American folk singer and activist Pete Seeger dies at 94
NEW YORK: Pete Seeger, who helped create the modern American folk music movement, co-wrote enduring songs like "If I Had a Hammer" and became a leading voice for social justice, died on Monday at the age of 94.
He was hailed in social and traditional media as a "hero," "America's conscience" and "a man of the people."
Seeger died of natural causes at New York-Presbyterian Hospital, his record company, Appleseed Recordings, said.
Seeger was well known for his liberal politics. He protested U.S. wars from Vietnam to Iraq, participated in the civil rights movement, supported organized labor and helped found an environmental group that played a key role in cleaning up the polluted Hudson River.
In 1961, he was sentenced to prison for refusing to testify to Congress about his time in the Communist Party.
Nearly a half-century later, Seeger performed at a January 2009 concert marking the inauguration of President Barack Obama.
Seeger, born on May 3, 1919 in Patterson, New York, was the son of two teachers at the famed Juilliard School of Music – his father an ethnomusicologist and his mother a violinist.
He became interested in folk music through his father, who directed family friend Aaron Copland to the music of West Virginia coal miners, resulting in the classical music works "Appalachian Spring" and "Fanfare for the Common Man."
Another of his father's friends was folk archivist Alan Lomax, who hired the younger Seeger to classify recordings at the Library of Congress in Washington.
A key moment in Seeger's life was attending a mountain dance festival in North Carolina with his father.
"I lost my heart to the banjo," he said later. "It was an exciting sound and there was a kind of honesty in country music that I didn't find in pop music."
In 1938, Seeger dropped out of Harvard University and took his banjo on the road. During his travels, he met Guthrie at a benefit concert for California migrant farm workers.
Seeger's career was derailed in 1951 when a book listed the Weavers as Communists. During the next year, the group's record company dropped them and they were refused radio, television and concert appearances.
Seeger had been a Communist Party member but left around 1950. Still, he refused to answer questions from the U.S.
House of Representatives Un-American Activities Committee in 1955, was prosecuted and sentenced to a year in jail in 1961.
The conviction was overturned on appeal, but Seeger's career did not begin to recover until 1967 when the Smothers Brothers, a folk and comedy duo, invited him to appear on their variety TV show.
Seeger spent the next two decades performing on college campuses, at folk festivals and political rallies.
Despite his impact on American music, Seeger won just one Grammy award for an album, 1997's "Pete" in the best traditional folk album category. He also received a Lifetime Achievement Grammy in 1993.
In 2007, Springsteen won the best traditional folk Grammy for "We Shall Overcome – the Seeger Sessions," a collection of songs popularized by Seeger.
Seeger lived in Beacon, New York, along the Hudson River north of New York City, and the river's health was a cause that was literally close to home.
In the mid-1960s, Clearwater, the group he helped found, built a sailing sloop like those from the 18th and 19th centuries. The vessel, also named Clearwater, traveled up and down the Hudson to promote the group's cleanup campaign and to provide environmental education.
Seeger also wrote children's books.
His wife, Toshi, whom he married in 1941, died in 2013. They had three children.