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Folk Singer Pete Seeger’s Lasting Influence

Photo Courtesy of Pittsburgh Post-Gazette/McClatchy-Tribune

Photo Courtesy of Pittsburgh Post-Gazette/McClatchy-Tribune

By Sam Desatoff

Legendary folk singer Pete Seeger passed away Monday, Jan. 27 at the age of 94.

One of the most influential musicians of his time, Seeger spent much of his musical career in protest against war and the industrialization of the environment.

He also popularized the famous songs “This Land is Your Land” and “We Shall Overcome.”

Seeger’s life was a very eventful one. In 1938, he dropped out of Harvard in order to ride a bicycle across the country.

After the Pearl Harbor attacks, Seeger joined the U.S. Army.

However, rather than fighting along the front lines, he was assigned to entertain the troops with his music.

In 1957, Seeger introduced Martin Luther King Jr. with a rendition of “We Shall Overcome” at the 25th anniversary of the Highlander Center in Tennessee that would become the civil rights movement anthem.

Politics also played a rather large role in Seeger’s career, often in the form of protest.

During the McCarthy era, the banjo player was held in contempt of Congress for refusing to testify about his involvement in the Communist party.

Seeger’s environmentalism was an important aspect of his career as well.

According to USA Today writer Bob Minzesheimer, the musician helped build a 10-foot sailing sloop that today still serves as a symbol for the efforts to clean up the Hudson River in New York and New Jersey.

Seeger also influenced the 1960s protest music that contributed to the likes of Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen.

Music history professor Dr. Bradley Hufft said Seeger helped push social problems to the front of most artists’ music today.

“Throughout popular music, Seeger…as channeled through Bob Dylan, made speaking out about social causes a mandatory component of most artists’ repertoire,” Hufft said.

However, Seeger’s influence does not stop at the 60s.

“Any so called ‘indie’ artist of today owes a great debt to Seeger,” Hufft said. “Seeger’s music remains very simple, but this simplicity resonates through many contemporary styles.”

Those contemporary styles influences include Tom Morello, guitarist of protest rock group Rage Against the Machine.

In an article written for Rolling Stone, Morello said, “He was this sort of gentle grandfather with a backbone of steel who was going to put a chokehold on the powers that be until they relented. That guy was no joke.”

For Fresno State students interested in learning more about Pete Seeger, Hufft teaches a music history class that might fit the bill.

“Music 187, Jazz/Rock history,” Hufft said. “We address [Seeger] as a key bridge from traditional and early union songs to the modern folk movement. I also address him in my Classical Music Appreciation when talking about the work of his mother and the populist movement in American Art Music in the 30s.”

 

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