulsion, where I have sung, and who has sung my songs, and who else has sung with me, and the people I have known. I love my country very dearly, and I greatly resent this implication that some of the places that I have sung and some of the people that I have known, and some of my opinions, whether they are religious or philosophical, or I might be a vegetarian, make me any less of an American.”
Pete Seeger, speaking before the House Un-American Activities Committee (1955)

27 comments
  1. MarthaJan 28, 20148:17 am

    I am so sad to hear that Pete is gone.

    Oddly, last night my husband Tom asked me if I’d like him to learn any particular songs on the guitar as he just began taking lessons. I said I couldn’t think of any. An hour or so later, I said, “I’d like you to learn ‘If I had a hammer’,” because it’s a song I really like to sing. Then just now, Tom read the headline in the Times and made the connection with the timing of Pete’s death yesterday.

    This seems like an odd thing to share, but I’m just going to click submit now…!

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    Anna @ D16 /

    Not odd at all, Martha. Pete wrote and performed songs not just to get us to think, but to make us want to sing—and to make the more musically-minded want to play, too. Thank you for sharing this. x

  2. HeatherJan 28, 201410:58 am

    What an incredible life he lived! I grew up in New Paltz, and a friend and I went to see Pete Seeger when he played at our high school one weekend in the late 90’s. The auditorium was full of young kids, and I remember how joyful and youthful Pete seemed, playing for and talking with them. After college, a friend of mine went to work on the sloop Clearwater, doing environmental education. I was always envious of him for getting to work for such a great organization. I’m so sorry to see Pete Seeger go. His songs sound like home to me.

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    Anna @ D16 /

    I think those of us who grew up in the Hudson Valley didn’t realize at all when we were kids that Pete wasn’t just a local guy with a banjo. It wasn’t really until I was in college that I started to grasp how enormous his entire life was, and how massive an impact he had on the whole world. But yes, you’re right, his songs still feel like home.

    The Clearwater sloop is docked for much of the summer in Beacon, and I love peeking at it when I’m getting off the ferry from Newburgh at the train station. I’ve been on it a few times as a kid (either on school trips or during the festivals—I don’t remember), and my sister was a volunteer crew member in the ’80s. What incredible work they’ve done! The famously polluted Hudson of my childhood has come so far.

  3. MichelleJan 28, 201411:34 am

    I don’t normally wake up very easily, sometimes my brain goes so far as to incorporate my NPR alarm into whatever dream I’m having when it goes off. But this morning at 5:30, when they announced the news of his death, I sat up and groaned, “Oh no.”

    I only really started to listen to him & learn about him after picking up a $1 record at a tag sale a few years and vaguely recalling the name from Alice’s Restaurant. I found it wonderful when I listened to the record and already knew the music. Like an epiphany, “Oh yeah, wow. That’s who this is! Why didn’t I know this?!” Then I did what I always do with any new interest… find every piece of info I can about the subject and inhale it all. And then I bug everyone about the subject until they start giving me dirty looks. Ha. That record was my soundtrack as I got ready this morning, stopping to listen again every time the news came on NPR.

    After hearing the news, one of my first thoughts was of something you tweeted once w/a link to an interview with him, I think this past summer… It was something like, “How very lucky we are to still have Pete Seeger with us.” And we were very lucky to have him, as long as we did. I hope, like me, people keep picking up his records and falling in love with the music and learning about him and keeping up the good fight.

    Thank you for sharing your memories of him with us all.

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    Anna @ D16 /

    “And then I bug everyone about the subject until they start giving me dirty looks.”

    HAH. Yes. I understand this well.

    I’m amazed that you remember that tweet—I don’t remember which interview it was, but I just added one of my favorite ones from recent years to the post.

  4. mommyJan 28, 201412:48 pm

    Anna, I’m not sure if you remember when I took you and Mormor to a Pete Seeger sing-along at the Rhinecliff Hotel? In 1980 I think it was. We sat on a wooden bench in the front row and it was the most heart warming and inspiring event I can think of. It was especially memorable to me that Mormor was able to be there with us. She immediately loved Pete and sang along even though she couldn’t understand the words.

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    Anna @ D16 /

    I do remember that, yes! I didn’t until I read this, but now I can see Mormor there with us. Was it at the pumpkin festival?

  5. mommyJan 28, 20141:52 pm

    Not sure, but it could be that this was also one of those times when the Clearwater, loaded up with pumpkins, docked at Rhinecliff.

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  6. StaciJan 28, 20142:30 pm

    I love the idea of him speaking at an Un-American Activites hearing juxtaposed with the fact that he was invited to be part of the big pre-inauguration concert (along with quite the lineup of other artists) in DC back in 2009. “This Land is Made for You and Me,” indeed.

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    Anna @ D16 /

    I know, Staci! This country has come a long way since the days of McCarthy’s blacklist, but there are still a whole lot of people out there calling Obama a Communist (I wouldn’t even call him a semi-Socialist, alas), and I’m sure they’re all celebrating Seeger’s death today. That kind of mindset—that some Americans are more American than other Americans, which in itself is a wholly un-American idea—still exists. When Pete appeared at the Habitat for Humanity fundraiser in Newburgh a couple of years ago, there were angry people protesting. I’m proud of the progress we’ve made in the United States, but we still have a long way to go—and, as Pete liked to say, we don’t know what the future will bring, but we’re armed with the tools to move in a positive direction. We just have to be brave enough to use them!

