American folk legend Pete Seeger died last night at the ripe age of 94, leaving behind a rich legacy of musicianship, civil rights and peace activism, and environmentalism that spans eight decades — from being temporarily blacklisted for communism in the ’30s, to his deep involvement with ’60s counterculture, to performing at Occupy Wall Street in 2011. Music and radicalism were running through Seeger’s veins from the moment he was born: his father was a Harvard-educated musicologist and pacifist, and his mother was a concert violinist who taught at Juilliard.
Seeger, born on May 3, 1919, is credited with popularizing many classic American folk tunes for the radio. One of his early groups, The Weavers, recorded a cover of Lead Belly’s “Goodnight, Irene” that topped charts for 13 weeks in 1950. While many of his biggest hits were covers and performances of classic American folk songs or spirituals (“Little Boxes,” “We Shall Overcome,” “Fare Thee Well”), Seeger was a gifted songwriter in his own right. His songs “Where Have All the Flowers Gone,” “If I Had a Hammer,” and “Turn! Turn! Turn!” became hits for Marlene Dietrich, Peter, Paul & Mary, and The Byrds, respectively.
Seeger felt that folk music and community were deeply intertwined, and judging from the company he kept and his never-ending political activism, he lived this belief until his last days. With close friend and fellow folk legend Woody Guthrie, Seeger and two others performed as the Almanac Singers in 1940, adding their voices to the struggle of California’s migrant farm workers before turning toward the anti-war movement. In the ’60s, Seeger served as a mentor to young singers like Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and, later, Bruce Springsteen.
Chances are you’re more familiar with Seeger’s influence than you know, but if you need a refresher — or just want to bask in his grandfatherly, American glory — we’ve rounded up ten of his greatest performances for your viewing and listening pleasure.
The Weavers — “Goodnight, Irene”
“Where Have All the Flowers Gone?”
“This Land Is Your Land” (with Bruce Springsteen)
“Forever Young” (Bob Dylan cover)
“Worried Man Blues”
“Michael, Row the Boat Ashore”
“Down by the Riverside” (with Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee)
“If I Had a Hammer”
“What Did You Learn in School?”
“Fare Thee Well”