Friday, May 3, 2013

May 3: American folk singer Pete Seeger was born on this date in 1919…

… he died peacefully in his sleep on January 27, 2014 at New York Presbyterian Hospital, where he had been a patient for six days.

Peter "Pete" Seeger was born in Manhattan, New York. His family history dated back to the American revolution. Pete's father, the Harvard-trained composer and musicologist Charles Louis Seeger, Jr., established the first musicology curriculum in the U.S. at the University of California in 1913, helped found the American Musicological Society, and was a key founder of the academic discipline of ethnomusicology.

Pete's mother, Constance de Clyver Edson, raised in Tunisia and trained at the Paris Conservatory of Music, was a concert violinist and later a teacher at the Juilliard School.

In 1912, Charles Seeger was hired to establish the music department at the University of California, Berkeley, but was forced to resign in 1918 because of his outspoken pacifism during World War I. When Pete was eighteen months old, the family lived in a trailer and embarked on a mission to bring music to the working people in the American South. Upon their return, Constance taught violin and Charles taught composition at the New York Institute of Musical Art (later Juilliard).

During the summer of 1936, Pete heard the five-string banjo for the first time at the Mountain Dance and Folk Festival in western North Carolina. He spent much of the next four years trying to master the five-string banjo. The teenage Seeger also sometimes accompanied his parents to regular Saturday evening gatherings in Greenwich Village.

A fixture on nationwide radio in the 1940s, he also had a string of hit records during the early 1950s as a member of The Weavers, most notably their recording of Lead Belly's "Goodnight, Irene,” which topped the charts for 13 weeks in 1950. Members of The Weavers were blacklisted during the McCarthy Era. In the 1960s, he re-emerged on the public scene as a prominent singer of protest music in support of international disarmament, civil rights, counterculture, and environmental causes.

Seeger was kept off commercial television for more than a decade after tangling with the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1955.

Repeatedly pressed by the committee to reveal whether he had sung for Communists, Seeger responded sharply: "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." He was charged with contempt of Congress, but the sentence was overturned on appeal.

 As a song writer, he is best known as the author or co-author of "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?" (with Joe Hickerson), "If I Had a Hammer (The Hammer Song)" (composed with Lee Hays of The Weavers), and "Turn, Turn, Turn!,” which have been recorded by many artists both in and outside the folk revival movement and are still sung throughout the world. "Flowers" was a hit recording for The Kingston Trio (1962); Marlene Dietrich, who recorded it in English, German and French (1962); and Johnny Rivers (1965).

"If I Had a Hammer" was a hit for Peter, Paul & Mary (1962) and Trini Lopez (1963), while The Byrds popularized "Turn, Turn, Turn!" in the mid-1960s, as did Judy Collins in 1964 and The Seekers in 1966.

Seeger was one of the folksingers most responsible for popularizing the spiritual "We Shall Overcome" became the acknowledged anthem of the 1960s American Civil Rights Movement, soon after folk singer and activist Guy Carawan introduced it at the founding meeting of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in 1960.


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