  7. LaraJan 28, 20143:05 pm

    Anna,

    I’m a Brooklyn-based architect that has followed your blog recently so much for inspiration, though I always feel too rushed to comment- but I feel so glad to see your post about Pete Seeger today.

    This morning,when we heard the news of Pete Seeger on the radio, I felt really sad! And then I felt grateful for how much his music has infiltrated our lives over the last couple of years, at first because my 2.5 year daughter always wanted to listen to his “Skip to My Lou” again & again. She loves that tune so much that she will freestyle narrate new words to the melody almost every day. She loves his music so much that she asked after first hearing it, whose that singing?, and now asks for Pete Seeger’s music by name- which surprises her babysitters.

    I loved hearing about what a nice and active 90-+year old from locals up the Hudson river and upstate whenever we visited, and it is energizing to be reminded of his influence and activism this morning. What a great guy..We had a 6-am Pete Seeger dance party this morning, apartment rules be damned.

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  8. JulesJan 28, 20143:26 pm

    If I had to pick a musical genre I couldn’t live without, it would be American folk. All folk, actually. I listened to my Mercedes Sosa tape in high school everyday until it broke. (Argentine folk singer.)

    Strange that the news of his death would come during a period when I’m listening to the Bob Dylan station on iTunes Radio almost nonstop. I recommend the station if you like American folk.

    [Reply]

    Anna @ D16 /

    Jules, Oscar Brand’s Folksong Festival radio show has been a weekly listen for me for about 20 years now—I think you’d like it. It comes on WNYC every Saturday night at 7pm your time, and you can listen online.

  9. DeniseJan 29, 201412:03 am

    Thank you for writing this. While I didn’t have the privilege of growing up around him, I feel blessed to have enjoyed his work during his lifetime. Pete Seeger is one of the reasons I’m proud to be an American (even with all we have left to achieve). I’m filled with much sadness at the end of this era—but I’m grateful for all he gave us.

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    Anna @ D16 /

    Denise, yes, exactly. Pete was a patriot and an American in the truest senses of those words.

  10. brenda aka gardenbreJan 29, 201412:23 am

    proud to know Pete had a wonderful connection with us in Toronto, too http://torontodreamsproject.blogspot.ca/2014/01/pete-seeger-toronto.html

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    Anna @ D16 /

    This is great, Brenda, thank you for sharing! I’d never heard of Camp Naivelt before, but now I want to read more.

  11. meganJan 29, 20149:54 am

    Beautiful tribute, Anna! I didn’t realize he was in Beacon.

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    Anna @ D16 /

    Yes, he built his house there in the 1950s! He cleared the land and built the house with his own hands, and kept on chopping the firewood to heat the house himself well into his 90s. He was really involved with kids in Beacon school system, and with all of the towns around there in the Hudson Valley. It really wasn’t possible to grow up in that area without having him touch your life in some way.

    megan /

    Wow, Anna! That’s amazing. He was a true original and an amazing person.

  12. AmandaJan 29, 201411:07 pm

    Songs from my childhood. When my Dad died unexpectedly, when I was nine and my brother four, we were obviously tramatized. My Mother would sit at the foot of our twin beds every night, play her guitar and sing these and other folk songs to us. They gave us comfort, hope, and a spirit to do what is right and true for the greater good of others. I still love those types of songs best! Oddly enough, when I read of his passing I knew you would post something about it, but I never imagined how ingrained in your life story he would be.

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  13. SezgiJan 30, 20141:09 pm

    An ode from Dorothy Gambrell, cartoonist. http://catandgirl.com/?p=4418

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  14. ViktorJan 31, 20142:14 am

    So sad, but a life well lived! Plus now he gets to hang out with Mary Travers again.

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  15. chaniaJan 31, 20149:26 am

    My niece (22) met Pete Seeger. This is what she wrote on her Facebook about him.

    “Six years ago I sat on the roof of Hugh’s Room in Toronto and ate Wanda’s pie with one of the most inspiring and indescribably kind people I have ever encountered. We ate blueberry pie and talked paisley shirts, and streetcars. When he got back on stage with his grandson he confessed that he had forgotten all the words to “”If I had a Hammer,” but the audience carried him, belting in song. He donated every dollar of that show to the Farmers Union of America, in true Pete spirit. It was hands down one of the best nights of my life. There has never been, and will probably never be, a musician who I have as much love and complete respect for. Pete’s contributions to folk music, civil rights, and environmental and social justice will never be forgotten. This I am sure of.” B in Toronto. I

    I think that says it all.

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  16. AnnaFeb 1, 20145:33 pm

    This is really sad, I just read this :((((( RIP.

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  17. Isabella GolightlyFeb 7, 201410:45 am

    Earliest musical memory in my house, Pete at the 1964 Newport Folk Festival. He was one of my musical icons, and his voice, his ethics, his style, his commitment, have always inspired me. I’m brokenhearted that I never got to see him perform live. RIP Pete.

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