At 90, Folk Musician Pete Seeger Has No Intention of Slowing Down

At 90, Folk Musician Pete Seeger Has No Intention of Slowing Down

12 May 2009
Even if you don’t know his name, you’ve almost certainly heard Pete Seeger’s music. Over the last 70 years, Seeger, who turned 90 early this month, has written songs so iconic – “Turn Turn Turn,” and “If I Had A Hammer” are two examples – they seem like they’ve always been part of the American landscape. He’s a man who’s lived many lives, from protest singer to figure of suspicion in the McCarthy years, environmentalist and folk hero.
On his 90th birthday, the legendary folk singer and song writer Pete Seeger was honored at a concert at New York’s Madison Square Garden. Fellow musicians of all ages joined him on stage, singing the folk and protest songs that Seeger made popular decades ago.

“If I didn’t think music could help save the human race, I wouldn’t be making music,” Seeger said.

Path to fame

Pete Seeger first came to fame in the 1940s, as a member of the Almanac Singers, then of the Weavers, and then went on his own. He was a founder of the Newport Folk Festival, where his performances in the early 1960s were captured by filmmaker Murray Lerner.

Yet Seeger says he never planned to become a musician. The son of classical musicians, he could play several instruments by age five. But as a teenager, he says, he wanted to spend his life in the woods.

“I said I’m going to be a hermit,” he said. “That’s the only way you can be honest in this world of hypocrisy. And I really meant it.”

Music was means to an end

When Seeger took up music, it was to advance his political views, especially for civil rights and social justice, peace and the environment. He believes he made his greatest contribution before 1960, setting an example for younger singers like Bob Dylan.

“I showed a generation of young people, you don’t have to be a hypocrite yourself. You can find people who would like to sing with you and to listen to your songs. And now there are tens of thousands of us,” Seeger said.

These days, Seeger often sings with his grandson, musician Tao Rodriguez-Seeger, as in a video by the Hudson Valley Music Channel at last summer’s “Corn Festival” in Beacon, New York, where he lives.

It was one of many events to benefit Clearwater sloops – tall ships that are environmental classrooms sailing the Hudson River. Seeger launched Clearwater in 1969 to publicize the need to clean up polluted rivers. Today, the Hudson around Beacon is safe for swimming.

“If there is a world here in a hundred years, it will be because hundreds, millions of people used the brains God gave us,” Seeger said. “And they may do a simple little thing every day, like putting the trash in the right place, or finding a way not to use a car.”

A simple life

Seeger still lives on the mountain where he and his wife Toshi built a log cabin in 1949. And he still chops wood almost every day.

They were living there in 1955 when, as a radical and former Communist, Seeger was called to testify about his political beliefs and associates before the House Un-American Activities Committee. He refused, saying the demand violated his First Amendment right of free speech.

Six years later, he was found guilty of contempt of Congress and sentenced to a year in prison – although the case was later dismissed.

As an old man, Seeger is at home in his country.

Some of his songs have become akin to national anthems – like his version of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land,” which he performed at the Lincoln Memorial concert to celebrate President Obama’s inauguration.

Seeger led the huge crowd in a sing-along, as he does wherever he goes.



1 Comment »

  1. DeAnna Andrews said

    Just saw “The Power of Song”. The human race produces a very few true treasures every now and then. Pete Seeger is a gift to humanity. I wish every person in this country would watch this film and understand what life, liberty, justice, love, respect………….and music are all about. Pete Seeger renews my faith in humanity and my hope that “we shall overcome”……

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